The Anatomy of a Covid Cancellation: A Look Behind the Scenes on the Day VT-UVA Was Postponed

Documents released via Virginia's open records law provide a window into the chaotic run-up to the postponement.

It required one chaotic morning for AD Whit Babcock and company to roll out the news of Tech postponing its last attempt to play UVA. [Mark Umansky]

At 6:59 a.m. on Sept. 12, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock fired off an email to Carla Williams, his counterpart at UVA, and two high-ranking ACC officials. Plainly, it had been a long day for him already.

Just the day before, Babcock, Williams and other leaders at both schools had made a very big decision β€” they were postponing the Sept. 19 battle for the Commonwealth Cup, due to the spread of the coronavirus within Tech's football program. Now, in the early morning hours of the following Saturday, they had to coordinate how they told the rest of the world the news.

So Babcock got the ball rolling in an email to Williams, Michael Strickland, the ACC's senior associate commissioner for football operations, and Amy Yakola, the ACC's chief of external affairs. The AD had attached a draft of a news release explaining the decision to move the rivalry game, explaining that it had received some edits from VT President Tim Sands himself.

"This is very, very close to final," Babcock wrote in an email released to The Key Play via a Freedom of Information Act request. "Couple minor wording edits and we will go at 8am. Just wanted you both to see it. Our team meeting is then. Thank you."

But the release was far from final β€” it would require at least seven different rounds of edits in all β€” with a variety of changes tacked on over the course of what must have been quite the hectic last hour leading up to the official announcement of the cancellation.

Documents released to TKP through a FOIA request hint at exactly how top athletic department officials coordinated the release of this very sensitive news.

However, there are still a variety of details that remain absent in the run-up to the postponement in this very unusual season. Virginia Tech sought fees from TKP in order to release more detailed records, only sending over emails after roughly two months of back-and forth. UVA provided 10 pages of records free of charge.

Establishing a Timeline

Once Babcock sent out the release externally, drafts began to circulate internally as well.

Angie Littlejohn, Tech's senior associate athletic director for internal operations, sent a copy to Justin Fuente at 7:04 a.m., noting that Babcock had provided some edits. The head Hokie did not offer any comment on it: via email, at least.

Tracy Vosburgh, Tech's senior associate vice president for university relations, reached out to Pete Moris, the football team's chief spokesman and an associate athletic director himself. Vosburgh would be coordinating the outreach to some top university officials, and she needed to know the details.

At 7:18 a.m., she wrote Moris, inquiring when she could start sharing the news. Her plan was to inform Horacio Valeiras, the rector of the university's Board of Visitors, at 7:30 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, she hoped to send word to the "President's Council," a collection of deans at Tech's various colleges, the president of the faculty senate, and other top university officials. Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith and Town Manager Marc Verniel would learn the news at the same time.

Moris initially agreed to the timeline. But six minutes later, Littlejohn stepped in to press for a last-minute delay.

"Could we please move our timeline to 7:45 for Horacio and 7:55 for the cabinet?" Littlejohn wrote. "We are trying to keep a closer timeline with this one in sync with a lot of the external players."

Some Last-Minute Edits

So what was the hold-up? The main issue was finalizing the wording of the release that would go out to make the news official.

Most of the changes were merely cosmetic or grammatical, while others reflected more meaningful shifts in the language that would go out to the public.

For instance, the copy of the release Babcock first sent out to Williams and the ACC included not one, but two references to his commitment to playing a full ACC football schedule.

"While we share the disappointment of everyone who hoped to begin the football season against our in-state rival, we remain optimistic that a full ACC football schedule can be played thanks to the flexibility the present format permits," Babcock was quoted as saying in that early version of the news release. "We are still committed to playing a full ACC football schedule and are optimistic about fall Olympic sports playing their schedules."

By the time Littlejohn forwarded a copy of the release to Fuente, the release had been edited. The phrase "we are still committed to playing a full ACC football schedule" had been removed.

