UB athletic director confronts his biggest test

Local News

Courtesy of University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–Mark Alnutt has been recognized for years as a rising star in sports administration. The University at Buffalo athletics director is also known as a dedicated family man, a proud husband, and a father of four. 

An athletic department, of course, is like a large extended family. Coaches, players, administrators, support staff — an AD has a lot of people who rely on his leadership. And like any father, you feel a deep responsibility.

You worry. Sometimes, you lie awake at night, wondering if you’re going to get that phone call, delivering bad news. 

“What keeps me up at night is the testing,” Alnutt said recently in a half-hour phone interview. “When I know we’ve administered tests and those results are coming in, I’ll pop up in the middle of the night. It’s almost commonplace for me to do that now, anticipating what the numbers will be.”

This is the life of an AD in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. You teach the student-athletes about the virus protocols, train the staff, make plans, and hope for the best. Sometimes, you pop up to difficult news. 

On Sept. 29, just four days after the Mid-American Conference announced it was going ahead with a six-game football schedule and a week before UB was to begin practice, the school announced that 25 of its athletes — including 19 from the football squad — had tested positive for the virus.

A week later, UB started practice, operating with new MAC football protocols. Everyone involved with the football program is required to undergo point-of-care antigen testing at least four times a week. If a team has test results greater than 5 percent, it has to shut down for seven days.

So there’s even more cause for sleepless nights in the Alnutt household. UB, the MAC favorite, opens its 2020 football season at North Illinois on Nov. 4, three weeks from Wednesday. He hasn’t gotten any bad news since, and things look promising. Still, he worries.

“Right now, I knock on wood,” Alnutt said. “We’ve gotten past the 19 we had back then. Currently, I think we’re at five active cases. Those are going to roll off within the next week, which is good news. 

“It’s all about education,” he said, “for our student-athletes and staff. I’ve had the opportunity in the last couple of weeks to really engage our student-athletes and coaches. When I can do it in person, maintaining the social distancing guidelines and masks, I relay the importance of what they need to do.”

Alnutt pointed out Gov. Cuomo’s edict that any college campus with more than 100 positive COVID-19 cases has to go remote for two weeks. He said there’s been a great effort to impress the athletes to follow the rules.

“if you’re not taking the necessary precautions, if you feel you’re above this and it’s OK to go to a large gathering or walk around without a mask, you jeopardize not only your involvement, but your program’s,” Alnutt said. “We don’t want to be the contributing factor for reaching that 100 number. I’m happy to report we’re not to that point and we’re doing well so far.”

Of course, things can change in an instant nowadays. Alnutt found that out in late winter, when the country, and the sports world, was turned on its head by the coronavirus. 

Alnutt remembers being in Cleveland last March, when the sports world was rocked by the news that Rudy Gobert had tested positive and the NBA was suspending operations. That day, the UB women had lost to Kent State in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals before a reduced crowd.

The following day, he was among 12 MAC athletic directors who met to discuss whether to continue. College sports were shutting down all over America. By Friday, Alnutt was back in Buffalo, speaking in an empty Alumni Arena, announcing the cancellation of UB spring sports.

“I recall that day,” Alnutt said. “It was March 13 (a Friday). I got all our coaches and our senior team together, assistant ADs, and above. We met in a room, in a big circle. That was before the social distance requirements.

“At that time, we had no idea what was going to happen. Our concern was to put players in the best situation. All their life, in sports, they always had a routine. How could we do that? I had concerns. How are we going to communicate? I thrive and lead on having that direct interaction.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Alnutt said. “But the great thing is, you learn a lot. Obviously, you’re learning to work through adversity.”

Nothing prepares you for a pandemic. But Alnutt, a Kansas City native, knows about working through adversity. He was a walk-on football player at Missouri, a linebacker and tight end who eventually earned a scholarship and became a team captain in 1995. 

Alnutt spent a year after college as a salesman for a liquor distributor. But his goal was to coach. He returned to Missouri and became director of operations for the football program. He got his master’s from Mizzou in 2000 and eventually moved into administration as an associate AD.

From 2012-15, He was athletic director at Southeast Missouri State — where his eldest child, Jaren, is now an offensive lineman at the FCS school. In 2015, he became deputy AD at Memphis. Three years later, UB came calling for Alnutt after Allen Greene left to take the AD job at Auburn. 

Alnutt inherited a nice situation. The men’s basketball team had just won its first NCAA tourney game and would spent much of 2018-19 ranked. The women’s team was heading to the Sweet 16. In 2019, the football team won eight games for the second year in a row and won a bowl game.

Then, almost two years to the day from his hiring, Alnutt had the challenge of a lifetime. The pandemic. Suddenly, in addition to scheduling and hiring and the multitude of tasks involved in running a DI college program, he had to worry about canceled seasons, testing and remote learning — not to mention the millions in likely lost revenue. 

“I’m not the only one in this boat,” Alnutt said. “Plenty of our peers are dealing with this pandemic, these social issues, budgets … “

Alnutt estimates that UB will receive about 50 percent of the revenue of a normal year. Football revenues were about $9.7 million last year, roughly 21 percent of the athletic budget. Losing the Ohio State ($1.8 million payout) and Kansas State ($900,000) games was a big hit. It’ll help if the college football bowls and playoff are able to proceed without disruption.

Dealing with the virus costs money, too. Alnutt estimated Covid costs — cleaning, testing, PPE, modifications to facilities — at between $1 million-$1.2 million. Last month, UB launched a fund-raising campaign (#makeitpossibull) to defray those costs and has raised over $200,000.

“You’re learn to lead in a way that your people trust you, that you’re able to provide hope and direction,” Alnutt said. “There will be hurdles along the way. It’s how you navigate through it. I’m fortunate to have a great staff, some great coaches, the foundation I talked about when we first got here.

“It was my job to continue it, which I feel we’ve done. We’re just dealing with this temporary setback right now.”

One benefit of a pandemic is more time with the family — his wife, Kate, and children Jaren, Kinleigh, Mason and Aidan. 

“I’m a huge family person,” Alnutt said. “People who know me in this business know that. I have an active family. I have four kids. For the past, gosh I don’t know, the past 13, 14 years, there’s been those practices and competitions where you’re not around the dinner table at night because you’re at a game or a ballpark or whatever the case might be.”

Alnutt cherished having Jaren back when SEMO went to remote learning (he’s now back at college). At one point, the other kids’ sports activities started up again, but it the family was able to get together for dinner four or five nights a week. It was a great summer. 

“I also felt it was time to make a change in my lifestyle and habits and exercise routine,” he said. “If you saw me, you’d say ‘Who is that guy? Where did Mark Alnutt go?” I’m down 55 pounds, back jogging again, working out, feeling great.”

Mentally, spiritually and physically, UB’s athletic director hasn’t felt so good in years. These are things you can’t measure on a scoreboard, or in a simple test. Oh, Alnutt still worries. And when this pandemic finally comes to and end, that’ll relieve him of the biggest weight of all. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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