Culture / Sporting Life

As COVID Surges Shake Sports, UH Deals With a New Reality — Back to the Future or a Vaccine Fueled Difference?

Houston Athletic Director Chris Pezman Expects the Next Week to be Telling

BY // 12.20.21

FORT WORTH — Almost as soon as Kelvin Sampson enters the interview room in the back hallways of Dickies Arena, the University of Houston coach offers a quick direction to the two players walking in with him. “You guys had better put your masks on in here,” Sampson says.

Marcus Sasser and Fabian White Jr. quickly comply. Almost everyone in college basketball — and major sports in general — is quickly coming to the realization that the latest rapid spread of the coronavirus is changing the playing field again. Dozens of college basketball games got canceled or postponed in recent days, including a number of marquee matchups. Memphis vs. Tennessee, UCLA vs. North Carolina and Ohio State vs. Tennessee-Martin are among the games scraped with the omicron variant’s emergence causing chaos.

UH got a reminder of this stark new reality on Saturday when the game scheduled to be played before its matchup with Oklahoma State in the Hoop Hype XL College Basketball Showcase was canceled. Tulsa and Colorado State could not play as planned because of COVID issues within the Rams’ program.

“Not yet,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity when I ask if there was any worry that the Cougars game with Oklahoma State could have been canceled. “I think the next week’s going to be pretty interesting as all this plays out.”

Kelvin Sampson’s UH team is scheduled to host Texas State on Wednesday night at the Fertitta Center. Then, the No. 14th ranked Cougars have a six day break before their next game against Cincinnati on December 28th. Houston’s football team is also scheduled to play Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl on December 28th.

“I think everybody’s trying to figure out how this is going to work,” Pezman says. “It doesn’t feel the same as it did in 2020.

“Our basketball team has been really vigilant, hyper aggressive with the (COVID) protocols. The next week is going to say a lot.”

Including whether the somewhat complete uncertainty of the 2020-21 college basketball season will return. Of course, there were no vaccines to provide a huge safety net during last year’s college basketball season, which saw the entire NCAA Tournament played in and around Indianapolis in something of a semi bubble.

Pezman tells PaperCity that Sampson’s entire team is vaccinated. The NFL has already changed its COVID-19 protocols to make it easier for players who are vaccinated and asymptomatic to return to practices and games. Many college officials are hoping that the NCAA will make similar changes and recognize that vaccines make things different.

A vaccinated college athlete in good health is at little risk for needing to be hospitalized or suffering serious health consequences from getting COVID. Especially if there is consistent mask use, the type Kelvin Sampson already seems to be urging for his players. Dr. Fauci has said that even regular everyday vaccinated Americans can still enjoy holiday gatherings.

“It feels like we’re working off of old information,” Houston’s AD says. “I think that the problem is (a COVID rules change) is going to have to come from the NCAA or the medical advisory group. Or the conference. And so how risk averse are those entities? Which is pretty (risk averse).

“It’s going to take somebody like the NBA or NFL to do something different and then everybody can fall in line. But everybody’s worried. Again, it doesn’t feel like it did a year or two ago. Everybody’s got their head up trying to figure out what it’s going to look like.

“All of our (student athletes) are vaccinated.”

COVID Sports

Under the NFL’s new protocols, only teams that are in the midst of an outbreak have to undergo daily testing. Which is what some college athletic officials are hoping becomes the model.

“You get into a situation where you’re testing people that were vaccinated. . . ” Pezman says. “You do that, you have no chance. You’ll lose everybody.”

COVID is spreading rapidly again in many parts of the country. But vaccines make it different. Will college sports reflect that?

“Everybody’s worried. Again, it doesn’t feel like it did a year or two ago. Everybody’s got their head up trying to figure out what it’s going to look like.” – UH athletic director Chris Pezman on the new COVID surge.

Of course, the NFL’s revised protocols still did not prevent it from having to move back several games this week, creating unusual football doubleheaders on both Monday and Tuesday nights. Of course, what is usual these days?

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team opened their 2021-2022 season with an overtime victory over the HofstraPride, complete with the presentation of a banner commemorating their trip to last season’s Final Four, Tuesday night at the Fer
The full crowd and band is back for this University of Houston basketball season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

As Pezman and I talk, Sampson’s team is on its way to putting Oklahoma State in the second half to win 71-62. Amid the noise of a lively arena — the UH Spirit Band playing, Houston and Oklahoma State fans cheering, the loud sounding of the scorer’s table horn — Pezman looks away.

“I wish I had more info,” he says.

You can be sure that a lot of people in major college sports feel the same way.

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