It may have been God’s timing, but in many ways it didn’t feel perfect when Crystal Rosenthal ’02, MCAA ’07, was named CUI interim athletic director the very month (March 2020) that the world went into Covid lockdowns. But with Rosenthal, a self-described “diehard Concordia loyalist,” at the helm, the athletic department’s response and strategy helped CUI set the standard for operating sports programs safely during a season of restrictions.
“It was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Rosenthal says of the circumstance she encountered on her first day in a new role. “We all knew it would be challenging.”
At that time, nobody fathomed that some schools would remain closed for the rest of the year. Losing spring sports was hard enough on athletes and coaches.
“For me as a softball coach, it was devastating to stop being together and competing,” Rosenthal says. “I felt so strongly that people need to be around something normal, doing something physical like an athlete is used to doing.”
Other athletics directors and coaches around the country felt the same way, but it was CUI that led the way in returning to play in the fall of 2020, safely and effectively, and as a result, Rosenthal fielded calls from many athletics leaders and coaches in other states seeking her advice.
“Our athletics team here at Concordia takes pride in the work that went into this response, and the unity of our campus, how everyone came together to pull off something not many people in California have done,” she says. “Little old Concordia Irvine did it. I think it catapults us into a new era and onto a new stage. We’re going to be a little different, cutting edge, not afraid to be the best Concordia we can be. I tell my teams, don’t worry about what everybody else is doing — worry about what we’re doing."
The Waiting Game
But in the initial stages, no sports were competing, causing real frustration among student-athletes.
“They lost sports seasons and social lives at the most social time of their lives,” Rosenthal says. “When you lose something you love and the ability to do it — it’s real. It’s relentless and trying, but our student-athletes adapted well and trusted the coaching staff and the University.”
Rosenthal met twice a week with PacWest conference representatives and was in close contact with CUI's director of health services, Michelle Laabs, who worked closely with the Orange County Health Care Agency. But each time things seemed to be starting up again, new restrictions slammed the door shut, sidelining student-athletes. After a while, large colleges and universities, including the entire CSU system, announced they would remain online throughout 2020.
That’s when CUI, under new president, Dr. Michael Thomas, decided on a different course. Listening to students and other CUI constituencies, he and the cabinet made plans to open the residence halls, offer limited in-person classes, and bring athletes back to compete, no matter what their season might look like.
“It was cool that the leadership wasn’t looking around to see what everyone else was doing,” Rosenthal says. “Dr. Thomas said, ‘Do you think we can pull this off?’ We said, ‘We think we can. We think we have a pretty good plan.’ It was great to see Concordia become the leader in trying something.”
Students especially expressed eagerness to return and compete in whatever way they could.
“Students were willing to come back to campus even though they were taking classes online in their dorms,” Rosenthal says. “They wanted to be with teammates, get their bodies and minds what they needed, mentally, physically and emotionally, which is what athletics creates. … That’s what kept us hunkered down together: We all want the same thing, so we sat tight, kept pulling together and moved forward as best we could. We said we’re going to do this as safely and resourcefully and competitively as we can."
Rosenthal and her team of Glory Fung, Brittany Pereda, Andrea Riche, and Ben Rosehart war-roomed the situation early on and began to plan what the fall might look like.
“You just have to figure it out,” Rosenthal says. “We got in a room with a white board and said, ‘Okay, here’s what we’ll do.’”
One challenge was creating enough space for all teams to lift weights without crowding together.
“We don’t have enough space in a normal year to lift, so that’s a challenge anyway,” Rosenthal says. “If we were going to come back in the fall and try to get this to happen, we had to spread out and have more equipment. It gets touched too many times to effectively clean. That’s where we started.”
I felt so strongly that people need to be around something normal, doing something physical like an athlete is used to doing.
Tim Odle, Vice President, Athletics, Enrollment and Facility Services, agreed to purchase additional weights, platforms and other equipment to expand the number of weight rooms from one to four. His team also added outdoor areas for lifting and exercise, and provided cleaning carts for every facility.
