Q&A with Mick Hoffman: How the WIAA is planning for 2020-2021 high school sports in Washington

With Washington high school sports and in-person education canceled for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, uncertainty looms about what sports in a high school setting might look like in the summer, fall and beyond.

Earlier this week, WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman said the association is going to be as “creative as possible” to give students the chance to compete in 2020-2021.

Hoffman answered questions on a wide range of topics. Here are snippets of that interview:

(Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity)

Scorebook Live: Schools are closed through June 19. Spring sports have been canceled. How is the WIAA preparing for what’s next?

Hoffman: We wrapped up our contingency planning in the spring … We weren’t able to implement any of it, so now we’ve started doing a similar process for the fall. … It looks more and more likely school will be able to start in some fashion in the fall, so then the question is, OK, what do high schools do? Will we have groups no larger than 10? 50? 200? There are some sports and activities that lend themself to that fine: golf, tennis. But volleyball and football is a totally different scenario. So we’re looking at everything from a late start to an abbreviated season, to an interrupted season, to alternate seasons. 

Scorebook Live: What do you mean by alternate seasons?

Hoffman: We’re going to be as creative as possible to give students opportunities to participate. … So does football get moved from the fall to another season? We don’t know. Or could we run a fall track season with cross country or a modified track season to give kids a chance to participate? If we have a Nov. 1 start date for fall, do we adjust all of our seasons? There are several possibilities, several scenarios, so what we’re doing is we’re developing logistical plans of how does this possibly impact other programs and schools, and what does it do to everybody financially.

Can this be done? We’ll see what works. I’d say at this point we’re going to be as creative as possible. We know families, kids, coaches are really wanting to compete, so they say what can we do safely? No different than what we just saw the governor do. We’re now opening up golf, parks and fishing to the public. There’s something for people to do outdoors, but it’s modified to what somebody would typically do. You can have somebody from your household and maybe one other person that’s not connected to your family. What are the stipulations going to be for us? We don’t know yet. By the time we get around to May and June we should have a better idea. And we can detail out, but we at least want to have some ideas on paper that we can start to fill out as the science catches up.

Scorebook Live: I’m sure you saw Gonzaga (a private college) committed to a plan to return to in-person education in the fall and outlined the creation of a ‘Pandemic Response Task Force.’ What might the trickle-down of those types of institutions be?

Hoffman: I think in the delivery of education it’s very similar. You’re talking kids in large groups, whether college or high school. So yeah, that definitely lends itself to some planning of what our high schools or even middle schools can even look like school-wise. A big difference, though, from college to us is … colleges are dealing with far more students traveling nationally and internationally to, one, come to the school and attend on a daily basis, but also in their activity and athletic programs, right? Gonzaga plays most of their games out of state and they’re on an airplane and we don’t do that. 

The trickle-down or comparison for us would be more along the lines of, are there certain parts of the state like we’re seeing right now that have far less impact or challenges than maybe a Snohomish County or maybe a Clark County? Or are there certain things allowed there that aren’t allowed in other places? That’s another factor for us to plan for. Fortunately, we won’t have to do a lot of frivolous work because we have a governor and superintendent that are pretty forthcoming with information. So as they get more detail and information and can predict the summer and the fall better, we’ll know which ones to really pursue. We’re just putting the framework together now. 

Scorebook Live: Are in-person academics tied to in-person athletics? Does in-person instruction have to take place for athletics to take place?

Hoffman: Well, that’s really and ultimately going to be the governor and Superintendent (Chris) Reykdal’s decision. I personally wouldn’t think so, because I think students could do a version of this online learning at home and still be able to go to a golf course and compete and social distance. Kids could potentially play tennis, even if it’s just singles and no doubles, and social distance. I think we could run a cross-country meet maybe over the course of a couple of days, which again, isn’t ideal, but what we really have to get people to wrap their minds around is that we’re not going to be dealing with anything that is ideal.

We’re going to have to adjust, or the alternative is having nothing. We’re living that right now, and I don’t know how many people really like this. The emails I’m getting, people don’t. So do we run a cross country meet where every minute a kid can take off on the course? And guess what, we might have to run them all on a Saturday because it’s going to take us eight hours to do what we normally do in an hour and a half. But at least kids are getting a chance to compete. And yeah, I understand it’s a lot different than running next to that kid, pacing, and all the strategy that goes into it, so the alternative is we don’t do anything because we can’t do it the same we’ve always done it. I don’t think that’s where we want to fall. We want to do it safely and give the best product we can with safety at the forefront. That’s what I would say moving forward we’re looking at.

Scorebook Live: In addition to everything the WIAA is doing to prepare for potential fall scenarios, is it business as usual?

Hoffman: We have some committees going looking at our governance, looking at tournament structures, looking at our technology, so all of those, we’re doing all on Zoom now. We’re having more regular board check-ins just to keep them appraised of everything that’s going on. So it’s been way more work on top of all the questions you get about unknowns.

We’ve had to do a ton of work with eligibility. We’re getting ready to roll out some information … we have a board meeting Tuesday, so after that, as far as guidelines and how we’re handling fall eligibility with COVID. Literally our staff, I venture to guess any of our admin team or executive staff isn’t working six days a week. That means they’re working seven days a week. This time of year is supposed to be the time where we’re getting back to 40-hour weeks until we get to the tournaments. This is after the winter season when I was told we’d catch our breath. It’s not happening. Then you deal with the stress of maintaining the association, you’re not running tournaments and … it’s a lot.

