Well, I’m back home from Spokane, resigned to the fact that I’ll never be welcome again on a Sooner charter plane. I’m lucky that I wasn’t tossed off the trip, like Jonah when he found his way to the belly of the beast.
Twice this season I’ve ridden the OU charter. The West Virginia/Super Bowl odyssey, and the NCAA Tournament. Both times, the Sooners lost games in which they rallied to take command in the final minute, led by three with less than 20 seconds left, gave up a tying 3-pointer and lost in overtime. Both times, getting home was a hassle.
Lon Kruger called the West Virginia trip the worst of his 40-year basketball career. You can read about misadventure here.
The trip home from Spokane was much better than that. But still not smooth.
We checked out of the media hotel in Spokane and drove over to the OU hotel, the Doubletree, at 10 a.m. We put our bags on one of the OU buses. Then I took our rental car to the airport, as did John Hoover of the Tulsa World. We planned to meet back with the Sooner contingent at the private terminal of the airport.
For reasons I never really understood, when the Sooner buses got to the airport, they were told to hang tight. Everyone stay on the bus. And so they did. For something like 90 minutes. Maybe longer. Just sat there.
Something about a lack of security screeners or something.
Hoover and I had been sitting in the terminal. I got my laptop out and watched the final few minutes of the Duke-Mercer game, which certainly put me in a good mood.
We knew the Sooner buses were outside, but we were just waiting on word to go next door and go through security. We finally ventured out to the street, and for some reason got on the bus. I guess for someone new to talk to.
Anyway, we got on the bus and waited with them for another 45 minutes or so. Should have stayed in the terminal and watched ball.
Soon enough, the OU bus carrying the pep band and spirit squad turned into the parking lot and everyone departed and went through security. We turned in, too, but were told not to exit the bus. Then the Idaho women’s basketball team and traveling party arrived – headed to Iowa City for the NCAAs – and the Vandals were sent through security before we were. So we stayed on the bus some more.
Finally, we were allowed to get off, go through security, get on another bus which drove us out on the tarmac to the plane, and we took off around 2 p.m. Spokane time. Two hours late.
Seemed like a hassle to most people. But anyone on the West Virginia trip didn’t seem to mind.
FISHER OF MEN
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has been around a long time. He took over the Michigan team when Bill Frieder took the Arizona State job before the end of the 1989 season. Frieder wanted to keep coaching the Wolverines, but Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler famously said that Michigan would be coached “by a Michigan man.” And Fisher coached those Wolverines to the NCAA championship.
In 1991, Fisher recruited the Fab Five, those five fabulous freshmen – Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – who became Michigan’s starting lineup and made the NCAA title game two straight years.
Now Fisher is at San Diego State and doing great. The Aztecs routed North Dakota State on Saturday. But after beating New Mexico State late Thursday night, Fisher was upset and told the media so.
First, a primer. The NCAA coordinates travel for all the teams in the tournament, providing charter aircraft for all the teams and support personnel. Basically, every team gets a big jet that seats anywhere from 135-150. Something like that. We went out to Spokane on a Southwest charter; we came back on an even bigger United jet.
The general policy is that Thursday and Friday losers leave town the day after their game. Both teams generally leave after their Saturday or Sunday games. The reasoning is clear. No one should pack to leave town before your first-round game. That’s a defeatist attitude. Plus, that would require a ton of late-night and post-midnight flights. Now, when the games are finished from a particular site, everyone is ready to get home.
But on Thursday afternoon, San Diego State and New Mexico State were informed that the loser would have to leave town that night, even though their game didn’t start until something like 7:45 p.m. Spokane time. The schools were told that the NCAA had a shortage of planes.
Fisher opened his portion of the post-game press conference with pointed criticism of the NCAA. Here is part of what he said:
“I’m going to do something I never do, I’m going to complain about the NCAA process. And I hope somebody writes it.
We were told that we would go home tomorrow if we lost. That was what we requested. We don’t want to go home tonight. It’s 10 minutes after 11. By the time you get back to the hotel, did they want us to tell our kids pack your bags and if we win we’ll go back? It’s 10 after 11.
“And New Mexico State has to do this. They didn’t want to go home either. But they have to go home tonight. It’s disgraceful. For the billions of dollars that we have here, for them not to find a way to accommodate these kids, the student‑athletes. You can’t tell me they couldn’t find charter planes. And that’s what they told me. I shouldn’t have to call the NCAA and I did today, to say, why?
