OLEAN, N.Y. (WIVB) — Mark Schmidt isn’t sure about much these days. The coronavirus is a sinister, unpredictable foe. Who can say what it has in store for the coming weeks and months? No one knows when the next college basketball season will start, or if there will be a season at all.

But the St. Bonaventure head coach knows one thing. The next time he stands on that home sideline for a game in the Reilly Center, doing the thing he loves best in all the world, he will treasure it just a little bit more.

“No question,” Schmidt said Monday by phone. “It’s like anything. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

Coaches are intensely competitive souls; they are also creatures of routine. They’re captives of seasons, systems and schedules, trained from an early age to grind from one year to the next, attuned to the familiar rhythms of the job.

Last March 12, the Bonnies were in Brooklyn, preparing to take on George Mason in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn. The game was never played. The sports world came to a halt that day as the grim reality of COVID-19 began to settle over the nation.

Schmidt spent the next four and a half months away from his team, wondering, like the rest of America, when the pandemic would finally permit life to return to reality. 

“You can spend more time with your family, and that’s a positive,” Schmidt said. “But we love to coach. We like to make guys better. We’re competitive. It’s been an emptiness, it really has. You wake up in the morning and you don’t have that drive that you usually have.”

Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. St. Bonaventure Bonnies in their James Naismith Classic basketball game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada, 16 November 2019.

For Schmidt and his assistants, the off-season routine ground to a stop. No workouts with the players. No summer camp circuit. No gatherings with other coaches.

“Nothing,” said Schmidt, who is entering his 14th season as Bona head man. “Nothing. It’s almost like you wake up in the morning and say ‘What do I do today?’ Seriously. We couldn’t come in to our office. We did all the stuff at home. I really commend people that are successful and productive at home. I don’t know how people do that.

“It’s like I sit down, watch some tape and go to the refrigerator to get some food,” he said. “Or I go to the couch and fall asleep. For me, when you go into the office, that’s the time to WORK. And when you’re home, that’s the time to relax. That’s all changed. It hasn’t been fun, I can tell you that.”

A lot of the fun of coaching is the connections. College basketball is a culture of networking, but COVID-19 requires distancing; it’s the enemy of networking. For more than four months, Schmidt connected via computer. 

“I had no idea what Zoom was. No idea,” Schmidt said. “My assistants are saying, ‘We have to do Zoom with the recruits. I’m like ‘Zoom?’ They set it up and it looks like Hollywood Squares. I’ve got a lot better at the technology part of this business. We’ve done a lot of Zooms. 

“But you can’t go out and evaluate players,” he said. “Everything is on tape, which is scary. You just can’t tell. And just not having the players back. In May, they would have been here, the whole month of May and June, go home for 10 days and come back.”

Thankfully, Schmidt is getting back into the routine. The Bona players returned to campus on July 18-19 (the women’s team came a week later). All the players had to test negative for the coronavirus twice — once at home and again after arriving on campus. 

FEB 1, 2019, St Bonaventure, NY: St Bonaventure men’s basketball game against the Davidson Wildcats at the Bob Lanier Court at the Reilly Center. Photo by Craig Melvin

There were 50 tests in the basketball departments. Late last week, they got the results and all 50 — 23 players and 27 employees — tested negative for the virus. 

“We were lucky,” Schmidt said. “No one was positive. The hard thing is that (Gov.) Cuomo has all those hot states. Players from those states have to quarantine when they come here. Jaylin Adaway from Indiana had to. Alpha Okoli from California.

“They have to go into a dorm and just stay there for 14 days. They’re in a suite, so it’s a little bigger. We have to bring them breakfast, lunch and dinner. We bring them weights so they can do some stuff. But they have to stay inside all the time.”

Schmidt said some of the players don’t take the virus threat seriously enough. Hey, they’re kids, a bunch of impressionable, energetic 18-22 year-olds who think they’re immortal. The big concern is what will happen will the rest of the St. Bonaventure students come back to school, which starts three weeks from Monday on Aug. 24. 

The university will have a COVID-19 testing apparatus on campus to test athletes, who must fill out a health screening form daily before going to class or workouts. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant will be on hand in all buildings. Coaches and players will be required to wear masks at all times.

“I think we have a great plan,” Schmidt said. “But you’re asking 18 to 22-23 year old kids to be disciplined. That’s a concern. Will they have the discipline? Will they take it seriously? That’s the question.”

No one has all the answers. The basketball season is still up in the air. The A-10 postponed fall sports but allowed for a look-in window in mid-September. Hoop season remains on schedule for November, but there’s speculation that the season might be reduced to conference games only — the plan in much of college football.

Schmidt said if he were a betting man, he’d predict that the hoop season would be delayed until January, with only A-10 conference games and the postseason.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “I think a lot has to do with how football goes. I don’t know. I hope we have a full season, for our players. Those guys work so hard, so to just have a half a year would be a shame. But we’re at the mercy of the virus.

“Some people are talking about starting the season late but having the whole season, then trying to push the Final Four back until May or June. So there’s a lot of scenarios.”

Regardless of when it starts, it’s unlikely that fans will be at the games, at least at the start. Gov. Cuomo announced two weeks ago that fans won’t be permitted to attend pro or college sports in the fall. There’s been no edict on winter sports. Basketball straddles the fall and winter seasons. 

Talk about emptiness. The thought of games at the Reilly Center with no fans is hard to contemplate. That gym is the emotional center of that small town in hoop season.

“The crowd really, really supports us,” Schmidt said. “There’s not many places in the country that get the support we have. And if we don’t have that crowd, the students and community, we’ll take a hit. We won’t be as effective at home. That’s a fact.

“I just hope we have a season. Every day you hear different things. It’s so fluid.”

NOV 28, 2018, St. Bonaventure NY: St. Bonaventure during the St Bonaventure vs Canisius. Photo by Craig Melvin

At least he’s back at work, getting ready for a new season. Schmidt can joke about falling asleep on the couch, but during his time in Olean he has lifted the Bonnies from the depths of scandal and built them a perennial contender in one of the top mid-major leagues in the America. 

Schmidt has 229 victories, the most in school history. Bona has six straight seasons of double-digit A-10 wins and has won at least 18 games seven years in a row.

There’s great anticipation for this season. Schmidt returns three juniors who were part of Bona’s surprising run to the A-10 tourney final as freshman: Kyle Lofton, Osun Osunniyi and Dominick Welch. And Schmidt is renowned for players getting better from year to year.

“We have really good players,” he said. “Now it’s how much can we improve from when we came on campus last week until whenever the season starts. But I’m blessed we have most of our guys back, veterans who have been successful.”

Schmidt said it should be easier for a veteran team to develop after a pandemic. The foundation is already there. He’s excited to get started again. He’s not the only one.

“You can see the joy in the kids’ faces,” he said. “They were looking forward to coming back. Like we missed coaching, they missed playing. Hopefully, they can stay safe, because that’s the priority, keeping them safe. Basketball, even though we love it, has to be secondary.”

And boy, has he missed it.


Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.