It was March 11 and Gene Taylor was standing in the tunnel leading out to the basketball court at Kansas City's Sprint Center, watching Oklahoma State and Iowa State wrap up the first game of the Big 12 Tournament.
There was a decent crowd on hand and the game was going down to the wire. Taylor, Kansas State's director of athletics, was relaxing for a few minutes before the Wildcats' opening-round game against TCU and expressing hope that the coronavirus outbreak — still in its early stages in the Midwest — would not throw a monkey wrench into the four-day tournament.
Little did he know at the time that it would be the last quiet moment he'd enjoy while in Kansas City, or for the next week-plus, for that matter. By the time No. 10 seed K-State finished taking down seventh-seeded TCU, near 10:30 at night, the Big 12 had decided that the next day's quarterfinals would be played in an empty arena, with only a few spectators allowed.
Then on Thursday morning, less than an hour before tipoff of the first game, officials called off the tournament entirely.
"From the Big 12 Tournament, probably through the first 10 days or so, maybe even longer — it all kind of runs together at this point — it just seemed like every day we were making major adjustments and changes," Taylor said Friday in a phone interview. "From the spring sports being completely canceled to school being out an extra week, to school being out more than the week, it just seemed like every day it was something major that you kind of had to make a decision on."
The first step was getting the basketball team back to Manhattan, where the school already was closed down for spring break. It wasn't long before the spring sports season was scrapped entirely, and after a one-week spring break extension, K-State moved entirely to online learning.
"We were literally making decisions, particularly in Kansas City, almost on the hour," Taylor said. "Fortunately a lot of our senior staff from each institution was in Kansas City, so you'd meet as ADs and huddle up as a senior staff and say, 'OK, what do you think about this, what do you think about this? You've got to go tell them.'
"So we had enough bodies in Kansas City to make communication as good as we possibly could. But it was changing so rapidly that you just made decisions based on what you knew at that moment and hoping that it was going to be the right decision."
A month later, now that the dust has settled, Taylor — and college athletics in general — still faces major uncertainty. The COVID-19 spread has forced Kansas and most other states to institute stay-at-home orders with an ever-evolving timeline.
"We've obviously settled in the last couple of weeks to a more normal routine, but those first 10 days or so were crazy," Taylor said. "I think right now the biggest things are financial challenges.
"Whether it's trying to balance this year's budget, which I think for the most part we're in a pretty good spot to be able to do that, or trying to come up with projections for next year's budget — with the uncertainly of football and then just trying to plan around the what-ifs with football."
As it is at most Power Five conference schools, football is the engine that drives the athletic department's finances at K-State. The Wildcats already have lost their spring practice, and the NCAA has yet to address whether teams will be allowed to return early during the summer to get ready for a season.
Part of that has to do with the fact that no state has yet given the all clear, and even when that happens, it likely won't be the same for all regions of the country. So much of Taylor's job at the moment is coming up with contingency plans around football and what it will look like in 2020.
"Is it going to start on time, is it going to be delayed, are we going to play a full 12-game schedule or are we going to play an abbreviated schedule?" Taylor said. "What's the right timing to bring our athletes back to campus, not only for football but for the other fall sports?
"Just working through all that (and finances) is probably the two biggest things we talk about most."
On April 1, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard announced plans to cut salaries for coaches and certain staff to reconcile an anticipated $5 million budget shortfall, brought on in large part by reduced revenues from not only the Big 12 basketball tournament but also the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA was expected to distribute $375 million less this year to its member schools and conferences.
K-State should be in decent shape for this fiscal year, Taylor said. While revenues are down, so are operating expenses for the spring.
"That's why this year's budget, we think, is going to work, even though we're going to have a shortage of revenue from the NCAA distribution and the Big 12," he said. "Because we're not spending significant money on baseball travel and tennis travel and coaches recruiting and recruits. Our expenses are way down, so we think that between the two they're going to balance themselves out for the current budget that ends June 30."
The 2021 budget is more of a crapshoot.
