EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Two hours after Washington State arrived in traditional fashion for the 88th annual Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl on Sunday, Miami was forced to pull out of participating in the game due to COVID-19 issues.
Sun Bowl officials said on Sunday evening that the bowl has not yet been cancelled and that they are actively searching for a replacement team. An answer should come by Monday evening; however, if a replacement team cannot be found, COVID-19 is likely to cancel the Sun Bowl for the second year in a row.
It’s a turn of events that wasn’t surprising, given that the Hurricanes announced they had COVID-19 issues last week and initially pushed back their arrival time in El Paso for the game from Dec. 26 to Dec. 30, the day before the New Year’s Eve kickoff.
The news was first reported by The Action Network’s Brett McMurphy. KTSM 9 Sports was able to confirm Miami’s withdrawal a short time later. It is currently unclear if another team would be able to take the Hurricanes’ place.
“We are extremely disappointed that our football team will be unable to participate in the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl,” Miami Deputy Director of Athletics/Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Strawley said. “But due to the number of COVID-19 cases impacting our roster we do not have enough student-athletes to safely compete, and the health and safety of our student-athletes will always be our top priority. This team worked hard all season to earn a bowl invitation and my heart goes out to our student-athletes, especially our seniors. I also want to thank Interim Head Coach Jess Simpson and our football staff for all of their efforts in preparation for this bowl game.
“We regret the impact this has on the Washington State program and their postseason experience. I want to commend the Sun Bowl Association for their tireless work in helping us navigate this situation over the past several days. We are grateful for their support as an Atlantic Coast Conference bowl partner.”
Miami officials told the Sun Bowl that their team was trending in the right direction, before allowing players to go home for Christmas. When they returned, more positive cases were discovered, leading to the Hurricanes having to pull out of the bowl.
Now it’s on the Sun Bowl to try to find a replacement team, with just four days to spare. Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas told KTSM on Sunday night that the bowl was looking at all possibilities. There are potential teams in the mix that could potentially fill in, however, McMurphy reported on Sunday evening that East Carolina, Memphis and SMU, the teams affected by cancelled bowls would not be filling in.
That would leave a 5-7 team that did not qualify for a bowl to take Miami’s place; Olivas said there were a few teams on their radar for that. Stephen F. Austin, an FCS team, expressed interest on social media, but it is unclear how the NCAA would or could approve an FCS team to play in an FBS bowl game, particularly on four days notice.
“We’re looking at everyone right there that could probably still play. Some of those (bowl-eligible) teams have already disbanded and gone home but we’re looking at some that could possibly be available,” said Olivas. “We would look at all the 5-7 teams according to APR but some of those have already declined to play in a bowl game. We’re looking to find an opponent for Washington State and within 24 hours we’ll know whether there will be an opponent or not.”
Olivas told KTSM that it had become a team effort between the Sun Bowl, Washington State and even the ACC and Miami, to try to find a replacement team. Logistically, it could be difficult to get any team to El Paso to play the game on just four days notice.
That task becomes even more difficult for any potential 5-7 teams, that have not been practicing since the end of the regular season because they were not bowl eligible, and therefore thought their seasons were over.
Still, the search for a replacement team presses on, with Washington State head coach Jake Dickert even putting out a call to action on Twitter Sunday evening.
“We’ve already put in the time and effort the last few weeks. We earned this game and we feel like we deserve to play one,” said Washington State defensive lineman Ron Stone Jr. “We’ve done all the time and we want to find a team to play. We want to be out here and find a team to play.”
The Sun Bowl was trying to formulate a plan on Sunday night, but even before Miami pulled out, Olivas didn’t seem confident on Sunday afternoon, while also recognizing that the idea of finding a replacement team could happen. Olivas told KTSM shortly before Washington State arrived on Sunday afternoon that there was no back-up plan in place, should Miami withdraw, unless it happened imminently.
“I think it’s too late in the game unless it happened right now,” Olivas said on Sunday afternoon. “Those teams that were cancelled on, they might be available right now, but any later than this, it would probably be impossible to get anybody. To be honest with you, we’re counting on Miami and Washington State. As far as a backup plan, because we are where we are we don’t have one right now, I think it’s too late to start looking for someone to be a replacement team.”
Three bowl games have already been canceled this bowl season due to COVID-19 issues: the Hawaii Bowl between Hawaii and Memphis; the Fenway Bowl between SMU and Virginia; and the Military Bowl between Boston College and East Carolina. Boston College, Hawaii and Virginia were the three teams forced to pull out due to COVID issues.
The Cougars touched down in the Sun City and were greeted by Mariachis and Folklorico dancers on the tarmac at El Paso International Airport. Head coach Jake Dickert received a crimson sombrero, donning it to dance with his daughter, as players danced to music in the airplane hangar.
Washington State’s stay in El Paso could be cut short if the Sun Bowl can’t find a replacement team. Before Miami backed out, Dickert remained positive.
“We can only control what we can control. We’re excited to be here and we’re going to live up the festivities,” said Dickert.