A radio veteran who spent two decades at Tampa Bay’s biggest sports station, WDAE-AM 620, Darek Sharp is in his third season as program director of Bulls Unlimited, USF Athletics’ in-house iHeartRadio station.
Sharp was also in his third season doing USF baseball and women’s basketball play-by-play for the channel.
That is, until sports came to a screeching halt two weeks ago amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Sure, sports have stopped before during Sharp’s career. Hurricanes have forced postponements and cancellations locally. Work stoppages have halted leagues and 9/11 stopped everything and anything in the U.S.
But there was always an ending in sight for those halts.
“You could at least look at, ‘OK, well, here’s the date where things are going to return, and then at some point, it’s going to be back to normal and you can get P.O.ed about a sporting outcome again,” Sharp said. “But this is so different. I’ll take it whenever we can get it — I’m not even thinking about a certain date … as long as you tell me we’re going to have sports again, I’m happy at this point.”
The writing was on the wall for a while, but it was glaringly obvious on March 11.
That afternoon, almost every college basketball tournament announced it was planning on playing without fans in attendance as public pressure continued to mount for a limit on large gatherings.
Sharp did play-by-play that night for what proved to be USF baseball’s final game of 2020, a 10-inning loss to Florida A&M.
“I remember seeing coach [Billy] Mohl after the game, and it was such a tough loss, again, in a vacuum, just the game itself,” Sharp said. “And he had that look like, ‘That was a bad loss,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Even that’s not going to be seeming important in a couple of days from now,’ because yeah, you could tell it was going to happen. And it was definitely bizarre.”
Later that night, it was announced that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, which resulted in the NBA immediately suspending its season.
The next morning, USF Athletics announced it would continue its spring sports without fans in attendance, similar to how the basketball tournaments were planning on playing. That was when the reality of a sportsless world set in for Sharp.
“For a lot of people it was Rudy Gobert — and, boy, the dope he was, but I’m glad he’s OK,” Sharp said, referencing Gobert touching microphones and recorders that belonged to media members just days before his diagnosis.
“The next day is the day that [Vice President of Athletics] Michael Kelly announced that everything was going to be without fans, and it was at that point for me, because to me, you have to have fans.
“I know you can play sporting events without fans. I know European soccer teams that have had racist fans, they deserve to have their teams playing without them watching. But this was something where it was just going to be entirely unusual.”
Kelly’s announcement came at 9 a.m. By noon, the AAC announced the cancellation of its men’s basketball tournament and suspended all spring sports later that afternoon, eventually canceling them. Almost every other sports organization in North America suspended or canceled competition either that day or in the days to come.
In the interim, only one USF event was played with closed doors, a women’s tennis loss to James Madison.
“I talked to the women’s tennis coach on my show, Bulls Beat, Cristina Moros,” Sharp said, “and she said when she told the team the season was over — and this was pretty much right after their last match, she just wanted to get out ahead of it and not have them find out via other methods — she said, ‘10 out of 10,’ crying.
“If that’s how that group — that one team that I’m talking about — responded, when they probably knew anyway what was happening, it just gives you a nutshell about how everyone’s responding in the sports world.”
But, even without live events, Bulls Unlimited is still broadcasting, much like every other radio station in the U.S.
Sharp is currently producing content for the channel from his home in Land O’ Lakes, albeit with different material than usual.
“You’ve got to mix up your approach, you’ve got to go with themes,” Sharp said. “I’ve got some stuff down the road, I’m going to basically go in order by sport, at some point, in order by win. We’ve got the classic games.”
Bulls Beat, Sharp’s daily morning show, is down to what Sharp calls the “summer schedule” at three days a week, as most of the 30-minute program consists of highlights from the previous day, making it difficult to do every day without games. For now, he’s relying on interviews with players, coaches and alumni.
“Fortunately, and I can kind of tip my cap to Brian Siegrist and a lot of the other sports information directors,” Sharp said, “they kind of know what our plight is, and so we’re getting pretty ahead of the curve as far as exclusive interviews go with a lot of the assistants for football.”
Sports will eventually resume, but before then, there are questions on everyone’s minds: Whether the NCAA grants another year of eligibility to athletes who had their seasons cut short by COVID-19, when or if the NBA and NHL playoffs will happen, how well athletes have kept in shape while social distancing.
“When is it going to be back to anything resembling normal?” Sharp said. “I think there will be that grace period from our expectations anyway, where, like I alluded to earlier, I don’t care. Just give me something and I’ll watch.
“Again, this is all under the overarching guise of knowing that it really is not important compared to what people are going through. People are losing their lives. But for our purposes here, which is what we do as our living, we cover sports, I’ll be happy whenever we can talk about anything.”
Well, not anything. Don’t count Sharp a fan of ESPN’s “ESPN8: The Ocho” stunt from Sunday, when it aired (obviously replays) of fringe “sports.”
“When I say anything, I don’t mean cherry-pit spitting,” Sharp said. “Nice try by ESPN2 the other day with the cherry-pit spitting and the robots.”
For the full conversation with Darek Sharp, watch The Oracle Sports Podcast with Brian Hattab and Nolan Brown, which premieres Thursday.