Commentary: The Long, Strange Summer for UCF Athletics

Day after scalding, humid, summer day, it sat empty.
Normally a hubbub of planning and preparation for the coming football season and other fall sports, UCF's football stadium instead mostly collected dust.
For months at a time, even the air-conditioning was turned off.
The stadium press box, with its three top floors filled in recent years by UCF's athletic administration, might have been a candidate for a summer-long lease. Its occupants instead sat at home, tethered to their laptop computers for one Zoom meeting (or for most UCF athletics employees, the preferred Microsoft Teams application) after another.
A handful of senior staffers came back to Roth Tower in early August. Then, once classes began Aug. 24, a few more trickled in—to make sure anyone needing to do business with the Knights "knew the lights were on," as vice president and athletics director Danny White put it.
The main doors to the facility remained locked all day long. Employees who entered between 8-10 a.m. and noon-2 p.m. had their temperature taken and had to verify they had not been around anyone with COVID-19 and did not have any symptoms of the virus. Only then were they permitted to enter. The few employees on those floors wore masks unless they were by themselves in their individual offices.
Even then, most of those three floors remained unoccupied most of the day. The fourth floor, normally a beehive of activity, more resembled a ghost town even two weeks into classes.
At an August executive staff meeting, White suggested to his colleagues that the next time he came into the office he was going to wear shorts unless he had on-campus appointments or was expecting visitors—because no one cares what you wear on Zoom.
White's staff thought he was kidding.
The next day he showed up in shorts.
It's been that kind of summer around the athletics world on the Orlando campus.
And yet, in some ways, there has never been more offseason work to be done.
Members of the UCF executive staff all had assigned roles, even if, in some ways, it seemed like chasing ghosts. White and his staff planned meticulously for seasons that no one could say for certain would happen--not after the virus put athletics on hold back in March.
Executive associate athletics director Brandi Stuart shepherded a plan to bring UCF athletes back to campus beginning in June—in the midst of the virus conditions. There was no simple, online game plan to follow—because no one had ever done this before. She spent endless hours working with UCF and third-party medical experts to hatch every last detail of "returning to sport" in the virus environment.  
COO David Hansen became the overall COVID expert—taking part in any and all campus virus meetings to ensure UCF could keep a handle on the pandemic.
CFO Brad Stricklin attempted to build a budget—knowing the sale of football tickets, one of UCF's primary athletic revenue sources, was likely to be severely curtailed. Ultimately, UCF was able to plan for 25% capacity for four home games, as opposed to the original seven.
Scott Carr, Patrick Ransdell, ticket manager Brooke Smoley and others in the marketing department patiently modeled potential looks and ticketing plans for a partially-filled football stadium--waiting for the review and support of the Florida Department of Health officials from Orange County and the UCF administration.
Brian Barton, Kathleen Murphy and the facilities staff planned all the needed changes in UCF athletic venues for the time the Knights might play host to actual events once again.
Mark Wright championed the Keep Charging On Fund—designed to help UCF maintain its athletics momentum even in the unique circumstances produced by the virus.
Dan Forcella issued press releases about Knight players being named to "watch lists" for various postseason awards—all the while wondering if there would be an actual season to watch.
Meanwhile, White participated with his fellow American Athletic Conference athletics directors and university presidents as they made decisions about seasons that might never come.
The offerings on the group text message chain of the UCF executive staff ran hot and heavy all summer —as Twitter produced headline after headline seemingly all day long and even into weekends.
Slowly but surely the situation crystalized. Even as some other conferences shoved football to spring—and even as the AAC pushed soccer, volleyball and cross country into 2021 after the NCAA delayed its fall championships—the American did its medical due diligence and clung to hopes that football could happen in the fall of 2020.
For White and his staff and coach Josh Heupel and his team, that reality began Saturday when the Knights traveled to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech in UCF's lone non-conference game of the season.
When UCF athletes first returned to campus the first week of June, after being gone for more than two months, they found a changed environment.
They learned the same rules everyone else came to know well—constant reminders about masks, physical distancing and hand-washing.
Football players heard mentions of those subjects every single morning in their Zoom team meetings. The players initially were limited to group sessions in the weight room and group on-field running—yet it was obvious that this was way different than other summers when these activities happened in relative anonymity.
Regular COVID testing, use of three different locker rooms once full-scale workouts began in August, distancing in meetings—all that and more became routine. And that did not count the behavioral expectations when the players left the football building and went back into the real world.
As foreign as it seemed in June, by August it had become part of the Knights' DNA. UCF athletes slowly learned that if they wanted a season in 2020, at least some of the responsibility fell on their own shoulders to behave in such ways to give football a chance to happen.
Multiple UCF games disappeared in August as other leagues adjusted schedules. The summer became a roller-coaster of emotions for all involved. One day it looked like there was no chance a season would come about. The next day optimism reigned supreme. And vice versa.
Players all over the country hung on the next Tweet from their conferences and from the NCAA.
The UCF executive staff text exchange normally featured day after day of larger-than-life announcements and links to media reports and campus COVID numbers. Sometimes, a bit of levity was required.
Once August text featured a joke Tweeted by former Dallas Cowboy executive Gil Brandt at the time the Louisiana/Texas coast was threatened by a pair of severe storms: "Man walks into a bar and says, 'I'll have a Corona and two Hurricanes.' Bartender says, 'That'll be $20.20.'"
The Knights flew to Atlanta Friday afternoon on a plane holding a scaled-down—"essential" personnel only—UCF travel party.
Everybody who made the trip knew they had tested negative for COVID twice earlier in the week. Team meals were served in a larger-than-usual hotel ballroom. Physical distancing was the buzzword.
At some point, maybe only the football itself seemed the same—even as Georgia Tech's stadium was 80% unoccupied.
It became about bringing your own energy—whether your team is at home or away. As Heupel said last week, "If you're juiceless, you're useless."
Sometime after the prescribed kickoff, Dillon Gabriel threw, Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae ran, Tre Nixon and Marlon Williams caught, Randy Charlton chased the quarterback, Eriq Gilyard tackled and Richie Grant defended the Yellow Jackets' throws.
Maybe, just maybe, all of that brought some sense of normalcy to what otherwise had been a six-month runup to a season the likes of which have never been seen before.
The fragility that represents virus conditions suggests that nothing is guaranteed. However the situation stands today could all go the other direction tomorrow.
Heupel's mantra since he came to UCF has been about going 1-0 every day.
Maybe never has that saying been more appropriate.