"As we project into the fiscal year for 2021, we're just doing a lot of projections right now, in terms of revenue models that are going to be less than what they typically are," Taylor said. "We just don't know what those numbers are going to be, so we're projecting everything from a 5% reduction in revenue to a 25% reduction, and where in terms of expenses can we cut to balance the budgets out.
"Is there a piece of that that may involve furloughs and salary reductions? Yes, but something drastic would have to happen to make that to come into play for us."
The uncertainty surrounding the football season is just part of the puzzle. Another has to do with financial concerns for supporters who also may be facing job losses, furloughs or salary reductions.
"We'll know as we get a little deeper into the summer, based on where our season ticket sales are headed and our Ahearn fund, which is our annual giving fund, where those dollars are going to come in," Taylor said. "And then we'll know a little bit more if we can get some sense of when football season would be starting back up."
K-State football coach Chris Klieman, who along with his staff is spending the spring connecting with players and recruits through online Zoom meetings, also is trying to navigate through the uncertainty.
"I try not to look too far ahead, and I don't want to look too far ahead because I don't want somebody to determine what we're going to do in September on April 17," Klieman said. "I still think there's so much time and so much we don't know that I want to remain optimistic but remain patient."
The football season opener is scheduled for Sept. 5 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, though there is no guarantee that will happen — and even if it does there are plenty of variables.
"We just know that even if we were to start Sept. 5, we're going to have fans that aren't going to come back until they know that there's a vaccine out there," Taylor said. "So even if we start Sept. 5, we'll have a better idea by mid-July what those numbers are going to look like."
K-State has addressed the uncertainty with fans by extending season ticket deadlines and allowing them to put down a $25 deposit to secure their tickets until there is more clarity.
"That was all part of it, trying to be as sensitive as we can to what our fans are facing out there," Taylor said. "A lot of them aren't renewing because they don't know the status of football and some aren't renewing because of financial questions.
"So we thought if we offered them a $25 opportunity to at least hold their seats, we know that they would at least be interested in coming back. And then we can figure things out and extend the deadline if things clear up."
Klieman knows that regardless of when or if the 2020 season gets under way that his program will face some budget adjustments and bear some of the lost revenue burden, but the specifics can wait, he said.
"We're going to have to make some, (but) we haven't been pressed upon that," he said. "We have received some things that said we are going to have to make some cuts, but we're still kind of going through all those scenarios.
"But I think, once again, we want to know what we're going to deal with come the fall. We don't want to do something in April that all of a sudden we say, 'Oh, we really didn't have to do that.' I think that's the whole landscape of this environment."
One thing that has not been shut down by the virus is work on the south end zone project linking the stadium and Bramlage Coliseum directly to the south. But any plans beyond that will have to wait, according to Taylor.
"The end zone project is still moving forward," he said. "We had capital commitments and dollars in place and revenue for that, and we anticipate a majority of those gifts will still continue to come in.
"In terms of the other pieces of the master plan — there's the volleyball venue, the indoor football facility — all those things have been put on hold because we obviously aren't out asking for gifts. We've raised a significant amount of money, but it's stopped for now and we'll just focus on the end zone project and keep that moving forward."
As is the case with university staff as well as the public in general, Taylor's daily routine has changed significantly since the shelter-in-place order began. He and wife Cathy now have a full house with daughter Casey and son Jared at home.
With the rest of the family working from home, Taylor does sneak away to his office a few hours a day, mostly to conduct online meetings.
"I think we're finding out that there may be some things, even when we get back to whatever our new normal is, that we can live without, whatever that is," he said. "Whether it's less travel to do meetings and more virtual meetings to save money.
"There were a lot of things that we already were re-evaluating, and we'll probably continue to do so in terms of how to run our programs."
Of course, there are some perks as well.
"I haven't put on a tie or a dress shirt in a month and it's not a bad thing," he said with a laugh. "My hair's getting longer, and I do shave occasionally, but not every day.
"I said to my wife, a week or so ago, that we're so busy that during the course of a year, between events and social stuff, we may have a sit-down dinner once a week, maybe twice at the most. Now, pretty much every day of the week we're sitting down and doing dinner together, and it's nice."