The strategy behind every Arizona State swimming and diving athlete redshirting

'Our program will use this year...to create the best NCAA teams that this program has ever seen for the 2021-2022 season'

Arizona State’s swimming and diving program made national headlines on July 26, when head coach Bob Bowman announced that every athlete in the program would redshirt during the 2020-21 season. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s arguably the closest that college athletics has ever come to the “tanking” that you might see at the professional level, particularly in the NBA or in the NFL, especially prior to a draft that’s perceived to have one or two can’t-miss prospects.

At the college level, programs don’t get the benefit of securing a top draft pick by not competing – literally or figuratively – for a season. Arizona State won’t automatically enroll the Zion Williamson of the 2021 high school swimming recruiting class just because it’s punting on the 2020-21 season, but the Sun Devils will bring back every swimmer and diver from a pair of top-25 programs who wants to return to Tempe next fall. In the final College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) polls last season, Arizona State men’s swimming and diving team was ranked No. 10 nationally and the women’s program was No. 17.

For reference, that’s the swimming and diving equivalent of Minnesota (No. 10 in the final college football AP poll last season) or Memphis (No. 17) redshirting every football player this fall so that the team can be stronger next year, or Villanova and Wisconsin doing so in men’s basketball after a No. 10 and No. 17 finish, respectively, in the AP poll last spring.

The closest recent comparison of a college team sacrificing its current season for the future, albeit under different, pre-pandemic circumstances, was Houston football last season. Under first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, starting quarterback D’Eriq King and the team’s second-best wide receiver, Keith Corbin, redshirted after a 1-3 start to the season, thanks to a relatively recent NCAA rule change that allows football players to compete in up to four games and still redshirt the season, which would’ve allowed the Cougars to retain some of their top offensive skill players. However, King ultimately transferred to Miami (FL) and he has helped lead the Hurricanes to a 3-0 start this season that has vaulted them to No. 7 in the AP poll, while Houston has yet to play a game in the first five weeks this season due to a series of postponements and cancellations.

Out of Bounds obtained a copy of 12 talking points that Bowman drafted and sent to members of Arizona State’s athletic department on July 25, one day before a team meeting and the university’s official announcement about its plans to redshirt all of its swimmers and divers. “We don’t see anything that would make it impossible,” Arizona State Chief Athletics Compliance Officer and Special Counsel Steve Webb wrote in an email to Bowman on July 20. “Just a bunch of stuff to work through, so if you decide to do this, we’ll need to work with you.”

To summarize the talking points, Bowman wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on the program as athletes missed the opportunity to compete in the 2020 NCAA Championships, limited training opportunities and created uncertainty about the future, and the program wanted to give its athletes the chance to compete for a top-10 program, while potentially earning a Master’s degree in addition to an undergraduate degree.

The complete list of talking points is listed at the bottom of this newsletter.

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Ironically, Houston football, which was an imperfect comparison to Arizona State swimming and diving’s plan for the 2020-21 school year, might actually be the perfect example for what the Sun Devils were trying to avoid when they made their announcement in July.

The Cougars have had the following football games postponed or canceled this fall:

  • Sept. 3 vs. Rice

  • Sept. 12 at Washington State

  • Sept. 18 at Memphis

  • Sept. 19 at Baylor

  • Sept. 26 vs. North Texas

It got to the point where, on the morning of Friday, Sept. 18, Houston received a set of parking passes from Baylor for a game scheduled for the next day, except the parking passes had been branded for Baylor’s game against Louisiana Tech the previous week. The Baylor-Louisiana Tech game had been postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases and contact tracing among Louisiana Tech’s players in the wake of Hurricane Laura.

So, Baylor recycled those passes intended for Louisiana Tech to Houston after a three-game series between the two in-state schools had been scheduled in the span of 18 hours. “Can’t believe we pulled this off…,” Houston AD Chris Pezman wrote to Baylor AD Mack Rhoades on Saturday, Sept. 12, along with a copy of the signed term sheet for the series. “Look forward to seeing you next weekend!”

The Baylor-Houston game was postponed six days later.

Arizona State and coach Bob Bowman decided – back in July – that it wasn’t going to deal with any of that. No five-week stretches with postponement after postponement. No recycled parking passes. No friendly emails between administrators that would never materialize in the form of a socially distanced elbow bump on game day.

