CARBONDALE — Jeremy Chinn went from starting for SIU's football team to starting for the Carolina Panthers. The men's basketball team went 16-16 in coach Bryan Mullins' first season and began 7-0 this season. The baseball and softball teams ended their 2020 seasons on five and nine-game winning streaks, respectively. The men's swimming team scored more points at the Mid-American Conference championship since joining the league 12 years ago, and the women's team set six school records at the conference championship.
SIU lost several graduate assistants and more than a million dollars in lost revenue in 2020, but the year wasn't without some high points. Chinn, who led the Panthers in tackles after moving down to linebacker, is in the conversation for NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. He was one of five former Salukis on active NFL rosters this year, the most in decades, and something SIU athletic director Liz Jarnigan didn't look past when looking back on 2020.
"Obviously, we're very proud of Jeremy Chinn and very hopeful that 2021 will bring even more deserved recognition for him, based on how he's been so productive in the NFL as a rookie," she said. "Baseball and softball, when they had their seasons shut down, they were both on winning streaks. With baseball, they had a signature victory over USC. Softball had won, I think, 15 of its last 16 games when we had to shut them down. Track and field was going very well. The men and the women had just earned second place at the indoor championships. We were sending an individual to the NCAA championships before they were shut down. Swimming and diving set a number of records before they had to shut down."
The coronavirus gave the Salukis a heavy financial hit well before last fall's events were all closed to the public. SIU was able to host one football game, a top-25 matchup against regional rival Southeast Missouri State the Salukis pulled out 20-17 on a last-second field goal, but only players' family members were allowed in. During the 2018-19 school year, fans bought $1.11 million in tickets, of which $660,825 came from men's basketball games. Fans bought just under $7,000 in women's basketball tickets and $379,476 in football tickets. The Salukis also made more than $427,000 in programs, parking and concessions.
All three of those sports, in addition to baseball, softball, swimming and diving, track and field and volleyball, are scheduled to compete beginning next month. Women's soccer and golf are also scheduled to return to competition this spring.
Unfortunately, as of today, Illinois is not allowing its schools to have fans at its home events. High school football and basketball haven't been called off, but local coaches are not holding their breath they'll start practicing any time soon. Just like Southern Illinois' local high schools, who lost ticket revenue for their various holiday tournaments in December and are expected to lose their mid-winter events this month, SIU is trying to stay afloat without its ticket revenue.
"It is the second-biggest challenge we'll have in 2021, second behind managing against the COVID-19 virus," Jarnigan said. "There's no way you give up season tickets, and tickets to events like football and basketball without feeling the pain. That'll be the next challenge, but with challenge comes opportunity. It's my opportunity to come up with solutions, and work with campus leadership to try to come up with solutions and be as creative as possible, and get the problem fixed. It's certainly not a problem that's unique to us."
To try to drive season-ticket purchases, the Salukis have begun holding private events for those fans that commit for 2020-21. Former men's basketball coach Chris Lowery spoke to some season-ticket holders earlier this season, and football coach Nick Hill held a special virtual meeting for season-ticket holders on the first day of the December signing period. SIU held a rummage sale last October and started a COVID-19 Relief Fund in December. Jarnigan is still working through other ways to connect with donors without meeting with them in person.
For now, as the calendar turns to 2021, she is focused on SIU's 300-plus student-athletes and her own staff. The Salukis are scheduled to host four Missouri Valley Conference championships, three in Carbondale and one in St. Charles, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis (women's golf). SIU is scheduled to host the women's swimming and diving championship in April, the baseball tournament in May, and the outdoor track and field championship in May.
"We're competitors. We're talking a lot about endurance," Jarnigan said. "When you have 131 events in 150 days that we'll be hosting, when we're wanting to put our best foot forward when we're hosting conference championships for swimming and diving, for track and field, for baseball, we are going to be stressed and stretched. When we get to the end of it, and we get it accomplished, we're going to feel really good about ourselves. We'll feel good about shining a bright light on Saluki Athletics and the community of Southern Illinois."
On Twitter: @THefferman