116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Northern Iowa’s trimmed-down Panther Caravan came to a close Tuesday night in Swisher at Cedar Ridge Winery.
Athletics director David Harris said the caravan has been a much needed opportunity to say “thank you” in person to fans who offered support throughout the unprecedented challenges of the past 18 months amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From my standpoint a big thing has just been thank you. Thank you for what you’ve done to help us, thank you for your patience, thank you for continuing to support us because we know the past 16, 17, 18 months have been challenging for everyone,” Harris said.
With fans poised to return to events this fall, the financial shortfalls of the past year-and-a-half are beginning to course correct back toward normal. Add to that the department’s successful effort with its #UNIFight Initiative — a fundraising effort born specifically to combat pandemic-related shortfalls — that raised $750,000 and circumstances are not nearly as bleak as they could be right now.
“When we went into the campaign we didn’t know exactly where we would end up, but I can honestly say that where we ended up was beyond what most of us thought we would be able to raise during that period of time,” Harris said. “We’re so appreciative of so many people who were willing to step up — somewhere between 400 and 500 individuals made donations of varying amounts to be able to help us get to $750,000.”
While circumstances have trended back to normal, financially and socially, the COVID-19 Delta variant lingers as the fall and winter sports seasons approach. All of the department’s employees have seen their temporary pay cuts cease and most have returned to their on-campus offices after months of remote work
When it comes to the Delta variant, Harris told The Gazette they’re constantly monitoring guidance from the NCAA, CDC and local health officials to continue to do what’s necessary to keep fans and student-athletes safe.
He didn’t, however, have firm numbers of teams’ vaccination rates.
“I’ve been looking at the vaccination rates of our student-athletes, including our football players on a regular basis, and trying to get those numbers as high as we can possibly get them,” Harris said. “I have not seen the numbers here recently. I can say that the last time I had a conversation about this they were lower than I anticipated. So we are continuing our efforts to make sure we can get those numbers up.”
Beyond getting back in front of fans, navigating financial shortfalls and COVID-19, the department’s fundraising efforts made construction possible this summer for an outdoor turf practice field for football as well as a team room in the northeast corner of the UNI-Dome.
With those two projects nearing completion, Harris said the next facility upgrade of consequence for football will be the long-awaited renovation of the UNI-Dome. He expects to make an official, detailed announcement regarding their plan late this year or in early 2022.
“We’ve actually been working on and working behind the scenes to try and prepare for the Dome renovations for the past year-and-a-half or two years,” Harris said. “We contracted with a company to come in and do a study for us and put together some renderings and we’ve actually begun fundraising for the Dome renovations. Most importantly, we’re excited.”