March 18, 2009
HOUSTON, Texas (Bush Intercontinental Airport) - March 18 1:58 p.m.
The team and I are sitting at the gate in Terminal E at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. We're waiting on a chartered flight into Miami, Fla.
It's already been a long day for the guys, and it's going to get longer as we lose an hour going east. They had a practice this morning at 8 (that means the players with bumps and bruises had to report at 7 for treatment by the athletic training staff).
We were originally scheduled to leave Nacogdoches at noon. Yesterday afternoon, the time got bumped ahead to 10:30 a.m. This morning it was moved up again to 10. The reason for the changes was that the flight departure time kept changing.
The time changes caused a couple of problems, including this morning's practice getting cut short (the players were heartbroken, I could tell). But this year's travel trouble is nothing compared to what we dealt with last season en route to our National Invitation Tournament showdown with UMass.
We got our NIT seeding and schedule at around 9 p.m. central on the Sunday of the NCAA Selection Special. We were scheduled to play UMass in their arena at 6 p.m. eastern on Tuesday. By my unsteady calculations, that's all of 44 hours' lead time between announcement and tip.
I doubt most people are fully aware of what goes into preparing a team for an NCAA Division I basketball game, let alone a nationally televised postseason game against a high-caliber opponent on the other side of the country. Before I started bouncing around with the 'Jacks on a 56-passenger bus four years ago, I had no idea myself.
To sum it up, from a travel and logistics standpoint, that UMass trip was the worst nightmare a support staffer could dream up. Our business manager, Assistant AD Rob Meyers, immediately went to work with the NIT travel folks to arrange for our transportation. We quickly found out there wasn't a chance of getting our nearly 30-person travel party all on the same flight from Houston to Boston. The result was that we split into two groups, with the bulk of the team heading out on an early flight and a few players, most of the coaches, and the support staff coming on a second flight two hours later.
After our joyful reunion at Logan International, we bused a couple of hours up the road to Amherst, arriving around 10 p.m. eastern. The trip began at 6 a.m. central. Seventeen hours of travel. Not a good day for a bunch of guys who had to play a very talented Atlantic 10 team the following night. We played the Minutemen close early and tied the score in the opening minutes of the second half, but were visibly exhausted by the middle of the second period, and UMass went on to win by 20. (The Minutemen would eventually reach the championship game of the NIT, so the 2007-08 'Jacks had nothing about which to hang their heads.)
This year's postseason travel has been a different story. After the championship game win on Sunday and the ensuing selection show party at Wild Wing Café in Katy, Texas, we didn't have all the scrambling and scuffling that went on last season. It's been more of a hurry-up-and-wait situation. When you make the Big Dance, the NCAA folks handle all your travel arrangements for you. It's just a matter of turning in your travel party list and waiting for a phone call. Or at least that's how I imagine it, since travel doesn't fall under the umbrella of my responsibilities. I'm sure Rob Meyers would tell a slightly different story.
At any rate, we're traveling first-class. Well, coach, actually, but we've got our own plane, a chartered Continental 737, and that's what I call first-class. Our bigger guys won't have to barter with other passengers to try and get into the exit rows so they can stretch out. A baggage truck took all of our luggage from under the bus and loaded it on the plane so that all we would have to carry through security was carry-on bags. And the food ... well it's still airline food, I guess.
So far, though, the chartered flight and velvet-gloved treatment have done nothing to alleviate my apprehension about air travel. Pardon me for indulging in a little personal testimony, but I hate flying. I prefer to think of it as a healthy respect for air travel, rather than a fear of flying. More manly that way. I understand the physics behind the process, I just don't agree with them. It shouldn't work. Something as heavy as a commercial airliner should never be able to get off the ground and/or stay in the air.
Unfortunately, flying is a fact of life when you work in college athletics. I got out light this season. Our only two plane trips were to Des Moines, Iowa, for the Drake Hy-Vee Classic and a New Year's Eve turbo-prop hop from Dallas to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech. Rob Meyers likes to make fun of the fact that I tightly fasten my seatbelt as soon as my rear end hits the seat, and my knees bounce continuously from the moment of ignition until I get the "Buh-bye" from the friendly flight attendant at the front of the plane.
A quick informal poll of some team members concerning fear of flying garnered the following. Nick Shaw, power forward and all-around cool guy, attempted to console me with this old standby: "You've got a much greater chance of being in a car collision than a plane crash." Then he erased any good feeling that might have created by following up with, "Of course those car crash statistics include all car crashes, not just the fatal ones. If a plane goes down, it's pretty much going to be fatal." Thanks, Nick. Good lookin' out, partner.
Freshman three man Zach Williams said flying doesn't make him nervous ... or at least it didn't until I brought it up. My bad, Zach.
Our team trainer, Troyce Solley, claims he doesn't pack sedatives in the medicine trunk. Personally, I think he's holding out on me.
But Miami, and the Lumberjacks' first trip to the NCAA Tournament await on the other end of this flight, so I guess I'll suck it up and fly one more time this year. ("It" being the seatbelt, coincidentally, not my confidence. I'll still be panicky and nervous until we hit the ground).
I'll see you on the other side with notes on the media swarm and the precise schedule that the NCAA maintains during the tournament.
-- SFA --