Prepare to hear and read the term “The Road to the Final Four” plenty the next month, even though for most of the 68 schools who will be invited, it is a misnomer. The road to the Final Four is actually a series of runways, as teams bounce from, say, Salt Lake City to Indianapolis to Atlanta. Basketball teams that survive the March Madness gauntlet must also prepare themselves to survive turbulence, flight delays and a prominent diet of Cinnabon.
However, for most college athletes the road to any championship is actually that: a series of interstates and “blue highways” (Is William Least Heat Moon’s book still on college reading lists?) that would make the stars of “Ice Road Truckers” cower in trepidation. To play an intercollegiate sport is to understand that some of the most powerful memories you will take with you will come not from the games themselves, but from the journeys you undertook to arrive at those events.
Last May during a road trip the Harvard baseball team filmed a video mash-up of Carly Rae-Jepsen’s hit “Call Me Maybe.” The video has garnered more than 17 million views on YouTube (I may be personally responsible for one thousand of those views). Never mind that more people have seen the Crimson lip-sync a song than will ever watch them play a baseball game, there are other outstanding features of this video (you can watch the video here) that need to be addressed. Features such as:
- The fact that during the entire 3-plus minute video, the van never appears to change lanes or undergo a dramatic change in speed due to traffic.
- Ten young athletic men in a van. That’s about par for the course. And it’s not comfortable.
- The teammate in the back of the van actually was sleeping during the filming of the video. That was not for the camera. To be a college athlete is to catch up on sleep – and, occasionally, homework – as the bus or van rambles across the great American landscape.
- Is anyone wearing seat belts? I don’t know, and neither do you.
- Does anyone know – or care –where Harvard is headed or whom they are going to play? I’ve never found out those answers.
- Is this the greatest memory of the 2012 Harvard baseball season? The Crimson finished 12-30, but how many other Division I baseball teams were invited to appear on the Today show?
Earlier this week, when Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team rose to No. 1 in the AP poll, a story about the Zags noted that with their success in recent years, the team has upgraded to charter flights. That, of course, is the exception to the norm. In the world of non-revenue sports, as well as the one for most college basketball teams, commercial flights, buses and vans are the norm. It’s a Griswoldian existence, but one that most college athletes cherish. Getting there really is half the fun – and 90% of the adventure.
Consider the Great West basketball conference, a D-I hoops conference that is neither great nor exclusively west. The conference is comprised of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Newark, N.J.), Texas-Pan American (Edinburg, Tex., a short five-hour drive south of Houston), Houston Baptist (Houston), Utah Valley (Orem, Utah) and Chicago State (Chicago). The conference itself is a traveling violation.
But at least those teams fly (what choice do they have?). The majority of college sports teams travel by bus or van and, we bet, prefer Panera (because nothing occupies your mind during a road trip, especially as an 18-22 year-old, than where you are going to eat). This is where friendships are truly forged, where studying is done, where film review (we’re talking cinema, not game films) is honed to an art, and where sleep deficits are eliminated.
The truth is that most college athletes would not have it any other way. When I was in college, I rowed for the Notre Dame crew team, which was varsity club. That status meant that we governed ourselves, which meant that we were responsible for transporting ourselves to each regatta as well as to our annual spring break week-long training session in Austin, Texas. Looking back and thinking that, as an 18 year-old, I was driving a van filled with a dozen sleep-deprived teammates with a racing shell on our roof, which only added to the degree of difficulty, as I fought off the fact that we were in the midst of a 24-hour road trip… well, it all seems a little insane.
But it was also one of the most educational aspects of my college experience.
Is it prudent for college sports teams to travel as much as they do, in the ways that they do, in the name of competition? Probably not. I have traveled enough as both a student-athlete and as well, while accompanying college teams as a journalist, to know that prudence flies out the window when a team is trying to hold to an itinerary.
True story: Traveling with the UConn women’s basketball team in the winter of 2001. A Saturday afternoon game in Pittsburgh should allow the Huskies to be back home in Storrs early that evening. A blizzard, however, knocks out all flights and the entire team cools its heels at a Dave & Busters for four to five hours. Finally, at around nine p.m., we head out to the airport. The interstate is empty, the blizzard still pounding.
The airport, I cannot recall exactly but I am pretty sure that commercial flights are grounded. We are a charter flight, though, and so the decision is made to go for it. I’m not sure Knute Rockne would have agreed to take off in those conditions. We did, though. It was, at least for me, a white-knuckle take-off and of course no harm came to us, or you would have read about it.
Still, there is probably not a college athlete –particularly on a non-revenue team—who has played four years who does not have at least one bizarre road trip anecdote to share. Who cannot tell you that that is where he or she learned to play poker or some other card game, where he or she truly learned how to cooperate with others.
They don’t give out varsity letters based on miles. But they should.