CORONAVIRUS

Steve Cook guides Coe athletics during unprecedented times

Recently appointed Athletics Director and longtime baseball coach in unchartered territory due to pandemic impact

Coe baseball coach Steve Cook chats with his team during their practice at Daniels Park in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Ma
Coe baseball coach Steve Cook chats with his team during their practice at Daniels Park in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 7, 2008. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Steve Cook knew this spring would present challenges.

He expected those to come from balancing his duties as Coe’s longtime head baseball coach with the recently acquired duties as athletics director for the Kohawks.

Cook never imagined he would have a promising baseball season snuffed out and the entire department hindered by fallout from a pandemic. In 24 years with Coe, he has been  forced into uncharted territory.

“Hopefully, I’m handling it as well as can be expected,” said Cook, who served 15 years as an assistant director of athletics before being named to the new post in January. “It’s definitely a unique situation.

“It kind of felt like you knew you had a little bit of an immediate tough row to hoe, as far as the baseball season coming up and new job with the AD stuff, but we’d get through that time and get to the summer to get a better direction with everything. That was the thought going in.”

He seemed to be a natural fit. Cook has a passion for Coe athletics. He is a regular at Kohawk events, working or watching football, basketball or wrestling competitions. He even attended the NCAA Division III Lower Midwest regional wrestling meet, supporting the team and Coach John Oostendorp, who started at Coe the same day as Cook.

“I thought Steve was a great and logical choice for AD when there was an opening,” Oostendorp said. “Through the years he has run a first-class program. His goals are to compete at a national level and his work ethic backs that up. He is a strong communicator and a great listener. I have a great deal of respect for Steve and the program he has built at Coe.“

Cook was thrust into an unenviable situation just two months into the position. He had a thriving department that included an American Rivers Conference runner-up men’s basketball team, a regional runner-up wrestling team with two champions and four NCAA qualifiers and a conference tournament qualifier in women’s basketball after a fourth-place finish. Then, all activities came to a screeching halt due to mitigation of the spread of COVID-19.

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The NCAA decided to cancel the remainder of the winter seasons March 12, including the Division III Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, and suspended the spring season. Little time passed before that became a cancellation.

“It’s amazing now to think back on the run of emotions,” Cook said. “To try to recall, if at all possible, the amount of conversations, even the conversation with the players, and where the country has come and ultimately all of what’s going on in society in two weeks.

“You think back to that and it seems so long ago. It wasn’t.”

Cook praised the leadership of Coe President David McInally and his senior staff. He said he has been in contact with other athletics directors, exchanging ideas and discussing plans of action.

He has learned to quickly adapt, adjusting to an ever-changing scenario.

“We spent a lot of time making decisions, speculating on those decisions and then making those decisions,” Cook said. “Those decisions only last 24 to 48 hours and then something new comes out. It could be as high up as the federal government or the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and that trickle down happens or even maybe within the state of Iowa, but it all had a rippling effect every time.”

No blueprint exists for the current situation. Even the most seasoned athletics directors haven’t experienced these circumstances. Cook has handled everything well, according to Oostendorp.

“These are unprecedented times and information seems to be continually changing,” Oostendorp said. “Steve has been very good at communicating with coaches almost daily by email, phone or text.”

Cook, a 1993 All-American as a senior for Allegheny (Pa.) College and member of the Cedar Rapids Kernels 1994 Midwest League championship team, started as a baseball assistant in 1996. He took over the next season and has led the Kohawks to 520 victories, four conference tournament titles and two regular-season championships. Coe has made five NCAA tournament appearances, reaching the super regionals last season.

The Kohawks were picked to win the ARC this season by the league’s coaches. They posted a 3-3 record, beating previously top-ranked Washington (Mo.) University twice and Webster (Mo.), which was No. 2. Coe was a contender to reach the D-III World Series held here at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The players, families and coaches embraced the potential from the end of last season.

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“It was all anybody really talked about,” Cook said. “Just having another opportunity and shot to see if we were good enough to advance. It was unfortunate. It was for the senior class and really all the players.”

On the eve of their annual spring break trip to Florida, Cook had to deliver the news they wouldn’t be traveling or playing again. More than two decades as coach couldn’t help soothe the sting the season, and some of their careers, were done.

“The players were discouraged and probably a little mad,” Cook said. “They were very emotional.

“At that time, it was a lot of surprise or anger, but now see where we are at today, even as a country and everything else, You look back and there is a little perspective. We missed that at the time. Not that these kids don’t deserve to be frustrated that they lost a season or their senior year. Unfortunately, we’re in a pretty trying time beyond that right now.”

To make matters worse, players were scattered when students left campus for spring break. They expected to return, but that changed when Coe switched to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester.

“We haven’t had a lot of opportunity or felt it was the right time, yet, because a lot of students were still trying to figure out when they were going to get back to campus to get my stuff and moving out,” said Cook, who is helping all coaches communicate with student-athletes. “We left campus for spring break not knowing they weren’t coming back.

“We’ll get to them to discuss moving forward and what we want to see. Then, again, so many things are up in the air.”

The NCAA has granted an opportunity for spring sports athletes to reclaim a season of eligibility. Cook held a teleconference with seniors to present their options, provide information and answer questions. More importantly for Cook, he was able to reconnect with his players.

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“One of the topics was trying to educate the guys on whether they wanted to come back and use that year of eligibility,” Cook said. “It was informative but it was also nice to have them all on the call and see them on the video conference. It was good to touch base with those guys and see how everybody was doing.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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