I’ve been on a lot of teams. Whether they’re school admin teams, coaching staffs. Our team, this is absolutely, positively one of the most high-performing teams I’ve ever been a part of. Mike (Colbrese) did a really, really nice job of hiring. We added two really, really good staff members this year and they work hard and they work well. It’s a good mix of the right people doing really great work. 

Scorebook Live: What stage are the talks to find a home in 2020 for the Gridiron Classic — high school football championships sites?

Hoffman: We haven’t really gone too much farther with it. We’re going to stay in high school sites, we know that. We’ve talked to UW. Doesn’t look like that’s feasible. We’re talking to the Seahawks, with all this going on, some of the potential sponsors they were trying to line up to underwrite the event don’t look as helpful. Right now financially it’s hard to do anything. So what we’re looking at and working on with our tournament committees is possibly identifying other host sites. If we have teams from different parts of the state, they wouldn’t all necessarily have to be in the Tacoma area. The idea of keeping it in Tacoma last year with all three games was for fans to be able to go from venue to venue if they wanted to see two different games at two different locations, and we didn’t see a lot of that. So we’ll put the games where we think the people that want to see them will be. 

Scorebook Live: How did you track (fans going from venue to venue)?

Hoffman: We’re stamping hands. People came in (to state football championship venues) with a stamp. We were concerned we’d have so many that we wouldn’t be able to chart it, but talking to our gate people, they reported to us very few people. Very few, and some sites even said, I think Lakes said they didn’t have a single person come into that stadium to either one of those games from another site. So we had a few go from the 3A to the 4A and the 1A to the 2A. 

Scorebook Live: Is that surprising?

Hoffman: The trend we’re seeing, we do get a few fans that will stay all day, but that is a diminishing crowd, that hardcore football or basketball fan that sits there all day and watches games. But what we’re seeing more of is fans show up to watch their team and then they leave. Even in the Tumwater game, most of those crowds emptied out from O’Dea-Eastside Catholic even with that game coming up, and that was a great game. In some ways it was good because we had plenty of seats. In other ways, we want people to stay and watch. 

There are some hardcore people. Those of us who are lifers in the business, we’re more apt to do that and people we hang out with are more apt to do that, but if you go outside our own little circles, you see that’s not necessarily what most people do anymore. There’s so many options now of things to do.

Scorebook Live: Has the committee that was formed to take a look at the state basketball tournament format continued to meet?

Hoffman: Yes. We’re hoping the board will have a recommendation from that committee at the start of June. There’s a lot of work being done with Zoom meetings.

Scorebook Live: What has the communication with the state superintendent’s office been like throughout the spring?

Hoffman: We’re independent, though we obviously work with the same people. I’ll tell you, Superintendent Reykdal, he’s answered emails directly on weekends. So we’ve been able to stay out of his hair for the most part just because a lot of what he was initially implementing was the directive of the governor, which impacted us all. Now moving forward we’ll tighten up that communication as we get into May and June and have a better idea of what our options will be.

We’re working a lot with the principal’s association and we’ll work with the school board association, they’re all partner groups of ours to make sure we’re all doing it the same way. All our jobs are to help educate and support kids, so we’re trying to be on the same page. And honestly they’re so overwhelmed right now getting this online learning built on the fly that we’re staying out of their way. 

Scorebook Live: How much calming of nerves are you having to do?

Hoffman: I think we’re all helping each other with that. Initially it was really scary because heck, you don’t know how contagious and lethal this is. There have been thousands of people who have died. I don’t care if you get more than that normally in accidents, or the regular flu season, it’s still 70,000 people that have died just because of this. They are connected to somebody. I think once we got past that initial fear of finding out we do have a little control over it as far as how we social distance and our personal hygiene, that it’s not necessarily just bad luck, it’s more, ‘am I going to have a job? What are we going to provide kids?’ I think a lot of people are getting re-centered, and if we can get an end to it, I mean I’m not a stay-at-home guy, this is driving me crazy, I like being out and about and helping people and meeting people, but I’ll tell you it’s giving me a new appreciation for living with family and focusing on that prior to a million other things. 

Scorebook Live: Your messaging throughout this, your two-minute drill videos: Some coaches, folks we’ve talked to have said it’s nice to see the executive director’s face and to see that he cares. Talking directly into the camera, was that your idea?

Hoffman: I think it’s important if you’re a leader, one, people got to know who you are. And No. 2 is you have to set the tone. I’m not going to get on there and lie, act or pretend. Some of those videos were I’d go out for a walk, be thinking about it, I’d come home, go out on my deck, set the camera down and talk to people. I think that’s what we should do as leaders. We should be real with them. You’ve always got to be honest, but that was a terrible day canceling (school for the year). You know what that means to kids. I reflect on, heck, I’ve got a niece who is a senior. Her missing out on prom and graduation and if that would have happened to Tyler (Hoffman, Mick’s son) his senior year … there are thousands of kids and families going through that right now. It’s awful. We weren’t the cause of it, but what can we do to help with it? One of my goals this year was over-communicate, make sure people know who and what I am so they know who and what the WIAA is going to be and that’s how school people are. I think that’s just the way it should be, and you look at the people on our board and in our office, that’s how they act.

Thank you for joining the discussion on SBLive!

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