PITTSBURGH –– Though Duquesne is not in basketball, nor spring season, Pittsburgh Sports Now was able to get a one-on-one phone interview with athletic director David Harper.
Tuesday, you had the chance to read Harper updating on a stoppage in construction of the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse due to the occupation being considered “non-essential” by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.
Harper spoke on the phone for nearly 20 minutes, with the entire conversation below. To his credit, Harper did not provide a question or time limit, was willing to answer anything, was not fed any questions in advance and answered thoroughly questions that some Duquesne fans were certainly wondering.
Q&A was determined to be the best approach so you can get an idea of what questions were asked and how they were answered as if you were on the phone call as well.
Zachary Weiss: How would you describe the process of these last couple of weeks and when more information came how everything shifted towards keeping your student-athletes safe?
David Harper: “Being in New York, we knew that area had a lot of emerging potential for the situation. When it went to no fans, it just felt surreal. We were watching one of the NBA games and they said a player contracted it and from there I said ‘it’s over, game changer’. Watching the shutdown, you just knew it would going to result to us shutting down. You kind of chart it forward and try to stay optimistic but you just knew it was impossible to execute events, things of that nature in addition to just every-day life. We’ve just been making sure you are agile, provide great clarity to everybody on your teams in any walks of life, to your family and you carry the thing that is paramount which is the health, welfare and safety of your family, friends, teammates and society. No one is going to control this thing other than scientists, mother nature and all that kind of stuff, so we’re at their will and we’ll adapt accordingly. We’ll make the best of everything, work as much as we possibly can and just make sure we take care of others.”
ZW: Was it Rudy Gobert’s positive test and then the additional information from meetings with the AD’s led by Thorr Bjorn and (A-10 Commissioner) Bernadette McGlade that shifted the time table towards making the final decision?
DH: “We had scenario plans which was very advantageous because the beginning of the no-fan decision led to other things such as cancellation of the event and postponement of the NCAA Tournament. Bernadette was kind of halved if you will because she was serving on the Men’s Basketball Selection Committee and also had her conference tournament going on, so she was having to be two people at once, which was exceptionally difficult. Thorr Bjorn who was the chair of our AD committee at the time really took a lead position and did a nice job of organizing all of us. We’ve had two-minute votes, we’ve had three-minute votes, I think that’s what they were. We had great advice and insight from a number of great entities, that just knew what pieces were, but you have to have a formal vote to cancel and we did. The information and data we gathered and keeping the best interests of everybody in mind, it felt like four days of deliberation, but it went fast and really was a day-and-a-half. My focus then turned to getting us home safely. Fortunately we kind of got out in front and we got a flight home that evening on Thursday, which was fantastic. We monitored everybody coming back from New York and fortunately we have no health problems to this day, so that’s fortunate.”
ZW: When you have conversations with these groups of people, how much are you keeping in touch with Keith (Dambrot) and the staff and getting their thoughts in relation to those who also were in New York at the time?
DH: “Keith never asked he just wanted to know what the direction was. He didn’t give any of his viewpoints, he wanted to know what was best for his team and his student-athletes. He’s a veteran coach and a seasoned thinker. He was awaiting direction from me. The biggest disappointment in all of this is you see players who will not be able to play in their last tournament. We liked where we were, our draw, we liked everything. There were a lot of teams having once-in-a-lifetime seasons and great seasons where they were in positions they were never in before. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but playing a game and putting people’s health at risk doesn’t make sense. I kept Keith apprised every step of the way and he asked what he needed to do.”
ZW: I know it is not necessarily in the forefront of the mind right now given what’s going on in society right now, but how proud are you of your two basketball programs coming together especially given the tough circumstances?
DH: “I would say I have been proud of a lot of teams that I have been associated with throughout my intercollegiate athletics experiences but this year was special. The kids never once complained or fretted but rather kept their focus on performance, on building team and the coaches embraced the challenge. The kids were weary, you could see it, but it toughened them. They could not have done a better job and I am so proud of and for them and grateful to them. The coaches did a great job through all of this it was a real sense of crafting solutions and they did that. it is great to have two teams that won 20 games, the hardest part is going to 25 wins that really puts you in the talk, and we’re close. That’s where we will continue to focus with both programs and go forward. Of course our immediate focus is making sure we get through this situation and making sure everyone is safe and sound and ready to come back re-energized, hopefully with a sense of urgency. I think that would be great for everyone.”
ZW: From a logistics standpoint, Keith mentioned that when you departed Thursday, you were returning to a Duquesne University that was closed, how important was it to make sure that everyone reached his or her final destination safely?
