And Miles to Go…
Every away game is a journey for ECU student athletes
Many Pirate fans applauded East Carolina University’s move to the Big East Conference because they believe it offers national exposure for ECU’s football program. But in frequent flyer miles at least, the Pirates have competed on a national stage for years as a member of Conference USA, whose name accurately describes its geographic footprint.
As a member of C-USA since 1997, ECU has regularly competed against four schools in Texas, one in Oklahoma and three others on or near the Mississippi River. Only two other conference schools–the University of Central Florida in Orlando, 645 miles away, and Marshall University in West Virginia, 456 miles away–are in the same time zone as East Carolina.
ECU’s current travel schedule, in fact, has earned it a spot in the college sports record books. According to C-USA officials, the second-longest distance that any two NCAA Division I colleges travel to play a conference football game is when East Carolina takes the field against the University of Texas-El Paso. It’s 1,686 miles from Greenville to El Paso, or 3,376 miles round trip for the visiting team, as when the Miners flew into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a 28-18 loss in September.
Given the fluid nature of conference affiliations, it’s not clear which schools ECU will compete against when it and five other current C-USA teams begin playing football in the Big East in 2014. It also remained undecided which conference ECU’s 18 other sports teams would join. Athletics Director Terry Holland says he hopes all ECU teams wind up in a new East Coast division of the Big East but officials say even then the Pirates likely still will play some far-flung conference games.
Nick Floyd, executive associate athletics director, says it requires detailed planning and a rugged transportation process to safely move groups of student athletes across such long distances. One or another team seems to be forever departing or returning (see chart), accompanied by mounds of equipment and luggage. The Athletics Department is budgeted to spend $2.5 million this school year for away-game travel, lodging and meals, according to Director of Athletic Business Barry Brickman. He says that’s up 36 percent from six years ago. This year’s budget included $427,000 earmarked for travel to a post-season bowl game.
Managing away-game travel is so complex that ECU recently contracted out that function to Anthony Travel of Dallas, Texas. The agency, which specializes in serving university sports teams, represents more than 50 colleges, including Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. An Anthony Travel employee now is housed within the Athletics Department and works directly with coaches and staff to arrange commercial and charter flights, book hotel rooms and plan meals. Brickman says he believes Anthony Travel’s block-booking power and connections within the travel industry will result in some cost savings.
Strain on student athletes
On one of the shortest road trips the team would have all season, basketball forward Whitny Edwards still faced one of the toughest challenges confronted by student athletes: how to maintain her shooting touch and her GPA.
“The traveling, while it can be very exciting, is also very draining,” she says after the early-season game at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Edwards, a master’s degree student who previously played three seasons for the University of Virginia, says the hardest part is the trip home. “When you’re leaving (campus) you have the excitement of the upcoming game on your mind so you tolerate the long trip. When returning from the game, you are tired and ready to go to sleep and it can, at times, be uncomfortable.”
Ahead on the women’s basketball schedule for January were away games at Texas-El Paso, at Rice University in Houston, at Tulane University in New Orleans, back to Texas for a game with the University of Houston, and finally at Alabama-Birmingham. The team would travel 11,626 miles to play those five games. “Long road trips mean you have to really take care of your body in terms of getting adequate sleep and making sure to stay on top of your academic work as well,” Edwards cautions.
East Carolina offers extensive academic support services for student athletes and sends tutors along if a team will be gone more than one day, which is typical. “Men’s and women’s basketball is a prime example, says J.J. McLamb, assistant athletic director for administrative affairs. “If they’re going to El Paso, then to Houston, where they will be gone for four or five days … we will send an academic person with them … to manage study halls and help the kids keep up with their course work.”
NCAA rules stipulate that no team may leave campus more than 48 hours before an away game and must return within 48 hours after the game. That rule excludes bowl games.“We treat all 19 teams the same way in terms of travel and academic support,” Floyd says. “They also all get the same type of accommodations and meals.”Minimizing lost classroom days is a constant challenge with few successes, Floyd adds. “We really worked with the conference on scheduling for softball, which plays these three-game weekend series several times a season. Instead of playing those games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday like they once did, now they play one game on Friday and a double-header on Saturday. That allows them to be home on Sunday and ready for class on Monday.”
“Everything we do in planning for away games is focused on the student, their safety and making sure our athletes maintain their grades.”
– Athletics Director Terry Holland
While it can be burdensome, travel to away games can be fun, even educational. “Our student athletes get to see parts of the country that many of them have never seen,” Floyd says. “How many kids from eastern North Carolina have experienced the culture of El Paso or New Orleans?”
The appeal of exotic sights is one reason all away games are well chaperoned, with mandatory bed checks and time reserved for academics, Floyd adds. “We try to keep them focused because one thing you can never predict is how 18- and 19-year-olds will behave on the road.”
Football’s long bomb
Managing travel is difficult for all sports teams but officials say the sheer numbers involved with football—147 players—require highly coordinated travel plans and adhering to a rigid time schedule. The departure process for a noon Saturday away game actually begins at 2 p.m. on Wednesday. That’s when a 53-foot-long Old Dominion Freight Lines tractor-trailer departs from the Ward Sports Medicine building fully loaded with equipment.
At 2 p.m. on Friday, the football players, coaches, staff and tutors assemble at Ward to board buses for the short trip to Kinston Regional Jetport. With longer runways than Pitt-Greenville Airport, the Kinston facility can accommodate the full-size passenger jets that the football team charters.
McLamb says ECU teams get no breaks from airport security. “It’s just like you’re flying a normal flight. Every passenger is screened, every bag checked. Even as well organized as we are, it takes us about 45 minutes just to get through security.”
The equipment truck arrives Friday night in Houston, El Paso, New Orleans or wherever ECU is playing that weekend. When the Pirates assemble Saturday morning at the host school’s stadium, every shoulder pad, helmet and 200 or more pairs of shoes is in its expected place.
As soon as the game is over, the team and the equipment truck begin packing for the journey home. The equipment truck returns to campus and is unloaded in time for team practice Sunday night.
“Everything we do in planning for away games is focused on the student, their safety and making sure our athletes maintain their grades,” Holland says. “We know it can be hard to be a student and an athlete, especially in a conference as spread out as ours.”
It can be draining, Edwards says about the travel required for away games. “With the longer trips, especially if you have a game during the week, you are having to take more time off from classes and have to keep up with the work by (doing homework) on the bus, the plane, in the airport and in the hotel.
“These long trips can add several hours to your week,” Edwards continues, “and the travel can sometimes keep you from completing your work, if, for instance, you need to use the internet but the Wi-Fi isn’t working properly. We do have study hall while we are on the road and this gives us a structured time and place to complete our work.”
How does the travel she experienced playing for the University of Virginia compare with her new away-game schedule at ECU? “At UVa our big conference rivals were Carolina, Duke, N.C. State and Maryland,” Edwards says. “Those really weren’t long trips at all. But here? You’ve got to keep a map handy.”