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Q&A: Bradley AD Reynolds Discusses COVID-19, Basketball Programs, and ‘NIL’ Changes

Duane Zehr
Courtesy Bradley University

The college sports landscape has gone through major changes and adjustments over the past year, as COVID-19 forced athletic departments to alter routines and schedules. As the pandemic subsides, new laws and recent court decisions have opened the door to student-athletes getting increased compensation and benefits.

As the 2021-22 academic year approaches, Bradley University prepares to face the challenges of the changing college sports landscape, eager to have fans once again able to attend competitions. The Braves’ men’s basketball team will look to rebound from a down season, while the women’s team hopes to build on its first Missouri Valley Conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.

Bradley Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Chris Reynolds recently spoke with WCBU Reporter Joe Deacon about the past year and the program’s outlook for the future.

Joe Deacon: What is your assessment of how the athletic department and each of the sports programs weathered the challenges from COVID-19 over the past year?

Chris Reynolds: Well, it was challenging, obviously. If there's ever a silver lining to it, what we experienced here at Bradley was no different than what every athletic department around the country was challenged with. So we just took it a day at a time, and we stayed close in terms of communication; obviously, we had to utilize Zoom and Google Meet, and we did a lot of that. But for us, it was just a daily grind and it was challenging, but we have very resilient student athletes and coaches, and we communicate very well. So we took it a day at a time, and we're still plugging along. Certainly (we’re) not out of the woods yet by any stretch, but certainly we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

How much upheaval did each of the teams face? I mean, I know there was some scheduling that had to be rearranged, or seasons that were altered or cut short. How much of an effort really had to go on just to getting kids to play?

Chris Reynolds: Well, it's all the above that you mentioned and, certainly, these are things that none of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes. So I think that part made it really challenging because you really didn't know what to expect, because you've never seen it before. That made a challenge, and then also you didn't know when it was going to end, right? And so all you can do is plan and prepare the best you can, and communicate across the board and work together and really take it a moment at a time and not try to look too far into the distant future.

Again, we have a really good culture here in our athletics department here at Bradley; we communicate well, coaches, student-athletes, across the board. We've managed the best we could; we certainly have tremendous support on campus, which helps as well, and so it was certainly a team effort. We're just grateful we're at a place right now where things are starting to open up a little bit, and we're looking forward to looking forward.

From a financial standpoint, how much of a toll did the pandemic have on the athletic department?

Chris Reynolds: Yeah, I tend to look at it just from a university perspective when you think about the toll because we are a part of a larger environment. So we certainly are grateful for our Bradley supporters that hung in there with us and supported our efforts to manage through it; we had a COVID relief fund, like a lot of athletic departments across the country had, and our folks really stepped up to support us. The folks here in this community, they've been with us for decades and they certainly showed up for us this past year so we're really grateful for them.

For us, it's about how we can continue to move forward, and we're looking forward to this fall, and winter, and spring and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think people from the community are looking forward to getting out and supporting our teams in person; people are really excited about the prospects of being able to get out of their homes now and be able to see our teams live. You know, it's one thing to watch our teams on ESPN3, but it’s another thing to see them competing in person.

Sometimes you really don't realize what you had, the simple pleasures of life (or) just being able to drive and watch a game, until it's taken away. My sense is that people have a newfound appreciation for being able to see games in venue, and certainly our student-athletes have a great appreciation for our fans and supporters who come out to watch us play.

You kind of touched on a little, but what is the outlook for the department for the upcoming academic year in the wake of COVID-19?

Chris Reynolds: Obviously, it's whatever the governor states and we certainly want to make sure we follow all of the guidelines from the governor's office and the state of Illinois, and certainly want to respect and follow the guidelines from campus. But as far as we know, we're in Phase 5 and Carver Arena, particularly for men's basketball, has stated on record publicly that they'll have 100% attendance at their events. So we'll see what happens as it relates to campus events and things of that nature, but we certainly have full expectation that we'll be able to work towards getting back to normal.

I think it's important for the psyche of campus, the psyche of our student-athletes, to try to achieve a normalcy as much as possible. We talk so much about sports and athletics, but first and foremost our young people are students, and then being able to go to class in person I think is really important. It helps in terms of the educational process, and there's social process just in terms of developing and growing as young men and women. One thing we always talk about around here is that our No. 1 objective is to build our leaders of tomorrow.

So COVID-19 certainly took a toll and it's had its challenges on a number of fronts. But at the same time, our student-athletes, they had to grind through something that was very difficult. For them to have to experience being uncomfortable, although it was challenging, I think it's going to pay some dividends for some of them. Certainly, there was a lot of personal loss, not only in this community but around the country and around the world; the impacts are for a lifetime and will never go away. But I think all we can do is just try to manage and try to move forward, and as difficult that it is, I think it's important that we continue to take daily steps toward getting back into a normal routine and helping our young people stay positive.

Talking about on-the-field, on-the-court type of activity, what is your assessment or feelings about where the men's basketball program is right now?

Chris Reynolds: Well, I think from my perspective, it's a positive outlook for sure. A lot of new faces, but really excited about the prospects of the year, and I'm always positive and the glass is always half full. But you have to put in the work, you have to put in the time, and so I'm not one to get in front of myself too far and get over my skis. I mean, it's only July and we're a long ways from playing a basketball game. There's a lot of preparation and work that goes into it and you never really know what you have until the bright lights come on in November, and you're in Carver Arena.