DH: “That was our focal point knowing that closures were coming and that you have kids throughout the world. We wanted to make sure they had safe travels and when they got home they were safe. We were so diligent that between coaches and administrators we assigned them to check in. Now that we are working remotely, academics can be a challenge. Some kids are not from fortunate backgrounds, they may not have Wi-Fi or technology at home, so we’re talking about work to do in a case or two, but we’ve gotten everyone the ability to learn remotely. Now it’s more important than ever to build relational capital, you have to make sure these young men and women are supported more strongly than ever. Being away can be difficult, sometimes it is the distance connection when they have close relationships with teammates, coaches and academic advisers, it can be challenging. Now we need to find a more technologically advanced way to build the relational and technical capital with these young men and women and support them as best as we possibly can so they are successful.”
ZW: In the case of spring sports, you as an administrator can appreciate the undertaking when it comes to laying out a season in several aspects. With these spring sports, who saw their seasons end before they really had a chance to start, though there is potential for seniors to return, how tough is that and balance that with understanding the current situation?
DH: “The cancellation of spring sports was done at a time where there was still a lot of unknown. I think now that the situation has become more informed you get a sense for the scope and scale. That helps a little bit with why the decision was made and made so early. The big thing is if the NCAA grants the seniors an extra season, some of these young men and women are going to have very difficult choices to make. Do they go on and some of them have internships and jobs, potentially delaying that a year to play. You also have the scholarship situation and roster sizes, there are a lot of challenges with this. Each institution is going to have to have a unique approach to accommodate what they need to accommodate but I feel for those who already may have had their plans laid out. A lot of situations change too. These issues will resolve and you want to make sure each individual gets the best possible outcome.”
ZW: Right now in the world there is a list determining who or what is essential and who or what is non-essential, from an overarching view, how would that affect the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse being built in the designated timetable?
DH: “It definitely has an effect. Every day we’re shutdown, is another day we’re behind. The other thing that we don’t know is how this would affect the supply chain, how it affects certain industries, are some let back before others? We just have to be methodical with our planning and thinking. If we have to open later, we’re going to have to open later. It is totally out of our control and then once we’re able to get back and get to construction, we will and once we know what that date is, we will set a timeline and we’ll adjust. The bad thing is this is something we were very focused on and the progress was great and to see it come to a halt is a little disheartening, but at the same time, we’re used to being out, so if it’s delayed whether it is a couple weeks or a couple of months, we’ll adjust. It is what it is and you can’t change the circumstance, you have to adjust and we’ll do our absolute best for those young men and women to compete and win. When we get in there, it will still be a great day.”
ZW: From a funding aspect, given the stoppage would that effect any potential funding?
DH: “Our funding model remains intact. The biggest thing we want to check in on is that we had so many generous donors to the project and different things and for some of them, this may effect their ability to give, you don’t know. Part of what we’re doing with building relational capital is checking in with all donors, first to see how they are doing, not talk about any commitments. Over time, if they figure out what is going on and we see things come in, we’ll extend some deadlines for people. Obviously you have season tickets and things of that nature, but you think about those things, those are not top of mind. Right now that is the health, welfare and safety of everyone, adapting our roles, working remotely to make sure we take care of our teammates, staff and families. This will play out, but the important thing is we’ve got to get this project done, so once it comes back online, we’ll be chugging away. It won’t have any ‘stoppage due to financial reasons’.”
ZW: Considering your relationships with venues you played in last season, if there was a delay which would impact the start of the basketball season or even Mt. Lebanon in the case of volleyball, how comforting is it to potentially have those options back in place?
DH: “Everybody was fantastic. All of our partners, LaRoche, Mt. Lebanon, PPG and Robert Morris were all fantastic and I think those partnerships will remain strong. Now, logistically it could look different with dates available and all seasons are different. You don’t know what’s going to go on with an NHL season or how they will adjust to that. We’ve got a process where we are working together. We’re blessed that we went through it once, so it’s kind of a catch-22. We’re very disheartened that this is slowing down and we’re keeping hope alive that it will open on time, but if it doesn’t we’ll have a plan.”
ZW: How important does communication become if you do indeed have to explore other facilities and make sure that non-conference play is locked in with everyone on the same page?
DH: “I would think the most challenging piece is all of these other facilities having moving dates. They could have concert moving dates, they could have event makeup dates, it could be a number of things. once they figure it out, we can figure it out. It was the same last year where concerts pop up and dates change all of those different things and we’ll have to adjust accordingly. One thing we can do and have done with some of our scheduling is having more road games in men’s basketball. We’ll have more true road games than we did last year and have another neutral event that we’ll have this year that will provide some relief on the number of dates in non-conference season. We know for certain what the conference season will look like, so that gives us some certainty.”
ZW: How proud are you with the Duquesne family coming together during such uncertain times?
DH: “From our board, to President Gormley to the faculty and staff to move all of these classes online has been phenomenal. This was a tremendous heavy lift to get all of this remote learning settled. It’s just been a phenomenal effort from them. There are so many unsung heroes. It speaks to who Duquesne is as an institution. We’re blessed to have so many great and talented people, but they’re all very caring and selfless. I think that really shone through in a big fashion during this time.”