STILLWATER -- Talking to Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis on Thursday, May 28 and finding the leader of the school in good spirits. He told us the nearest estimates of what the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the University in (overall) revenue is right around $8-million. He said the acquisition of masks and PPE equipment and other costs are expensive, but there will be some reimbursement of those costs.
I told him that as the leader during the greatest fund raising campaign in Oklahoma State University history with the Branding Success campaign that he may have wanted to retire before now. He now has to lead OSU through one of the most difficult times with the coronavirus and the resulting economic fallout.
"Your comment rings true because I think it was George Burns that said you always want to leave the stage while they are still applauding," Hargis joked.
As far as the pandemic itself, Hargis was very complimentary of his staff on campus and the entire Stillwater community.
"We have a lot of good people here and we've all been working together to try to navigate this as best as we possibly can," he said. "We definitely want to protect people and we've done a good job of that in Stillwater. Just 22 cases and no deaths (in Stillwater). There was a tragic death in Cushing in Payne County, but none in Stillwater. So we've obviously done a good job of social distancing and wearing masks and alike. This will get more challenging as we come back in the fall. Football is going to be another thing to navigate when we get to it in the fall."
Hargis and the other Presidents of the Big 12 schools voted last week to start a three phase return to campus with student-athletes. Football student-athletes will be first with voluntary workouts cleared to start on June 15. About an hour after I spoke with President Hargis, Oklahoma State announced a task force to go along with the football leadership that is bringing the players back to campus.
"It is clear that Coach Holder and Chad Weiberg have a good plan to bring our football athletes back on campus," Hargis reiterated.
Hargis told us that the Big 12 Presidents were actually meeting again Thursday and Friday as part of the end of year Big 12 meetings. It is easy now to tell that the vote on when to bring student-athletes back to campus was not unanimous. Oklahoma has since come out and said they will wait until July 1 to begin. Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley has remained critical of starting any earlier. He called it "ridiculous." He didn't target any particular schools, but the SEC has taken it as if it was directed at them and now some have speculated it was aimed at other schools in the Big 12. Riley's administration has backed him up on that opinion.
Hargis was diplomatic in his addressing Oklahoma and their stance. I asked if it could be based on their situation.
"Yeah, I think that is right, you know Norman and Cleveland County have had a lot more cases than we have and tragically, a lot more deaths," Hargis said. "I think that has influenced President (Joseph) Herroz (at University of Oklahoma) and Joe Castiglione to some extent. At the end of the day I don't think two weeks, I can't imagine that will make any meaningful difference in the long run."
Hargis feels the Big 12 has a good chance of making football work and is encouraged by the interaction with the league's school.
"Our conference is pretty cohesive here, West Virginia is aways-away, but the rest of our schools are right around here. The ACC is spread out from the tip of Florida up to Boston. The Big Ten is from Lincoln, Neb., all the way to New Jersey. Then the Pac-12 is all up and down the west coast and Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. They are very different environments and it is difficult to make a rule for all of them. We set a rule that you couldn't start before (June 15) and then it up to you whether you want to start then or not."
Now the big question, the one most fans want to know, will they be able to attend football games in Boone Pickens Stadium?
"We know so much more today than we knew a month ago, and I would think that by the end of July you would need to have things in place for what your plan is," explained Hargis.
"I think we have around 30,000 season ticket holders or so, if those people came and the people that live together can sit next to each other. Then you could spread it out and there might be a way to do that. I think the idea of getting into and out of the stadium will be a social distancing problem, so maybe everybody has to wear a mask. Those are a challenge. Do we ban tailgating? That would be a popular decision." Hargis said sarcastically.
"We have a lot to decide. I just think it would be really great to play the season and be great to have fans in there in some form," Hargis concluded."
When I finished up by saying Oklahoma State really has a good football team for this season and that it would be a huge shame not to see it played. Hargis, not the school President, but the Cowboy fan, agreed and had some good recent experience to back up his point.
"It's the bad luck of the draw, isn't it? I actually was in the training room the week before last and both Tylan (Wallace) and Chuba (Hubbard) were in there. They look great by the way," Hargis added. "I just thought and shook my head, you guys just have to play. It would be outrageous if this team didn't get to play this year."
We can all agree with that.