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Cancellation of Arizona-Utah opener leaves Wildcats ‘disappointed,’ Utes ‘heartbroken’
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Arizona football

Cancellation of Arizona-Utah opener leaves Wildcats ‘disappointed,’ Utes ‘heartbroken’

UA now slated to start delayed season against USC at Arizona Stadium on Nov. 14

Kevin Sumlin and the Wildcats were supposed to have opened their season Saturday, but positive COVID-19 tests within the Utah program scuttled it.

About 9 a.m. Friday, the communication began. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan called his Arizona counterpart, Dave Heeke, to let him know the Utes had a potential problem pertaining to COVID-19.

Numerous calls followed, with the Pac-12 office now heavily involved. A little after 12 p.m., the conclusion was inescapable: The UA-Utah opener scheduled for Saturday would have to be canceled.

The Wildcats were finishing up their walk-through right around that time. They were supposed to leave campus at 1:45 p.m. to board a 2:20 charter flight to Salt Lake City. UA coach Kevin Sumlin had to deliver the sobering news at the end of practice.

“I could not be more disappointed that our players, coaches and staff will be unable to experience game day, which they have prepared months for,” Heeke said in a statement. “With that said, health and safety must continue to be our guiding principles throughout these uncertain times.

“Our athletics department and football program will continue to move forward with those guiding principles at the forefront as we prepare to host USC next weekend.”

The Pac-12 made the announcement at 12:30 p.m., a day after having to call off the Washington-Cal game after COVID issues struck the Golden Bears. Cal had one positive test result, but contact-tracing protocols put the Golden Bears below the league-mandated roster thresholds needed to play a game. Utah had multiple positive test results. That, combined with isolation and contract tracing, put the Utes below the minimum requirement of 53 available scholarship players.

“The cancellation of our football game is a very difficult outcome to accept, but it is absolutely the right decision under the circumstances,” Harlan said in a statement. “While I am heartbroken for our student-athletes and everybody associated with Utah Athletics, as well as our great fans, our No. 1 guiding principle is the health and safety of our student-athletes. This also has a significant impact on the University of Arizona football program, and we extend our appreciation for their understanding of our situation.”

Harlan said he discussed the situation extensively with Coach Kyle Whittingham. They concluded that moving forward with the game “would put our student-athletes at risk, and we simply will not take that risk,” Harlan said.

“As difficult as this is, there is no question it is the right decision to make,” Whittingham said. “Our student-athletes’ health and well-being is absolutely paramount.

“Our team has worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we will continue to care for our students-athletes and follow all protocols very thoroughly as we prepare for next week’s game.”

Whether Utah will be able to play its next game, scheduled for next Friday night at UCLA, remains to be seen. Arizona is slated to host USC.

Scheduling, rescheduling

This isn’t the first time the Wildcats have had to adjust to a new schedule. Or even the second.

In the original, pre-pandemic version, Arizona was supposed to face Hawaii on Aug. 29. Next came the first version of the all-conference schedule, which had the UA playing Arizona State on Sept. 26.

On Aug. 11, the Pac-12 postponed the entire season. About six weeks later, after securing daily antigen testing, the league reversed course. The season was back on. Arizona would open at Utah on Saturday.

Now that’s off, and Arizona’s first opponent will be USC. The Trojans and Sun Devils were scheduled to kick off Saturday morning in Los Angeles in a national-TV showcase, but even that didn’t proceed without a hitch. The entire Fox Sports “Big Noon Kickoff” announcing team had to be pulled off the broadcast because of COVID-19 quarantine protocols.

As of Friday evening, four of six Pac-12 games were still scheduled to be played. There was considerable frustration within the league office, even though the cancellations were a sign that the conferences protocols and precautions were working.

Still, it wasn’t the outcome anyone wanted.

The Pac-12 has left its final weekend open, aside from the league championship game, to provide some degree of flexibility in a schedule that otherwise features none. By waiting as long as it did to launch the season, the conference left itself no wiggle room to reschedule games. Week 7 conceivably could be used for that purpose, depending on how the rest of the season shakes out.

The possibility of having Arizona face Washington this weekend was explored but ultimately dismissed. First of all, there wasn’t nearly enough lead time to set up the infrastructure needed to send Arizona to Seattle, even if the game were played on Sunday or Monday. Second, because the two teams are scheduled to square off in Week 3, having them face each other in Week 1 wouldn’t necessarily have solved any scheduling problems. In reality, it only would have created more.

The Pac-12 doesn’t want teams to face each other twice, unless the rematch occurs in the title game. Moving the UA-UW game from Week 3 to Saturday would have caused a ripple effect. Cal is scheduled to face Oregon State that week. Utah is set to face USC. Basically, the entire schedule would have had to be reconfigured.

The Pac-12 also had little time to work on those permutations because of the timing of Friday’s developments. Although COVID -19 cases have been surging in Utah for several weeks — at one point leading to the possibility of the game being moved to Tucson — the Utah athletic department gave no indication of serious problems within the football program until Friday morning.

Latest disruption

The Arizona-Utah game was the 10th college football game to be postponed or canceled this week. Coaches have had to convey that disappointing news to their teams more than 50 times this season.

Although they were ominous signs coming from Utah, UA coaches decided to proceed with their morning meetings Friday, followed by the team’s walk-through. By lunchtime, Heeke had gotten official word from Harlan. Heeke informed Dennis Polian, the UA football program’s chief of staff, who then told Sumlin.

Sumlin spoke to the players for about 10 minutes, reminding them that they had done nothing wrong; that this sort of thing had happened to numerous other college and NFL teams; that the season never was going to unfold perfectly; and that this was just the latest instance of adversity that they’d have to overcome.

In short, Sumlin told the players, they couldn’t let the events of today impact what happens tomorrow and the day after that.

UA strength coach Brian Johnson reiterated that idea Friday afternoon, tweeting: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react!!”

Sumlin met with Arizona’s recently named captains to decide how the team should spend the weekend. The Wildcats weren’t expected to practice Saturday, but the weight room could be opened for anyone seeking a workout. In previous situations where games were called off, Sumlin and his staff haven’t pushed more football onto the players. Instead, they have tried to give them an outlet to process their feelings.

Practices this week had been full of excitement and energy. Every element had been put in place for the team’s first game and trip out of town.

COVID-19 testing had been completed Friday morning. TSA agents had been hired to screen the traveling party on campus before buses ushered the team and support staff to a charter plane that had flown in from San Francisco. Accommodations and meals had been arranged.

The UA likely will not be able to recoup those expenses.

Brian DeSpain, the UA’s director of football operations, already had flown to Salt Lake City to make sure everything was in order. He was trying to figure out how to get back home Friday night.

Although unquestionably disappointed and frustrated over the turn of events — “Saturdays are precious,” one program insider said — UA players handled the news maturely. Unfortunately, they’re getting used to it by now.

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