'A really difficult, emotional meeting': St. Thomas coach John Tauer reflects on Covid-19 cancelling NCAA Tournament

The St. Thomas men's basketball team had its season come to an abrupt end before the NCAA Sweet 16 match-up at rival St. John's due to the Coronavirus pandemic. ( (credit: University of St. Thomas Athletics) )

The St. Thomas men’s basketball team was preparing for the biggest game of its season when the Coronavirus pandemic shut the sports world down. The Tommies, ranked No. 4 in Division III, were getting ready to face rival and No. 2-ranked St. John’s in the NCAA Sweet 16. About 48 hours before the highly-anticipated tipoff, the NCAA canceled March Madness and all remaining winter tournaments.

Two teams that were a combined 53-5 would never get the chance to battle for a trip to the Elite 8. Their season was over due a virus, a global pandemic, that they had no control over. Fox 9’s Jeff Wald caught up with St. Thomas coach John Tauer this week to talk about one of the toughest team meetings he’s ever had, and how life has changed for him as a coach, psychology professor and parent in the last month.

When you’re away from basketball and away from school, what do you do to stay busy at home?

My sons, we like to go shoot hoops a lot. We’ve been playing a lot of Monopoly, it’s actually brought me back to my childhood almost. Every night my sons are like let’s play Monopoly, so we’re all hunkered down doing that. It’ll be like midnight and they’ll have online school, but it’s not the same as regular school. With my older son Jack, we’ll play pick-up basketball and he’ll be like let’s go, we’re running it back, we’re playing another one because he loses and he’s pissed off. It’s been really fun that way, we’re doing a lot of board games, ping pong. The other day he bulked ordered like 100 ping pong balls, a dozen foosballs so it’s like we’ve got the Olympics between ping pong, foosball, Monopoly and shooting outside. It’s made me reflect, it’s made me stop and how much of it is we’re all just here at the same time. Good family things happen.

You’re a head basketball coach and a psychology professor. How has Coronavirus changed the way you approach teaching?

I think teaching the great uncertainty with sort of how could we deliver content in a way that was really valuable but also sensitive to the students’ different situations? Some of them were living in their apartments off campus, all of them are living the dorms. I think it’s trying to balance those two things. It’s remembering to be flexible. Most classes are pass/fail option, so just in terms of being sensitive to students’ different stressors, different situations right now and trying to accommodate them while also realizing that at the end of the day, I want the class to be as similar as possible.

The day that our game got canceled was a Thursday, we were scheduled to play on Saturday. Stuff had started happening the week before and certainly the night before with Rudy Gobert. I remember walking into the class, like I didn’t ad lib walking into the class, I said my gut tells me this is the last time I’m going to see all these students together. So we jumped ahead three chapters. We were talking about alcohol and drugs and the motivation for alcohol and drugs, we jumped ahead to stress and spent the day talking about stress, healthy ways we might cope with these things. Just trying to keep in mind perspective of where students are coming from and certainly this is something that’s new to all of us. I’m certainly adjusting to it as a coach, an educator and also as a parent.

How has Coronavirus changed your approach as a coach?

Right now it’s a lot of electronic communication. It’s very different. At this time of the year we were hoping to be playing in the Final 4 and hopefully a national championship appearance. That didn’t happen. I also coach an AAU team and my son is a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall. I coach a team that I’ve coached for the last several years, normally we would be getting ready for tournaments and that’s off. It’s brought everybody inside their own homes more, which there are a lot of blessings to that. I think as a coach, the best thing we can hope for with our players right now is that they’re healthy and safe, and they do all the right things. There will be time for them to work out and get back into things, but right now just make sure they’re healthy and safe with their families.

How do you keep in touch with your current players and how do they seem mentally?

Zoom meetings and I’d say even more than that, just texts and calls. You want to make sure they’re OK and there’s some measure of comfort with them being with their families, a majority of them are back home. I think by-and-large, there’s the general interruption of our academic year and there’s the interruption of our season, and when and how that happened. How abrupt it was, and I’m really proud of our guys. I think they handled it as well as could be, given how disappointing and somewhat sudden it was.

What was the week of practice leading up to facing St. John’s like with the uncertainty of Covid-19?

