Every college senior in the country remembers where they were on March 12.
Auburn’s Jovan Rebula was at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, about to board a plane for West Palm Beach, Florida, so he could spend spring break with his uncle, Ernie Els, before meeting up with his teammates in nearby Palm City for the Valspar Collegiate, one of their biggest tournaments of the season.
Baylor’s Cooper Dossey had just finished his third round of Mackenzie Tour Q-School in Dothan, Alabama.
Alabama’s Kenzie Wright was in the back of an Uber, on her way to catch a flight home from Tuscaloosa to Dallas.
That’s when the news broke.
After a whirlwind morning in which several conferences and schools, one after another, canceled the next few weeks of competition because of COVID-19 concerns, the NCAA later that afternoon delivered the most devastating blow of them all, terminating the remainder of its winter and spring seasons, including the NCAA Division I golf championships set to begin in late May.
“Thirty minutes before I was supposed to take off, [Auburn assistant] Corey [Maggard] calls me and goes, ‘I don’t know if you want to get on that flight,’” said Rebula, who headed down to South Florida anyway, spending nearly a week at Els’ home in Jupiter just trying to process the sudden end to his college career. “In that next 24 hours, everything happened. I remember my uncle and I were just sitting in his living room and watching the TV and seeing all this news about this being canceled and that being canceled. It was crazy, man.”
Dossey learned of the heartbreaking verdict from fellow senior Colin Kober, who immediately called his teammate in disbelief.
“I’m an emotional person and Colin is not, and he only got a few words out when we both started tearing up,” Dossey said. “I knew why he was calling me.”
Wright, staring at a text from one of her friends, also struggled to maintain her composure.
“I felt so bad for my driver,” Wright said. “I started balling.”
When Wright returned to campus a few days later to gather her belongings, her teammates had already moved out. Wright didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
“I haven’t seen anyone since all of it went down,” Wright said. “That’s why I was really hoping for this news…”
Ah yes, finally some good news. After weeks of uncertainty since the NCAA Division I Council’s leadership teased at a possible extra year for spring-sport student-athletes, the spirits of seniors everywhere were lifted Monday after the council voted to allow schools the flexibility to grant their spring athletes an additional season of eligibility.
While each athletic department will be left the power to weigh the financial costs of having their seniors return, the momentous decision means that Rebula, Dossey, Wright and likely hundreds more senior golfers haven’t hit their final shots for their college teams.
“It’s great that the NCAA is looking after the interests of the players who have been affected, who have worked hard to play in a championship, to give them another opportunity,” said Florida State men’s coach Trey Jones, who plans to have both of his seniors, Jamie Li and Greyson Porter, back for a fifth season. For the past few weeks, since leaving an emotional team meeting, Li and Porter have been left to wonder, what’s next?
“It’s been nerve-racking for them because of the uncertainty,” Jones added. “They really haven’t known, am I graduating this semester or am I not? I don’t have a place to live next year, do I need to get a room or find a roommate? … You see seniors during the last part of the year start to get uneasy because it’s the first time in their life that they have uncertainty of where they’re going to play golf next. That uncertainty just drives them crazy and makes them play bad.
“[This year's seniors], they've had more uncertainty in the past month than they’ve ever had in their life. For their mental emotions and psyche, I couldn’t be happier for them; they’re starting to have a path now.”
Rebula initially thought his immediate path was still through the professional ranks. “I wasn’t even thinking about coming back then,” he said. “My uncle and I were even thinking, well, I could turn pro now if I wanted to.”
But when he got back to Auburn, Rebula and redshirt senior Graysen Huff met with Maggard and Tigers head coach Nick Clinard. After some two hours, Rebula walked out of Clinard’s office with a completely different perspective. Those sponsor exemptions he was hoping for upon turning pro? Unlikely. What about the Q-Schools he was planning on playing in Europe and the U.S.? Who knows what those will look like?
“It got to the point where I was like, there’s no benefit in turning pro now. Whatever you could’ve gotten, you’re just going to get less of it now. It was a little bit of a curveball,” said Rebula, who added that the allure of PGA Tour University, a program set to debut next season that will award top graduates membership on the Tour’s developmental tours, was a deciding factor in him returning to school.
