COLUMBIA — Get on the bus. Board the plane. Get on another bus. Go to the hotel. Eat. Sleep. Eat. Get on the bus. Go the stadium.
That is how Mark Alnutt remembers away games when he played for the Missouri football team in the mid-90s. Simple, consistent and effortless.
For the players, at least. Alnutt, MU's associate athletics director of administration, now works to make sure the football team’s travel goes as smoothly as it did for him.
It is not as simple as it once seemed.
Alnutt and Dan Hopkins, the director of football operations, try to make road games feel identical to home games. Trips never go exactly according to plan, but the team is usually unaware of complications.
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said as much on Monday between last weekend’s trip to Texas A&M and this weekend’s to Baylor. The team is oblivious to the traveling.
That means the department is doing its job.
“There is so much behind the scenes that goes on in traveling,” Alnutt said. “Our job is to make sure there are no distractions for coach (Pinkel) and the team.”
Pinkel preaches the importance of the 48 hours before kickoff. For players, this means following a routine of mental preparation. For athletics department employees, it means following through on the preparation they have already done so the players’ routine is not broken.
Alnutt must book a hotel, get a plane through a charter aircraft provider and set up bus transportation for when the team has arrived at its destination. He takes care of the hotel a year in advance and finalizes a deal with Sun Country Airlines by March to have a plane for each game. (The team flies to every away game except for Kansas.) By May 1, he had taken care of the buses.
Not everyone enjoys that luxury, though. Equipment director Don Barnes’ staff finishes loading its semitrailer after practice on Thursday. Then it joins trainers, cheerleaders, video staff and student assistants on the support staff bus. Barnes gets to fly.
Last Thursday, before the Texas A&M game, the bus left at 11 p.m. It drove through the night, switching drivers in Wichita, Kan., and arrived at Kyle Field in College Station to unload the equipment around 12:30 p.m. Friday. It arrives at the hotel where the team is staying later that evening.
The plane, always a Boeing 737, seats 162 passengers. The athletics department flies around 140, including the players and coaches, select department members and guests. Different redshirt freshmen and scout team players get chances to travel based on where they're from and how they have practiced. Staff spouses, donors and marketing partners each go on one trip a year with the team.
As for the 22 seats not taken, the larger players sit next to them so they can have more room.
The athletics department creates separate itineraries for the team, guests and support staff. With the players’ itinerary detailed down to five minutes in some places, the flight is the one time they get to relax. Players such as receiver T.J. Moe look forward to the flights. Moe listens to music and plays “Robot Wars” on his iPhone until the battery runs out.
“I really enjoy plane rides because you can’t do anything,” Moe said. “All you can do is sit there.”
Not all relax. Moe recalled sitting next to former Tiger Marcus Malbrough, who was afraid of flying. Malbrough would clench Moe's arm as the plane took off. Current defensive linemen Terrell Resonno and Kony Ealy also do not like to fly.
Meanwhile, Alnutt and Hopkins keep things on schedule. When the team traveled to Texas A&M last season, one of the four buses that was supposed to meet it at the airport got a flat tire on the way. They had to scramble to get another one.
That wasn't as bad as in 2004, when Alnutt had Hopkins' job as director of football operations. As the plane was trying to depart Columbia for Nebraska, it lost a wheel and got stuck in mud. Another plane wasn't available until 11 p.m., so the team spent the night in Columbia and traveled the next morning. In Alnutt's experience, it was the only time the football team traveled on game day.
Once it has landed and boarded the buses, the team goes to its hotel, usually removed from town to avoid distractions. At Texas A&M this season, it stayed 70 minutes away at the La Torretta Resort and Spa in Montgomery.
The team always eats the same Friday night meal — steak, chicken, potatoes and salad, among other items. The offensive linemen then rate the dinner and give Hopkins their feedback. According to Jayson Palmgren, La Torretta’s was the best of any road trip this season.
While he finds such praise amusing, Hopkins takes the responses seriously. Before he and the team arrive, Hopkins communicates to the hotel staff what he expects.
“We have a certain way we do things, from how we do our team meals to how we want the servers to act to the general noise level within the hotel,” he said. “I’m there to make sure we really communicate ahead of time how we expect hotel staff to act.”
The team treats each away game as a business trip. Players leave cell phones in their rooms and cannot wear sleeveless shirts around the hotel. At dinner, they are expected to use their “room voices,” as defensive tackle Terrell Resonno put it. Goofing around is not included in the 48 hours of preparation.
Sometimes, though, routine creates sentimental moments. When Pinkel leads prayer before the meal, he always stands next to defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton and pats him on the shoulder.
“He told me, ‘It’s not going to feel right when you leave, we’ve been doing this for so long,’” Hamilton, a senior, said.
After dinner the team meets for a chapel service, (Last weekend’s message was “there are no shortcuts.”) a final, quick video of its opponent and a highlight reel of its own big plays and hits. A snack — turkey or roast beef sandwiches, fruit, cookies and sometimes hot chocolate — is scheduled for 8:45 p.m, followed by a bed check at 10 p.m. Starters room with their backups.
According to Hopkins, the schedule follows the home game itinerary exactly.
“Meeting times, food, menu, roommates, assignments — all that,” he said. “We try to have it be the same whether we’re playing on Faurot or on the road.”
On Saturday morning, the equipment staff arrives about six hours ahead of the football team to set up the locker room and get coordinators' headsets to the right frequency. For the Texas A&M game, that meant departing the hotel at 4 a.m. Wake-up call for players was 6:30 a.m. with departure at 8:05 a.m.
When the team arrives at the stadium, what happens there during the next few hours is out of Alnutt and Hopkins' hands. On Saturday, Missouri upset Texas A&M 38-31 in overtime.
Afterward, Alnutt was still busy. Usually the team's plane remains in town overnight, but at College Station he had to coordinate for another to come. It was delayed, taking off and arriving 50 minutes late.
Because the game went to overtime and many players from Texas wanted time to see family afterward, the effects of the delay were minimized. They waited on the bus about a half hour before boarding the plane home. Resonno, for one, got a little antsy.
"We were ready to go home and celebrate the win," he said.
Back in Columbia, Alnutt, Hopkins and the coaching staff critique the trip. Scribbling notes on a legal pad, Alnutt listens as they discuss things such as hotel service, whether the bus driver knew where he was going, and, yes, the food.
They understand that some flight delays are unavoidable, but they analyze whether those delays were minimized.
"Planes do have mechanical issues; we understand that can happen," Alnutt said. "If we feel they were resolved in proper manner, then we move forward. If there were still some unexpected delays, I communicate back to the charter provider and see how we can get that resolved for the future."
Already, they are planning for 2012. The football team travels to Miami, Ohio, for the first time next year. Alnutt has talked to his counterpart at the school for hotel recommendations. This winter, Hopkins will travel there, check out the hotels and determine travel times between the airport, potential hotels and stadium.
Alnutt and Hopkins might have their hands more full than usual if Missouri leaves the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern conference. The switch could go into effect next season.
Alnutt said that if Missouri leaves for another conference, whichever it might be, he and Hopkins would talk to each new school's administration and travel to each in the spring.
"SEC, ACC, Big East, whatever it might be," he said. "We'll be able to see the hotel property but also go to the institution as well to see the facilities, so at least we know what to expect when we come back in the fall."