“The state of Covid-19 in Arizona and the Nation as a whole is not near what medical professionals would deem as under control,” Bowman wrote on July 25. “The short term prognosis is not a positive one. The risks of infection in the larger university setting and during travel are real. The uncertain status of all competition is of concern.”

In a newsletter published by Out of Bounds on July 24, which was ironically one day before Bowman sent the talking points behind his program’s groundbreaking decision to redshirt every athlete, I analyzed the mental health professionals available at the Power Five level and among the professionals I was able to confirm, the average Power Five school employs roughly 2.4 mental health professionals specifically for athletes. Given the furloughs and layoffs in athletic departments across the country, that number could be even lower now.

At the very least, Arizona State’s swimming and diving athletes won’t have to go through the will-they-or-won’t-they-compete dance that many football programs, most notably Houston, have gone through on a weekly, if not daily, basis this fall.

There’s probably some value in that, especially in terms of the mental health of athletes.

“Our team needs clarity of purpose, a plan to move forward and meaningful goals,” Bowman wrote. “We are taking a bold, creative step forward with this meeting today.”

Now, Arizona State athletes’ “education will continue unabated,” Bowman wrote, as many athletes who pursue a fifth year will have the chance to earn a Master’s degree, according to the list of talking points. Athletes were told that they’re welcome to return to Tempe, where they’ll have “all of the practices and support available that we provide in any academic year albeit in constraints of Covid-19 safety procedures,” but they can also enroll in online classes or the ASU Sync program, which “provides students with technology-enhanced, fully interactive remote learning using live lectures via Zoom,” according to the program’s website. Even though Arizona State won’t compete in dual meets or postseason meets during the 2020-21 season, Sun Devil swimmers and divers can compete in USA Swimming competitions.

“We will, of course, focus much of our efforts on qualifying for and excelling at the US Olympic Trials and Games next summer,” Bowman wrote.

Bowman was a U.S. Olympic coach in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

If any Arizona State swimmers or divers choose to wrap up their college career after four years, that’s cool, too. “We fully support you,” Bowman wrote.

Those who pursue a fifth year will have a new scholarship agreement that will be informed based upon an athlete’s first four years on campus, which means an athlete could technically have their financial agreement extended, increased, decreased or canceled. The process of determining the level of aid will occur during an athlete’s fourth year on campus.

According to an email obtained by Out of Bounds that was sent on July 27 by Webb, the Chief Athletics Compliance Officer and Special Counsel, he wrote, “I understand it is likely that any student-athletes who have already redshirted will lose this redshirt year. So there is not likely to be the flexibility you are looking for there unless the NCAA cancels the season.”

“This will be a big thing to discuss with any other sport that is thinking about doing this,” Webb continued. That statement comes across as a hypothetical that would potentially require serious discussions, rather than the suggestion of an impending decision by another Arizona State program to follow the swimming and diving program. But if a nationally ranked swimming and diving program – one coached by Olympian Michael Phelps’s former coach – can decide to redshirt all of its athletes, then it certainly seems possible that another NCAA program across division and sport lines could consider a similar path.

However, if the Division I Board of Directors allows winter-sport athletes to receive an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it, as it did for fall-sport athletes in August, perhaps it’d make sense for Arizona State’s swimming and diving programs to compete this season, since the athletes would be guaranteed another year of eligibility if they wanted it, while still getting a season of competitive experience.

Webb also wrote that Arizona State “won’t receive much of the money for the sport from the NCAA for that academic year. Only that which relates to scholarships.”

While much of the attention paid to college athletic department budgets relates to coaching contracts and buyouts, game guarantees in football and men’s basketball, and recruiting costs, Webb’s email suggests Arizona State’s 2021 NCAA Financial Report could look a little different than usual, even if it’s in ways that many Sun Devils fans wouldn’t notice.

“This year has presented us with before unheard of challenges,” Bowman wrote. “While we realize this is a big decision, we feel it serves the best interests of our student-athletes in the short term, the middle term and long term. We can take tremendous strides forward as a program this year! This is a year of opportunity for you and for our team.”

