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For USF Bulls, smooth road trip is in details

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:02 AM
TAMPA -

The University of South Florida's football road trip to Nevada already is under way. It began while you were sleeping.

USF's 55-foot semitrailer truck – the athletic department's 18-wheeler – left campus late Tuesday and rumbled through the night, carrying about 8,000 pounds of cargo. There were extra helmets, extra shoulder pads, jerseys, football pants, T-shirts, shorts, cleats, arm sleeves, wristbands, eye-black, generators, laundry bins, sports-medicine equipment and video gear.

The 2,850-mile journey to Reno, Nev., executed by two alternating drivers and fueled by caffeine, should be completed by Thursday afternoon. When the Bulls deplane from their five-hour, 20-minute flight on Friday and arrive for a walk-through at Mackay Stadium, their locker room will be assembled with the equipment in its proper place.

Just like home.

"It's a business trip,'' said USF coach Skip Holtz, while preparing the Bulls (1-0) to face the Wolf Pack (1-0) in Saturday afternoon's non-conference game. "Everybody talks about being so excited to go to Nevada. 'I've never been to Nevada.' I said, 'You're going to see the inside of a hotel room, the inside of a stadium and what you see outside the bus window. It's not like we're going on a tourist trip with cameras around their necks.

"We're going out there for a single purpose, to get back on the plane at 1-0 for this week.''

But even Holtz, while reflecting on the effort and organization to move a football team from coast to coast and back, called it "kind of an amazing operation when you think about it.''

Holtz really doesn't need to think about it.

The details are left with assistant athletic director Larry Antonucci, USF's director of football operations, along with Jeremy Lees, USF's equipment manager.

"One thing I've learned, you never take anything for granted,'' said Antonucci, known as "Nooch'' to everyone around USF football, who has overseen the program's road trips since 2000.

It's one thing to assemble a 170-person traveling party – players, coaches, administrators, support personnel and boosters – aboard a Delta Air Lines Boeing 757 charter aircraft. It's quite another to encounter a nervous freshman who has never flown before.

It's one thing to find the right lodging in Reno. It's quite another when you realize that every quality hotel in that town features the bright lights of a gaming casino, not the ideal scenario for a college football team.

It's one thing not to surpass the maximum aircraft payload of 39,500 pounds, to approve menus for team meals, to determine whether a police escort is needed to reach the stadium and to find reliable ground transportation. It's quite another when the team arrives at the airport, disgusted at a bitter defeat, and the plane isn't there.

"First year I did this, we're at Baylor, we should've won but didn't, it's like 800 degrees outside and everybody just wants to go home,'' Antonucci said. "No plane. I'm calling the company and nobody is picking up the phone. Coach (Jim) Leavitt says, 'Where is it?' And all I can say is, 'I don't know.' "

Antonucci didn't know the plane was late transporting another team, involved in a four-overtime game, through some bad weather before heading to Waco. Turns out, it was only an hour behind schedule.

"Still the longest 60 minutes of my life,'' Antonucci said.

Now, as a matter of course, Antonucci knows the whereabouts of every USF plane. Will it stay overnight? And if not, when will it arrive and be ready for passengers? No detail is too small. That's why Antonucci traveled to Reno on a fact-finding mission in March and why he'll be on the ground Thursday for logistics.

"Checking and double-checking,'' he said, "even though you've gone over something three dozen times. Every coach in America tells you they want to minimize or eliminate distractions. We make sure there aren't any and the team has everything it needs to prepare properly. That's my job.''

It's a job he does well.

"He's phenomenal,'' said Vernon Hargreaves, USF's defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator. "We don't want any hiccups and we don't get any. Coaches are pretty precise. We're on a time schedule and we want it just right. So having all that taken care of really helps it to go smoothly.''

"It's like picking up the entire operation and moving it somewhere,'' said USF running backs coach Larry Scott, a former Bulls player who made his first airplane flight during the school's inaugural football season in 1997.

Each USF football road trip can cost up to $150,000. The plane and the fuel needed for a trip to Nevada and back will run more than $80,000. The hotel and catering: Nearly $30,000. Buses in Tampa and Reno and other incidentals add about $20,000.

A typical Big East Conference road trip is about two hours, so this week's trip is an exception. When USF leaves Friday, its players will be screened by the Transportation Security Administration at the on-campus Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center so things are expedited before heading to the private jet center.

There are no worries in Reno. The casino at USF's hotel is located in another wing. With meetings, preparation and a tight time schedule, there's no opportunity to wander. Once there, the Bulls must adjust to the altitude – the playing field is 4,610 feet above sea level.

Otherwise, it's just a football game. The other details have been dissected and handled.

"The only thing I'm worried about now is sleeping on the plane,'' USF senior quarterback B.J. Daniels said.


jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353 Twitter: JJohnstonTrib

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