“It’s a contact sport.”
Bob Grant said that a few times during our conversation, but he didn’t mean it in a football, wrestling and rugby sort of way.
The Wright State athletics director was referring to personal contact: hugging, hand shaking, going out for ice cream and lunches and coming over for dinner, sometimes even steak.
And for the past three weeks – as the coronavirus has put our lives and, most noticeably the college sports world in an ever-tightening vice grip – Grant and his staff have had to come up with virtual open houses, FaceTime calls and, three days ago, a drive-through luncheon for all the Raiders athletes still in the area.
“Our culture is very different than most places,” Grant said of his department which oversees 14 sports and 250 student athletes. “Whether you think it’s good or bad, it’s definitely different. We’ve got a super hands-on approach and everybody in the athletic department is wired that way.
“We’re not out-spending people for success and we’re not out-branding people,” said Grant, who is a Wright State graduate himself and was an assistant under former WSU athletics director Mike Cusack for several years.
After he took over the program a dozen years ago, he began to push an initiative he calls PSA – People, Students, Athletes.
“We focus on the people first,” he said. “The student part is second and the athlete, third. We believed happy, healthy student athletes would be more productive and boy has that ended up being true.”
He said Wright State athletics – even though the program regularly spends less annually than almost every other NCAA Division I program in Ohio – has had unprecedented success over the past three years, both in its sporting competitions and in its classroom performances.
Men’s and women’s basketball, baseball. volleyball and soccer all have enjoyed their best seasons in school history. All have sent teams to the NCAA Tournament. Men’s soccer was nationally ranked during most of last season and baseball, an annual 40-game winner and perennial NCAA Tournament team, has been recognized as the best program in the state.
Coaches and players have received many of the Horizon League’s top individual honors and for the first time ever Wright State was awarded the 2019 McCafferty Trophy, which honors the best athletic program in the conference.
In the classroom, WSU student athletes as a group are carrying a 3.0 grade point average and 87 percent of them are graduating.
So if the “super hands-on” approach is working, what happens when those hands get covered with rubber gloves and everybody must step back six feet or, better yet, just stay in their own house?
“Yeah, when have a culture like ours, what happens when that all comes to an abrupt halt?” Grant said.
“That was the challenge for us: How are we going to mitigate that? How are we going to get back to what we are all about?”
A new world
As the top-seeded, Raiders’ men’s basketball team lost to the University of Illinois Chicago in a semifinal game of the Horizon League Tournament in Indianapolis on Monday night, March 9, there was already growing talk about the threat of the coronavirus that was silently creeping into our world.
“I’d say that night our Spidey senses all started to tingle a little bit,” Grant said. “I started to think, ‘Hey, I wonder what the next week is going to look like?’”
He didn’t have long to wait.
Two nights later – as famed actor and WSU patron Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had tested positive and the NBA ceased operations, too – he said he knew: “That’s it. That’s the big domino falling.”
Within a day all of college basketball’s postseason play – including the NIT where the Raiders would have tipped off next – was cancelled. Face-to-face classes were ended on campus as well.
He said he met with his senior leadership and they began to come up with ways to keep their PSA mission going.
During normal times, Grant, his wife, Kim, and their two children (although daughter Jordan is now a track and cross country athlete at Miami University) invite each of the 14 Raiders teams to their Beavercreek home each year for a meal. Teams that make the NCAA Tournament get a steak dinner.
Other Grant traditions include taking sophomore athletes out for ice cream and conversation and seniors are treated to lunch as WSU’s food trade partners pick up the tab.
And throughout the year Grant is known to stop by various teams’ practices or before road trips and hand out chocolate milk.
But once the coronavirus elbowed its way onto the scene, all that was out.
That’s when he said he and his staff decided: “We were going to call every single student athlete or FaceTime them, all 250 of them.
“Most of the athletes couldn’t believe we’d take time to reach out to them, but we were like: ‘We want to know how you are doing, how you are feeling. How is your family? How are your online classes working out? What do you need?’
“It’s part of that interaction, that emotional investment that we thrive on here. And I’ll tell you, I think it’s been one of the best things we’ve ever done. It was so well received.”
Some of the early conversations were especially necessary when it was discovered one of the officials at the Raiders’ tournament game against UIC later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Grant said the Raiders’ training staff was in contact with Greene County health officials and each of the players. The Horizon League got involved, as well.
“Obviously we were worried and took extra precautions, but knock on wood, everyone seems good right now,” he said.
To stay in touch with everyone Grant said he’s been on a crash course to familiarize himself with the Zoom and WebEX apps.
He and his staff have put on a pair of virtual open houses where athletes dropped in and talked about what was happening in their lives, including the NCAA’s decision to restore eligibility next year to spring sports athletes whose seasons have been lost this year.
Wednesday night Grant added a twist and asked athletes to “bring along your favorite pet” for some additional bow-wow-meow banter.
“Some of it might sound hokey or corny, but it’s all genuine,” he said. “People know that and it adds to the connection.”
The lunch drive-through was manned by Grant, Joylynn Brown, the senior associate athletics director, and the WSU athletic training staff.
“Jason Franklin (WSU’s head trainer) put together box lunches and the Pepsi folks came through with a donation of drinks,” Grant said. “We probably had 60 or 70 of our athletes who are still in the area come through. They’d roll down their window. We had our rubber gloves on and we handed them their lunch.”
Among the athletes who stopped by were Loudon Love, the Raiders’ 6-foot-8 center and Horizon League Player of the Year – who said he was also picking up a meal for teammate Aleksandar Dozic, the 6-foot-9 grad student originally from Podgorica, Montenegro – and freshman golfer Mikkel Mathiesen from Esbjerg, Denmark.
Tyler Frierson, the 6-foot-4 junior center on the Raiders’ women’s basketball team, is from Long Beach, Calif. and she spoke for many of the WSU athletes last week when she tweeted out:
“There is no doubt that we have the BEST athletic department S/O to @JoylynnBrown12 @BobGrantAD and everyone else who was in the virtual chat. Thank you guys for checking in on all of us.”
The other side?
Grant wonders what life will be like on the other side of this deadly pandemic.
“It’s going to cause a paradigm shift on how all of us do things after this,” he said. “In the sports world, we’re in a business where many athletes are crashing against each other and fans are elbow to elbow so you wonder what that is going to look like moving forward.
“Here at Wright State, with our hands-on approach, we have a good thing going on. I hope the pandemic doesn’t disrupt the apple cart too much.”
In the meantime, they’ll set that cart upright again and turn it into a lunch wagon – anything to keep their people first.
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