“We had cleaning carts we called the Ghostbuster machines. You could clean everything quickly. It was extremely helpful,” Rosenthal says. “Our student-athletes did a good job as it became part of their routine.”
Rosenthal’s leadership team then scheduled each sports team for each weight room at a specific time, with the help of NCAA guidelines on how to navigate risks per sport. Then the CUI athletics team created its own internal master document to map out how to return each team to campus, where and with whom student-athletes would live, and how teams would start practicing.
“It required a tremendous amount of teamwork on campus,” Rosenthal says. “Five hundred and forty-four athletes is a lot for a university of our size. Figuring out how to serve that population, we had to be resourceful and work well as a team. We have a small but mighty group of people who pulled this off.”
Laabs, director of health services, proved a critically important resource for Rosenthal’s teams and their abundance of questions. Because of their planning, CUI was the only university in the PacWest conference’s SoCal area to bring student-athletes back to campus as early as it did, starting practices a full month or two before anyone else. Not only that, but outbreaks were limited — mostly driven by social contact outside of games and practices — and never forced teams to stop practicing.
For this reason, other athletic directors and coaches nationwide — including PacWest Commissioner Bob Hogue — sought advice from Rosenthal’s team on how to create models and procedures allowing teams to return to play.
“They were encouraged simply by the fact that we were opening and moving forward,” Rosenthal says. “They asked us a lot of questions about how were we doing testing? How were we getting back to practice? What did our procedures look like?”
She freely shared the internal document they had created with athletics directors in NCAA Divisions I and II across the country. The document highlighted points of concern and how to resolve those, mapping out how to return to play.
“Across the board, athletics directors and coaches leaned on each other,” Rosenthal says. “Normally, you don’t want to ask a competitor for help, but it was all hands on deck. You can’t compete without other people.” Still, with teams coming back, it wasn’t clear the Eagles would even have anybody to play.
“Nobody knew what was coming,” Rosenthal says. “We didn’t have schedules. A large public school conference in California had announced they weren’t participating in the fall. Now we were scrambling because we needed enough games to get a minimal schedule.” Students, too, needed extra time to get back into game-day shape.
“Many of our student-athletes didn’t have access to a gym and hadn’t been doing any training,” Rosenthal says. “We started with very low-risk stuff, introduced exercises little by little. We had a percentage-based model of how much you can lift.”
A Knowledge of the Field
Rosenthal had played softball for the Eagles — catcher and third base positions — and served in a variety of roles on campus: assistant coach, director of intramural sports, wellness center receptionist, academic advisor, head softball coach and now athletics director. But it was her strategic thinking that added value now.
“I was a minimally-talented athlete, but what made me good was that I was knowledgeable of the field and understood my teammates and their motivations,” she says. “Those were my natural gifts — seeing a bigger picture and figuring out what my role needed to be to help the team win.”
Over the summer, the administration dropped the “interim” from Rosenthal’s title and gave her a clear path to lead the program into the future. “I love this place and believe God does amazing things here,” she says. “I marvel at the opportunities I’ve had here. You have to love what you do to try to pull off what we did.”
A Revelation on the Court
When restrictions were finally lifted enough so that the Eagles men’s basketball team could travel to Pepperdine to play their first game, “It was like watching a miracle on the court,” Rosenthal says. “I didn’t even care how we did. This year is not even about the competition. It’s been great to see our athletes in person, walking through gyms, on track, seeing Eagles shirts on campus. Winning has been secondary — though I will not be saying that when softball seasons starts. I had wondered if sports would ever come back, or was this over?”
She says her team is indebted to Dr. Thomas and the University leadership for the faith they placed in the athletics staff. “Dr. Thomas trusts people where he has them, and that’s so vital,” she says. “Dr. Krueger did, too, and the administration has allowed athletics to run athletics and supported us in doing that.”
As sports start to compete again, students are “fired up to get back together and do what they love,” Rosenthal says. “That’s why I’m driven to keep going every day.” Because of CUI’s help, a number of programs across the country feel the same way.