by Cam Smith ’21
Last October, The Cowl sat down with vice president and director of athletics, Bob Driscoll, in his office on the top floor of the Friar Development Center. The conversation revolved around the remarkable success of Providence College athletics in recent years, as well as the growth of the campus and its stunning athletic facilities.
This October, that conversation looked vastly different. In place of an in-person meeting was an all-too-familiar Zoom call. The topics of discussion were different, too. There was no Late Night Madness to reflect on, nor was there a fall sports season to review. Instead, the interview was filled with thoughts on what could have been as well as speculation on what hopefully can be.
That being said, even without an ongoing sports season to discuss, there remained plenty to talk about. One might think an athletic director without sports may have some free time on their hands. However, Driscoll certainly does not, as his days without sports have been almost as busy as his days with them.
Indeed, much like the rest of the world, the state of PC athletics changed forever in mid-March. Driscoll and the men’s basketball team were in New York City, getting ready to play in the highly anticipated Big East tournament. The first game of the day had already kicked off, with the Friars due up next to take on Butler University. Then, the news they were dreading came.
“It felt surreal. I was just so excited to be down there,” said Driscoll. “I knew it was kind of fragile, but I actually thought we were going to play. We were on Zoom with the presidents and the ADs, with the head people, the doctors from the NCAA just the day before, and they’re going ‘no we’re good, everything is a go.’”
Soon, it became apparent that all spring sports athletics would have to be canceled as well. It was left to Driscoll and the athletic staff to deliver the heartbreaking news. “I remember telling our student-athletes, first of all apologizing to the spring sports and telling them how heartbroken I was that their season got taken away,” recalled Driscoll. “Particularly the seniors, who never got a chance to finish it. But I never thought that we’d be sitting here today not playing sports in the fall. Never.”
Driscoll had to make another set of calls once it became clear in the summer that fall sports would have to be canceled too. It was not any easier the second time around. “That was difficult because I knew they were heartbroken—as was I,” said Driscoll. “But one thing I said to them was that Friartown, we as a team, are built for this. Mental toughness, grit, resilience—let’s use this as a way of developing our character.”
The athletic department has certainly shown resilience as a whole since those fateful March days. Driscoll credits a strong working relationship between him, the coaches, and the entire athletics staff as the reason for their success in overcoming a myriad of obstacles in recent months. Communication too, says Driscoll, is key.
“I feel as connected as I’ve ever felt to my staff. Although I’m not seeing them in person, I’m seeing them literally everyday through Zoom,” he reflected. “I call, I text, I’ve engaged with them consistently during this entire time frame. And more than just X’s and O’s, [I ask] how’s your family? How’s your children? How are you coping? How’s your health? Really focusing on the higher, more important things and trying to put it into context. Competition is important, but do you know what’s more important? Your health and mental well-being.”
Although Driscoll and the rest of the athletics staff have made the best of a difficult situation, that is not to say that everything is perfect. Recruiting new athletes has been particularly difficult during these times. The NCAA instituted a ban on in-person recruiting since the start of the pandemic, which barred prospective student-athletes from visiting campuses.
For PC, the ban seems to hit especially hard. For many prospective athletes, it is the visit to campus that really sells them on Friartown. “When they walk on the campus and are able to feel the vibe between people, and then you see our beautiful facilities and academic buildings…I think people’s perceptions change pretty radically once we get people here, so I think that’s hurt us a little bit,” lamented Driscoll. “But with people like coach Cooley, Nate Leaman, and Chris Gabrielli, people who are really good at communication…I still think we’ve been able to sign some talented people.”
Some of those recruits will be able to take the court and the rink this winter, as PC plans on going ahead with both its hockey and basketball seasons. With an established testing infrastructure now in place and the appropriate alterations being made to the schedules, Friar fans can plan on watching PC athletics for the first time since March.
“We’re looking at Nov. 20 for the start date for hockey. They’re planning on 24 games right now,” said Driscoll. “[For men’s basketball] we’re still contemplating during winter break, from Dec. 30 until late January, maybe a possible bubble at Mohegan Sun and/or Omaha. We’ve even talked about Disney, where the NBA teams have played, to play five or six games.”
Men’s basketball will join the women’s basketball team in hosting their home games at Alumni Hall. The men’s team usually hosts their games in downtown Providence at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Games will be at Alumni for the duration of the season, according to Driscoll, “unless in the new year the state opens up the Dunk and they allow people to come in. Then we’ll make a decision on whether we can get enough people down there to make it worth our while to actually rent the building.”
The resumption of sports this winter will certainly be a welcome sight for a campus that has gone without athletics for seven months. Sports and the comradery that they bring is a key part of the culture at PC. Without them, campus has certainly felt far less alive.
“Yeah, it just feels empty,” said Driscoll. “I was talking to my wife the other day, this is my 46th year in college athletics…and I’ve never experienced anything like this; it’s like taking a piece of your entire being away for me personally. I can imagine it’s the same for every student that plays and a lot of the fans. These are really unusual and difficult times because I think we as a culture need to be together in groups to celebrate the good things or the struggles. There’s something about being in a sold-out arena that is so inspiring and uplifting. I think it adds to the quality of our lives, win or lose.”
Besides a pandemic, 2020 has also featured one of the largest civil rights movements since the 1960s. Black Lives Matter protests have brought the systemic inequality in our nation to the forefront of the national dialogue. Driscoll is outspoken on the change that must occur in the U.S., just as is he outspoken on the change that must be enacted on the PC campus.
Three years ago, Driscoll sat down with the women’s basketball coaching staff. He recalls them “hitting him in between the eyes” about how the athletics department and school in general was not doing the best it could do for its BIPOC students and staff. “They shared stories that were very disturbing to me, about how our young men and women of color were treated,” disclosed Driscoll. “It opened my eyes to what we needed to try to do if we were going to be a leader in this world, and one of those things was that we needed to hire more men and women of color.”
The department carried out this vision, hiring top-notch candidates such as Nick Sailor, the director of training and education for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In their five-year strategic plan, they also have guidelines in place “almost like the Rooney Rule in the NFL,” said Driscoll. “Where that in every position we hire for we are going to consciously turn over every stone to try and find men and women of color, from diverse backgrounds, to make our organization better.”
Driscoll also spoke to the efforts of Ivan Thomas, an assistant coach on the men’s basketball staff. Thomas is among the founding members of Coaches for Action, a coalition of all 21 Black men’s basketball assistant coaches in the Big East. “I was able to bring Ivan and the other coaches in front of the ADs of the Big East and they made an amazing presentation,” stated Driscoll. “They proposed that we wear Black Lives Matter patches on our jerseys, and also spoke about really focusing on getting the [student-athlete] vote out, and then raising some money for first-generation students of color scholarships.”
The proposal was universally passed. “I’m really proud and happy about that,” said Driscoll. “But we still have a long way to go.”
To conclude, Driscoll spoke on the recent events surrounding campus, emphasizing the importance of the safety protocols while also sympathizing with the students who have felt the impact of the recent lockdown. “I just wanted to thank all of our students for their hard work,” said Driscoll. “This is not easy work and a lot of times young people get the blame for this stuff, and it’s really not their fault. This is an epidemic that affects us all. So, my message is really just: stay strong, stay together, this will pass, and we’ll be back watching games hopefully in the very near future.”
Friar fans certainly hope all goes according to plan, as the arrival of basketball and hockey will be a major boost to a campus that has seen most of its events shut down. For Driscoll and the entire athletics department, their arrival will be a marker of months of hard work paying off.
And for Driscoll, it will probably provide some sense of normalcy for the first time since that fateful March bus ride to New York City.