In his talking points, Bowman made it clear how much it hurt his athletes to lose the chance to compete in the postseason in 2020.

He wasn’t going to let it happen again.

And if all goes to plan, many of his swimmers and divers might leave Tempe with a Master’s degree and the chance to compete for one of the school’s strongest teams ever.

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Here’s the complete list of talking points from Bowman:

  1. Covid‐19 has taken a huge toll on our entire organization. The lack of training opportunities, uncertainty about the future and missed NCAA Championships have been stressful and debilitating.

  2. The state of Covid‐19 in Arizona and the Nation as a whole is not near what medical professionals would deem as under control. The short term prognosis is not a positive one. The risks of infection in the larger university setting and during travel are real. The uncertain status of all competition is of concern.

  3. Our team needs clarity of purpose, a plan to move forward and meaningful goals. We are taking a bold, creative step forward with this meeting today.

  4. For the 2020‐2021 collegiate season we will be giving every swimmer on our team the opportunity to take a redshirt year. ASU will not participate in any collegiate competition this academic year. This means that you will be enrolled fulltime (sic) in classes, attend training sessions as you would in a normal season, but we will protect your eligibility in the event that Covid‐19 related situations could cancel major events or blocks of training. Your education will continue unabated.

  5. Our program will use this year to rebuild lost training fitness, focus on the long course season of 2021 and to create the best NCAA teams that this program has ever seen for the 2021‐2022 season. This move will make both men’s and women’s teams formidably competitive at the top levels of the NCAA. Our seniors deserve the chance to participate on Top 10 ranked programs and to enjoy the investments that they have made in the ASU swimming program. We are not willing to risk the loss of another collegiate post season (sic) experience for our athletes.

  6. This plan has been studied and approved by our compliance department, our sport administrators and SDA leaders, Ray Anderson, the PAC‐12 and Dr. Crow.

  7. Flexibility is the key word here. We understand that families may decide to stay on a current schedule and end their swimming experience after 4 years. We fully support you. We intend to support all swimmers who chose to take a 5 year plan at commensurate levels of athletic financial aid. Because our financial aid agreements are for 4 years, a new scholarship agreement will need to be written to cover your 5th year of eligibility. This new agreement can extend, increase, decrease or cancel athletic aid for the 5th year. Your performances over the previous 4 years will inform the terms of the new agreement. This process will take place during the 4th year of your scholarship agreement.

  1. Those who choose a 5th year of eligibility will in many cases have the opportunity to graduate with both undergraduate and masters degrees. This year will be a perfect time to intensify your academic pursuits and to plan how you could leave ASU with multiple degrees. We are excited to present this possibility to you.

  2. We will offer complete flexibility in terms of where you choose to live and train this year. With the use of ASU online and ASU sync courses, you have the opportunity to choose a situation that suits your needs best. Those who come to Tempe will have all of the practices and support available that we provide in any academic year albeit in the constraints of Covid‐19 safety procedures. You may choose the date you wish to arrive on campus and there is extreme flexibility with this. You will self‐quarantine for 7‐14 days before undergoing the physical exam and Covid‐19 testing which will clear you to participate in voluntary workouts and mandatory workouts. However, you may access ASU Sync and online options during this time.

  3. While we will not compete in collegiate dual meets or post season (sic) meets this year, you can access outside USA Swimming competitions where appropriate and we will ,of course, focus much of our efforts on qualifying for and excelling at the US Olympic Trials and Games next summer.

  4. This year has presented us with before unheard of challenges. While we realize this is a big decision, we feel it serves the best interests of our student‐athletes in the short term, the middle term and long term. We can take tremendous strides forward as a program this year! This is a year of opportunity for you and for our team.

  5. Of course, there will be many individual circumstances and situations where we can best solve problems one on one. The coaching staff, academic staff and administrators are ready to assist and guide you through this unique experience. This decision has required many long hours of thought, conversation and review. We do not take this step lightly. We are undeterred in our enthusiasm, and our resolve. O2V !

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Recap of the last newsletter

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“Almost a year after the policy was adopted, on Oct. 1, 2020, a Purdue spokesman told Out of Bounds in an email that the university hasn’t found any staff members, faculty, students or contractors in violation of the policy.”

Read the full newsletter here.


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