That's perhaps no great surprise. In speaking to reporters Monday, Fuente himself said he thought it was "impossible" that the Hokies would only need to go through this hectic process once, given Covid's impact on the team. Yet, in just a few days, the Hokies will finally play UVA and bring this unusual regular season to a close.

"To make it all the way through has been a long, arduous journey to say the least," Fuente said.

Moris circulated several other versions of the release as the team meeting at 8 a.m. neared.

Originally, the second sentence of the release read: "Virginia Tech will pause its football practices for four days, beginning today." At 7:40 a.m., Moris sent around a new version, with the "beginning today" bit excised.

Moris subsequently told TKP via email that the team had actually stopped practicing the previous day, Friday. The Hokies continued to keep all activities on pause through the following Tuesday, meaning a meaningful distinction was caught just a few minutes before the release went out.

In a call with reporters that Saturday, Babcock said the idea behind the four-day pause was to allow for "another two or three rounds of testing."

"If you're able to, to bring the team back together on Tuesday," Babcock said. "And if you can proceed you do, but if you can't, you don't."

The News Breaks

At 8 a.m. sharp, Babcock and Fuente met with the players. "They were very respectful, certainly eye contact, but you could tell they were disappointed, angry," Babcock recalled later.

By 8:12 a.m., Moris had sent out the release to the media. Twenty minutes later, an email went out to a HokieSports mailing list informing subscribers of the postponement.

It was only later that day that Fuente got the chance to tell UVA Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall himself, in a call he described to reporters the next week.

"I just felt like it was the right thing to do," Fuente said. "We've competed so hard against each other for so many years. There's certainly empathy there. We all understand what we're all going through, but I wanted to just make sure he knew what was happening and why it was happening from me and not somebody else."

Of course, Mendenhall's boss (Williams) had known about the cancellation for at least a full day beforehand at that point. It seems likely he did as well.

"Justin called later that day, mid-morning and was really professional and we had a great conversation about the unique challenges we've faced, some things we've anticipated correctly, some things we underestimated, some things we overestimated," Mendenhall told reporters on Sept. 16, per 247Sports. "He was apologetic that they just didn't get it done or couldn't get it done for that time period or that game."

Comments

Kudos to Koma who kept after this for months to provide even a glimpse of the day's events.

FYI, it is not uncommon for fees to be required to complete a FOIA request. Basically if the staff time required to retrieve the documents exceed some standard amount ($25 or $50 I think). So, it can definitely vary by office and by person who is contacted.

"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." - K

There's no minimum requirement. Some agencies are probably a little more forgiving for charging if it only took a minimal amount of time and it's not worth billing for $10.

I have done 50 FOIA in the state and never paid a dime. FWIW.

"Hey Bud, you wont have to hold the opponent to 17 points anymore."

It depends on the public agency and its rules. In Salt Lake, these would fall under a GRAMA request. The Government Records Access and Management Act is pretty much Utah's version of FOIA. We charge $10 for the first 50 pages and then 50 cents for every page after.

I'm in finance, so this is how we handle these. I'm sure the police and other agencies may be slightly different to fit with their objectives.

The Anatomy of a hurricane Cancelation: A look behind the scenes on the day ECU postponed a football game

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
@BuryHokie #ThanksFrank

Interesting read. I certainly wouldn't want the job of coordinating those types of releases. It seems like most of the 'significant' edits were made to either protect the program or try to remove ambiguity from the statements.

It's an unwritten law that it's my lunch pail. I've issued the challenge. If someone outworks me, they can get it.
Darryl Tapp

try to remove ambiguity from the statements

This step gets skipped by so many people in so many organizations and it can really lead to confusion. What one person assumes is clear is not always that way to a broader audience. It is worth taking the time to get it right even when there is a rush (maybe especially). Sometimes a simple oversight can be interpreted as hiding information or a wrong word can send the wrong message entirely.

Virginia Tech sought fees from TKP in order to release more detailed records, only sending over emails after roughly two months of back-and forth. UVA provided 10 pages of records free of charge.

Has VT always been this way, or is this more of a Fuente-era thing?