So, pick-up games are fine and certainly they'll be doing some instruction with our coaches per NCAA rules. But we're just such a long way away from November, so there's a lot of things that need to be done in terms of preparation and work. But certainly, our young men are taking it a week at a time and they're getting up shots and they're in the weight room doing the things that they need to do to prepare. Then that's all you can do; you prepare, you get yourselves ready, and then the ball goes up and then hopefully you're ready to go.

Talk a little bit about how well the women's basketball team did last year, with the run to the (Missouri) Valley tournament championship and then the NCAA Tournament appearance. What was that like for you?

Chris Reynolds: It was really exciting, when you think about (it’s) the first time ever our women's basketball team A) won the Missouri Valley Conference Championship tournament, and 2) participated in an NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament; it was extraordinary. It was terrific for Andrea Gorski, our head coach who is a Bradley alum, to be able to have that experience and be able to coach a team in the NCAA tournament, and lift up that Missouri Valley Conference Tournament trophy.

So Nov. 9, we plan to lift the banner up here in Renaissance Coliseum, which is going to be really exciting, and really celebrate that accomplishment. Hats off to Andrea; she's been here five years and from day one, we talked about our team competing on a national level in the NCAA Tournament, and to be able to fulfill that goal and achieve that milestone is terrific.

I know you put out a statement just the other day about it, but what are your thoughts on the “Name, Image, and Likeness” changes in college sports with the new law in Illinois and the NCAA taking steps to allow athlete compensation?

Chris Reynolds: Well, you know, as a law school graduate I'm a firm believer in following the law and so that's something that's really important, first and foremost. But I think probably more importantly, it's supporting our young people, and at the end of the day, it's why I'm involved in higher education – to provide support to our young people, and do everything we can within the stated guidelines of NCAA rules and our state laws and federal law.

So it's really exciting for our student athletes to be able to take advantage of this opportunity, and it provides an opportunity for them to grow and develop as young people and to learn. We certainly want to be involved as much as we can, as rules allow us to within that process. But certainly in terms of college athletics, it's evolving and schools have to evolve with it. It's a different time, 2021; it's far different than 50 years ago. It's just a sign of the times, and it's about evolving and growing and we have to evolve with it, with our young people.

How does this affect athletes in the lower profile sports that aren't as prominent or as well-known as, say, the basketball players?

Chris Reynolds: It's a really good question. I think a lot of it remains to be seen, right? I mean, this is the first time that we're experiencing or seeing any of this. So if anybody tells you that they understand or they know exactly where this is going, then I don't think they're truthful because I think none of us really do. I think it's going to take some time to shake out, and I think we'll see. So let's have this conversation a year from now to see how this has evolved.

Could there be potential Title IX implications that could result from this NIL legislation and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in regard to the NCAA?

Chris Reynolds: Yeah, what's been interesting, there's been a lot of questions as relates to NIL, as relates to the Alston case that was just heard and tried by the U.S. Supreme Court. There's just so many unanswered questions, and nobody's really sure exactly what all this means and what it's going to look like. So I think it's really going to take some time to really shake out, and, again, I think over the next few months and maybe a year or two, we'll have a pretty good idea of what this looks like. But right now, I don't think we do.

So I'm certainly keeping my eyes open and talking with colleagues around the country to learn more and get an understanding of the implications of the ruling. But I think it's way too early to be able to forecast exactly in a tangible way what this means for college athletics.

Could you tell me a little bit more, I've read about it, but what exactly was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling?

Chris Reynolds: That's the interesting question. So when we talk about being able to extend additional educational benefits to student-athletes, what does that mean, right? I mean, it's really hard – you had lawyers who tried the case, now you need lawyers to interpret what it meant. So I don't know exactly how that is going to manifest itself. I think it's going to take time for college administrators to really start to peel back the onion and get a sense of what this means from a tangible perspective, and what it means in terms of its impact on our student-athletes. So it’s hard to answer right now. Certainly, I’m following along and paying attention and talking with colleagues, but I haven't seen anything publicly or even privately that really provides a great description of what the Supreme Court ruling actually means on a tangible basis.

What are your initial impressions of new Missouri Valley Commissioner Jeff Jackson?

Chris Reynolds: I’m really excited for him. You know, he comes with great credentials and extensive background. He's coached the game of basketball. He's been an administrator for a long time at the Big 12 Conference office. He certainly steps into some big shoes; Doug Elgin was tremendous for decades and did an outstanding job of representing the conference’s schools. But Jeff brings a different perspective, and Doug was ready to retire.

We had a really nice get-together – we, being the athletic directors and the presidents of the Missouri Valley Conference – with Doug Elgin, just to celebrate him as he well deserves; he did such a great job for the conference. And he was there with Jeff; Jeff’s been around for the last couple months just shadowing, being around Doug and the staff at the Missouri Valley Conference office. So it was a great transition and Doug and Jeff, they were able to talk a lot. So Jeff is really set up for success; he's a very bright guy and one that I think will do a great job for the conference.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.