“It’s disgraceful. So, we can say we want to do all these things for the benefit of the student‑athletes, but you play a game like we did tonight and you get to the airport at 1 in the morning? Come on. Come on. I would like to go from the top up administratively, have them at a site and say you’re going to ride home with that losing team. And see what it’s like to get home at five in the morning. It shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen.
“I got all the rhetoric, ‘we tried, we tried, money’s not the issue, we tried.’ I don’t do this. This is not me. I am not a guy that looks for things to complain about. But this is not right. This should not happen. This should not happen. This should not happen. I would hope you would write it, I would hope you would investigate it and say, why did it happen? It can’t happen. But it happened.
“Marvin Menzies and his (New Mexico State) team? They’re going home tonight. They didn’t want to go home tonight. Is that right? Is that fair? Come on.”
Fisher was solid in his criticism. The regional sites have been set for years. Four teams were going home Thursday from Spokane, no matter what. For flights to not be arranged is in excusable. Heads should roll. Literally. The boss of the boss of whoever is in charge of transportation should be removed. If the NCAA did in fact care about ballplayers (calling them student-athletes doesn’t mean you care about them, NCAA), that’s what would happen.
UNITED WE FALL
We rolled along the tarmac, saw our plane and we Morgantown veterans let out a collective “ugh.” United was our charter.
The United charter experience was so awful, no one cared to go through that again. And turns out, our fears were justified.
It’s a total drag to travel on the Friday afternoon of the first day of the NCAA Tournament. Lots of good basketball to be missed. But modern technology has changed that. You can watch games online, and most flights now are equipped with wifi.
Our United jet even had a wifi sticker right by the door.
We were downright giddy, and I’m not just talking about the media. Lots of passengers were ready to watch some basketball.
Then the flight attendant told us the wifi was inoperable. I talked to the pilot, he said it didn’t work. He came over the P.A. and said United was updating its technology, and this plane had not been updated yet. He didn’t explain why the old wifi had been pulled or deactivated.
So the NCAA Tournament was played without our eyes upon it Friday afternoon. Flying United, you’d expect no more.
One last United story. I had an aisle seat going, then I was assigned an aisle returning. Our man Ryan Aber had a middle seat going and a middle seat returning. Didn’t seem fair, so I offered to swap with him.
Almost two hours into the flight, I turned around and noticed the back two rows were totally empty. Oasis. My legs were cramping.
I went to the back, sprawled out and relaxed for the first time since we left Spokane. For about 15 seconds. Then the flight attendant told me they were leaving those two rows empty on purpose, to keep the weight distribution where it needed to be.
You flight experts will be able to ascertain the validity of that claim. But I have some questions.
Why would a plane be built with two extra rows, if it couldn’t handle humans sitting in them?
Was it all about the cargo?
Wouldn’t spreading out the people lead to better weight distribution?
Is weight distribution critical on big jets? I mean, I’ve flown those 50-seaters, with two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other, and I can sort of understand. But a plane that seats 150 people?
It’s generally no fun traveling with a team that just lost. But Lon Kruger runs such a class operation, it was no problem. The Sooners themselves, while no doubt disappointed, were relatively loose.
The flight attendant – not her fault the wifi didn’t work – allowed Frank Booker to give visual instructions on how to use a seatbelt and all the safety precautions. Buddy Hield came through the aisle with a pair of earphones he had found on the bus, wondering if they belonged to anyone.
Mike Shepherd, Kruger’s director of basketball operations, even joked about my curse.
I’ve known a lot of coaches and a lot of teams I wouldn’t want to be around after a defeat. These Sooners don’t lose their humanity just because of a score.
The OU traveling party includes all basketball personnel, athletic administrators, some boosters and various media.
Kruger’s office staff coordinates seating arrangements on the planes – and did an excellent job; everything ran smoothly on that end.
Here’s an example of the Sooners’ class. John Shinn of the Norman Transcript flew home with us. He flew commercial to Spokane, but flights home Friday were scarce and expensive. Typical spring break problem. So Shinn hopped aboard our flight, at OU’s invitation. Trouble was, Shinn’s car was at Will Rogers airport. The rest of us were to board buses for the trip back to Lloyd Noble Center, where our cars were parked.
Shinn stood on the tarmac, waiting for his luggage to come off the United jet, wondering how he would get to the main terminal to get to his car. It was a long walk, and I assume airport officials aren’t keen about a solitary figure walking across the runaway with a couple of bags.
So Shepherd instructed Shinn to hop aboard the basketball bus – there were three buses – and it would detour over to the terminal so he could get his car. First class, I’m telling you.