The COVID-19 pandemic swept in on Monday and wiped away most of the major events on Tennessee’s athletic calendar for the coming week.
After consulting with the Knox County health department, Vols basketball canceled both games of the Volunteer Classic, which were set for Wednesday and Friday. The men’s program had paused all team activities earlier in the day after multiple positive tests among its Tier 1 personnel, which included coaches, student-athletes, team managers and support staff. Head coach Rick Barnes was among those who tested positive and entered an isolation protocol.
Barnes joined UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who tested positive last week and went into isolation. Chancellor Donde Plowman also has been isolating after being in close contact with someone who tested positive.
Later Monday afternoon, the Lady Vols’ basketball opener against Florida A&M on Friday was canceled after A&M opted out of its season because of concerns related to the virus.
If that wasn’t enough pandemic for one day, UT football’s game at Vanderbilt on Saturday was postponed among a dizzying series of moves by the SEC. The intent was to enable other schools to reschedule games that already had been postponed. The Commodores shifted gears to prepare for Missouri while the Vols were given another off week. The Vanderbilt game will be rescheduled for either Dec. 12 or 19.
At present, Tennessee’s game against Texas A&M is on the calendar for the 12th. It was rescheduled from Nov. 14 due to A&M’s protocol issues.
After all the cancellations and the postponement, all that was left was the Lady Vols’ game against Western Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
“We knew this season was going to be very fluid,” Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said. “We have talked a lot with our team about having to be flexible and able to respond to change. That’s just going to be the nature of things this year.”
In sorting through all the upheaval, football actually might benefit. On-and-off has become the new routine for UT. This will be the third consecutive time that a game has been followed by an off week.
Under the circumstances, the Vols played better for a change at Auburn, amassing a single-game season high 464 yards of offense. If they’re contemplating a change at starting quarterback after Jarrett Guarantano threw his fourth pick-six of the season last Saturday, they’ll have an extra week to prepare freshman Harrison Bailey.
Bailey played the final two series at Auburn, completing 7-of-10 passes for 86 yards.
“The one thing I’ve really liked about him is I’ve liked his presence,” UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “He seems to be pretty calm. He stepped in there and made two or three pretty good throws. Not all of them were caught. He made two or three good throws.”
Conversely, Monday’s developments were ominous for basketball, which hasn’t started yet and already is falling behind. Along with UT, at least 34 other college basketball programs were on pause Monday due to COVID protocols. While Barnes was going into isolation, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was coming out of it and said, “I am here to tell you that this virus is no joke and everyone must take this seriously.”
Rick Pitino, who now coaches at Iona, repeated his plea to push the season’s start back to March, referencing the possibility of vaccines being available by then.
“Give the vaccine a chance,” he said via Twitter. “In the best interest of all involved.”
In the meantime, stay safe and be flexible.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.