BOISE — There are many disappointments and things that will stick with coach Gary Van Tol when it comes to the end of the Boise State baseball program after just 14 games.
Maybe his only regret? They never took a team picture.
Boise State’s first season in 40 years was shut down abruptly due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, and then the program was disbanded in early July while players were spread out across the country on summer teams.
“The official team photo we were going to have in the spring, we never took it,” Van Tol said. “We don’t even have a team photo. I mean that’s crazy.”
Van Tol spoke with the Idaho Press to reflect back a month later on the decision by Boise State to end the program, and to put closure on a journey that started when he was named head coach in late November 2017.
It took two-plus years of work to get back on the field for the first time since 1980. The Broncos returned with a historic three-game series at national powerhouse Texas in late February and then went 9-2 on a homestand that featured a home opener crowd of more than 3,000 people at Memorial Stadium.
Baseball was back in Boise, and the Broncos seemed to be on the right track. The pandemic changed everything.
A team meeting in March when the season was canceled after just 14 games (the Broncos had a 9-5 record) turned out to be the final time the historic group was gathered together.
“We didn’t even get to say goodbye to each other,” Van Tol said. “We had a lot of unfinished business when everything got shut down. There were still a lot of things we wanted to take care of.”
Both the baseball and swimming and diving teams quickly began trying to raise money to reverse Boise State’s decision after it was announced on July 2. More than $1 million was raised in less than two weeks, which earned Van Tol a chance to try and change athletic director Curt Apsey’s mind.
It didn’t work. Facing a budget deficit due to the pandemic and the possibility that fall football wouldn’t happen, the Broncos stuck with the original decision to cut both sports.
“There was an opportunity to have a conversation and the answer was still no,” Van Tol said. “I think in a week and a half we raised a million dollars, and there was more we could have got. People in the community rallied and said we can get you the money and support the program, we just need a little more time. What we did in a week and a half was remarkable.
“We pleaded our case and had a chance to lay it all out there and let the University know we’re here to help and that we’d do what we could to make sure no student-athlete lost an opportunity to be a Bronco and compete, but at the end of the day it wasn’t meant to be.”
Bowling Green’s baseball program was cut due to the pandemic, but the program quickly raised $3 million and the university reversed the decision. Boise State’s players and coaches were hoping to do the same thing.
“We really thought we could have figured out a way to keep it going,” Van Tol said. “The Bowling Green story was what really gave everybody hope. They made the decision to cut baseball and were able to resurrect it and bring it back because they raised enough money. They raised enough money for three more years and then said they would reevaluate. I think a lot of people were hanging on to that. If Bowling green could do it, sure as heck Boise State could.”
Van Tol noted a recent fundraising campaign started by the University and wondered why it wasn’t started earlier to try and save the baseball and swimming and diving teams from having to be cut.
“You see this big campaign now to raise all this money,” Van Tol said. “We could have started that in July and maybe saved a couple programs. But it is what it is. ... Whether you agree or disagree, it’s the decision that was made that the University felt was best for them, but the support that has come after the decision was overwhelming and unbelievable.”
An added storyline was Van Tol’s family connection to Boise State. His wife Christina is the Deputy Athletic Director and Senior Woman Administrator and likely would have been involved in the decision to cut baseball, although Gary wouldn’t say whether she knew before Apsey informed him of the news.
“Swimming and diving was one of her sports also, so she was connected in a lot of different ways,” Van Tol said. “It’s unique, but we’ve both been in athletics a long time and we’ve worked together at other institutions and she’s a professional and a pro and how she’s handled it has not been surprising to me. We had no problem with separating our professional relationship, working relationship and personal relationship.
“There’s some people that had no problem that we were married and working in the same department and I’m sure there were others that maybe weren’t as comfortable. ... I told people all the time, she’d be the first one to fire me if we weren’t winning enough games and I wasn’t carrying my weight. I’m serious.”
Van Tol also said his daughter Amaia’s attempt to save the program by starting a GoFundMe page online that raised more than $60,000 in a week was “unbelievable” and said “who was I to tell her to stop and not fight for what she believes in. It was a proud moment as a dad.”
Van Tol still has his office at Memorial Stadium and plans to continue working with the nine players that elected to stay at Boise State this year in hopes of helping them land transfer opportunities next spring. He’s under contract for two more years, but said he’ll stay and help as long as any of his players remain on campus.
More than half of Boise State’s roster transferred to Division I teams, including five that landed at Power 5 schools.
“It’s still going to take some time, but I feel blessed for the opportunity that I got to start baseball at Boise State after 40 years and I think we did it right,” Van Tol said. “I just feel crushed for our players and families that we couldn’t finish what we started and it came to such an abrupt end.
“We’ll look back at it some day and be better for it and move on, but for now we’re still here doing everything we can to help. And Christi is doing her part in her role to lead the athletic department and do what she can to keep this ship afloat during these trying times.”
Trying to digest and comprehend the end of the program after one shortened season wasn’t something Van Tol ever expected to do. He maintains there wasn’t anything he or the program could have done differently – and he’ll forever keep his head held high for what they accomplished.
“I’m just proud of all our guys for how they handled it and what they were able to do and it’s just a testament to the guys we brought in here and what they believed in and why they came here,” Van Tol said. “I know there’s a lot of guys that will do great things and a lot of people will be following them and everybody will know where they started. I look forward to following their journeys and hopefully meet up with them sometime down the road.
“I think we’ll have to figure out a way to all get back together at some point and get the band to play one more time and put closure on it. That’s the biggest thing, getting everybody together so we can put closure on it and move on. We never got that chance.”
Maybe they can finally take that team picture, too.