Twitter me

I think it would be more likely a Whit-era thing over Fuente-era

VT '17

I think it is pretty standard. A FOIA is a pain in the butt to process. If I was in charge, I wouldn't want to become known as the place where you can ask for free information as often as you want. It is reasonable to pay for staff time required to dig up information above and beyond what is provided in an official release.

Edit: FOIA costs

The Office may require a person seeking public records to pay for the records. FOIA allows the Office to charge for the actual costs of responding to FOIA requests. This would include items such as staff time spent searching for the requested records, copying costs or any other costs directly related to supplying the requested records. It cannot include general overhead costs.

"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." - K

when organizations do a good job of being forthright and transparent in the first place... FOIA requests are greatly reduced.

Go Hokies

Same deal when we tried to FOIA the ECU records a couple years back. It was gonna be like $350 bucks. And that might have just been the basic records. Don't remember clearly

It also acts as a small but meaningful deterrent to frivolous FOIAs that serve no purpose other than wasting the organization's time or generating turmoil out of spite. Which does happen from time to time.

As a university employee, the amount of last-minute rounds of edits to something going public is not surprising in the slightest.

The more people you add to an approval process, the longer it takes.

I just sit on my couch and b*tch. - HokieChemE2016

As a university employee anyone in remotely public facing role, the amount of last-minute rounds of edits to something going public is not surprising in the slightest.

Twitter me

This is clearly overcomplicating things. We heard from a reliable source that Tech just wasn't committed enough to play the game. Not like those studious young men at LOLUVa.../s

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

Excellent work here Alex. We appreciate you grinding this one out.

Too bad really, we might have stood a chance back then when we were motivated and hungry

I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction:
β€œI served in the United States Navy"

KCCO

Remember when we mauled NC State and everyone thought we were going to roll most of our opponents? Sigh...

Ah, the good ole day.

Awesome insight, Alex. Thanks for your hard work.

Of course, Mendenhall's boss (Williams) had known about the cancellation for at least a full day beforehand at that point. It seems likely he did as well.

"Justin called later that day, mid-morning and was really professional and we had a great conversation about the unique challenges we've faced, some things we've anticipated correctly, some things we underestimated, some things we overestimated," Mendenhall told reporters on Sept. 16, per 247Sports. "He was apologetic that they just didn't get it done or couldn't get it done for that time period or that game."

Which makes this tomfuckery from the UVa Offensive Line coach even more tone deaf and shitty than it originally appeared:

"I have a PLAN. You just need to have a little goddamn faith, Whit. I just need. more. MONEY." - Justin van der Linde

I think one of the stranger things about this season is that we likely would have rolled them back in September if we had played. I still think we should win, but my confidence and margin of victory guesses are now much lower.

yeah that seems weird but then if you look at Fuente's tenure as a whole it makes complete sense. This season has been a microcosm of his 5 years here. Started great, faltered in the middle and continued to regress uncontrollably to a painful demise. TE can't get here soon enough

It's always darkest before the dawn ~ Thomas Fuller

TE can't get here soon enough

Is this a QB joke I'm not getting?

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

It's always darkest before the dawn ~ Thomas Fuller

"I have a PLAN. You just need to have a little goddamn faith, Whit. I just need. more. MONEY." - Justin van der Linde

This is all the more hilarious since he's making a hell of a career out of playing TE in the league.

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

Personally, I think the funniest part about this is that I yanked that meme from a post you made over 4 years ago.

"I have a PLAN. You just need to have a little goddamn faith, Whit. I just need. more. MONEY." - Justin van der Linde

...which was posted in response to him beginning his career as an NFL tight end. Look at that. I was accidentally consistent. I'm counting it.

Warning: this post occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)..

Legs! Legs all around!!!

via GIPHY

It's always darkest before the dawn ~ Thomas Fuller

Again, Thomas should have never have been moved to QB.

"Hey Bud, you wont have to hold the opponent to 17 points anymore."

No, it's a reference to the individual who #sauces believe will be our new coach.

Twitter me

With the follow up picture, I thought it has something to do with the Sun Bowl.

I read it as The End...as in The End of this completely awful season, year, virus, etc.!