You even go back a week further. We had had a great regular season, St. John’s did as well. We were both ranked in the top four in the country, and we got sent on the road in the NCAA Tournament. I think that was surprising to most people, and I thought our guys handled that exceptionally well. We got a tough draw, playing St. Norbert and Platteville. That first weekend, there was already that feeling that Coronavirus was going to impact games in some profound way. You started to see this is a really big deal on a global scale and it’s not going to go away any time soon.

That week of practice with St. John’s, more and more schools were saying either family only or no spectators at all. Tuesday they were selling tickets to the schools, Wednesday it was open to the public at noon, it was sold out at 12:15 p.m. From being a sellout to Wednesday night we got word that it was just going to be families. Thursday morning as stuff started happening with conference tournaments, I think it was in the back of everybody’s mind that there was a chance we won’t play. It was 3:24 p.m. when we found out, and we had film at 3:30 so we were finishing a coaches meeting, packing our stuff up and heading down to talk to the team. All the sudden we got word that the NCAA canceled everything. That’s what ended up being a really difficult, emotional meeting. Five minutes later, instead of talking to the team on how we were prepping for a Sweet 16 opponent, it was talking about how our season had ended abruptly.

Take me inside that team meeting. What was it like?

I think as a coach, you prepare for a lot. You certainly are prepared for those years where your season ends, and those are difficult locker rooms. It’s funny, we’ve been fortunate twice to win national titles. You end up not going back to the locker room after that. All the years that we’ve ended on a loss, you have that last locker room moment and those are always difficult. So two Thursday’s ago was unlike any one that we’ve ever had. I think every other coach around the country would tell you it’s not something you prepare for. One of the things that I tried to talk about was perspective. This is bigger than us, as heartbroken as all of us were, part of what sports prepares us to do is make a difference in the world. This was going to be one opportunity, how we handle this. Each one of us can impact public health by being smart and safe during this time.

As someone who played for St. Thomas, does it get any better than playing St. John’s in the Sweet 16?

I think the only time the schools had played (in that situation) was my sophomore year back in 1993. We played them four times that year. That’s part of life that’s not easy. If you were to draw up a script and say we’ve got one of the best rivalries in the country and they’re playing to go to the Elite. They’re both ranked in the top four in the country with an incredible following, that sounds like a Disney movie. To lose that opportunity, as a coach I’m certainly sad and disappointed. I also feel worse for the student athletes because this is a special night in their lives. On paper that sounds unfair to have an opportunity like that taken away, the reality is we were blessed and grateful to have the season that we had and I think St. John’s feels the same way.

St. Thomas finished 19-1 in the MIAC as well as St. John’s. What made your group special this year?

This is the first time in conference history that two teams went 19-1. They ended up having to have a coin flip to figure out who would host the MIAC finals. I think our team this year embodied the values of our program, where we weren’t the biggest team, we weren’t the strongest team, we weren’t the fastest team. We didn’t start anybody over 6-4. But we played a lot of guys, I thought they were really unselfish, we led the country in fewest turnovers. We took a lot of three-point shots, we played fast. Just overall I thought it was a team that played in a style that both fit their personalities and their skill sets, but it also fit really what our mission is at St. Thomas: Work together, be tough-minded and unselfish. It was a joy coaching them, I can tell you that.

What do you tell your returning players to do in terms of getting shots up and staying in shape during Covid-19?

I was joking with a high school coach and friend in Chicago, we were jokingly saying this is like the old days. There’s no organized pick-up, there’s no AAU, there’s no personal trainers. It’s almost like a Rocky movie, get out and run, go down to your basement and do push-ups, sit-ups, wall sits. Go work on your ball-handling, go work on your shooting. I think there’s plenty that guys can do and one of the things that we always talk about is if you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re going to love doing it. You’re going to find a way to do that. The other thing is we just finished our season, by NCAA rules we can’t work with our guys until October 15. In terms of being hands-on, this is no different. As a coach, this is the time of the year we’re really hands-off and if we recruited the right guys, they’re going to be working hard on their own. They’re going to have to be a little more creative in terms of how they do that and where they do that. All we’re really encouraging them to do is get rested from a long season. We went five months and weren’t even done, that takes a toll on their bodies. Right now it’s for them to be with their families, to be safe and healthy, make sure their bodies feel good and then get into a routine after that.