Dossey, the fourth-ranked player in Golfstat this season and a top contender for the Haskins Award, would’ve garnered a Korn Ferry Tour card this summer had PGA Tour University been implemented this past year. After some serious discussion with his family in the days after his season was canceled, Dossey, who also was eyeing some PGA Tour invites this summer, reasoned that he could find himself in a similar position next year.
He quickly became the first high-profile senior golfer to announce his intentions to come back, pending the NCAA’s decision. When things became official Monday, Dossey re-confirmed his plans: he’ll join Kober in returning to Waco this fall.
“As a golfer, your dream is to play on the PGA Tour … and I had a good idea of what post-college was going to look like, but once the NCAA granted [an extra year], it was a no-brainer,” Dossey said. “There’s no certainty in pro golf right now. In college golf, there still is uncertainty because no one knows when this [coronavirus] is going to go away, but it’s also five months away.”
When Dossey arrives back on campus for his extra year, his full scholarship will not count toward the team’s limit of four and a half. Alabama’s allotted six women’s scholarships will not include the money Wright will receive next season. This is all possible thanks to a one-year exemption that the NCAA will extend to teams that prevents programs from having to take away aid from other players, including incoming freshmen, in order to accommodate returning seniors.
“The council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun, chair of the 41-person council, which has representatives from all 32 conferences, said in a statement. “The Board of Governors encouraged conferences and schools to take action in the best interest of student-athletes and their communities, and now schools have the opportunity to do that.”
However, there are concerns that not every school will have the opportunity to do what’s right by its student-athletes. The financial toll that comes with the NCAA’s ruling may be too much for some athletic departments to endure.
A recent USA Today report estimated that giving players an extra year of eligibility could cost schools about $400,000 – and that’s not including the Power 5 schools, which the report says could expect between $500,000 and nearly $1 million in additional budget hits. Those numbers could end up being much larger.
One college golf coach, who requested anonymity, voiced concern that granting an additional year of eligibility to all spring athletes would further the divide between the big-money universities and the lower-budget schools while putting some schools in tough situations.
“It would appear, on the surface level, that the more money your university has the more flexibility you have with spending on these seniors,” the coach said. “… Some university president is going to come out and say we can’t afford it, and they’re going to get smashed.”
Per the NCAA, institutions can request financial assistance through the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund, which provides need-based aid to student-athletes for non-athletics-related costs such as educational supplies, emergency travel and medical expenses not covered by insurance. But dipping into that fund won’t cover every returning senior and also could affect students for whom the fund was initially intended to help.
“Golf, we played 75 percent of our year,” added the coach. “You want to give seniors a year back? Fine, but not everybody else.”
There are other potential drawbacks to the NCAA’s decision on eligibility relief. What happens to future recruits and their scholarship offers after the NCAA's one-year scholarship-limit exemption expires after the 2020-21 season and current underclassmen want to use their extra years? How about the coaches who, for a variety of reasons, don't want certain seniors back yet those players want to return to school with their aid intact?
Many coaches will argue that the pros far outweigh the cons.
The players come first, and the NCAA’s decision exemplifies that.
It’s the schools’ and coaches’ jobs to make it work.
“It’s a good thing to do for the players,” said Duke women’s coach Dan Brooks, who will have three players, including All-American Ana Belac, opting not to return to the team. “We should operate on behalf of the student-athletes and I think this takes care of the student-athletes who had this all taken away from them.”
Added Jones: “When we sat down in these kids’ living rooms, we made a commitment to them. This is finishing that commitment.”
It’s a commitment that runs both ways. For seniors such as Dossey, Rebula and Wright, and Clemson’s William Nottingham, and Colorado State’s A.J. Ott, and Michigan State’s Paz Marfa Sans, and Baylor’s Elodie Chapelet, and what will end up being many more returners who almost saw their college careers brutally cut short, they’ll get one last run at bringing an NCAA title to their schools.
“At the beginning of this there were a lot of tears, but now I’m really excited to go back,” Dossey said. “People don’t realize how much this team means to me, and I’ve always said those team wins mean more than my individual wins. I told Coach [Mike] McGraw freshman year of college that I really want to win a national championship.
"I’m going back because I’d definitely be kicking myself in a couple years if I didn’t take all my shots at a national championship.”