Share this article

print logo

TRAVEL TALES
COLLEGE TEAMS PACK WORRIES WITH THEM WHEN THEY HIT THE ROAD

They all have their stories.

Mike MacDonald, the Canisius basketball coach, recalls a commercial flight from Boston to Buffalo that bounced through the clutches of turbulence so severe most everyone was reaching for the air sickness bags.

Blaise MacDonald, the men's hockey coach at Niagara, knows the dread that seizes the mind when a bus carrying your team hits black ice and fishtails on the Thruway.

Lance Brennan, the women's swim coach at St. Bonaventure, has been flattened by the abject grief that accompanies tragedy. He was a Bona swimmer on a bus creeping through a snowstorm en route to Notre Dame when word came that the bus carrying the Notre Dame women's team back to South Bend had overturned. Two swimmers were killed.

"We had to turn around and come back knowing we were in the same conditions they crashed in," Brennan said.

These are not everyday occurrences. The flight that unsettled the Canisius basketball team took place in 1988, when MacDonald was an assistant. The crash of the Notre Dame bus dates to 1992. Niagara's wild wide down the Thruway is a memory from last season.

However, coaches of sports teams at Western New York colleges and universities acknowledge that concern is a constant travel companion as their teams log thousands of miles by land and by air during the harsh, unpredictable winter season.

"I sit in the front seat of the bus and I can't go to sleep," said Niagara's MacDonald. "I worry the driver's going to fall asleep."

Tragedy once again has heightened the awareness of the dangers lurking during winter travel. One of three planes carrying members of the Oklahoma State basketball team and other university personnel crashed Jan. 27 in Colorado. All 10 members of the traveling party, including two players, were killed.

"I've called parents because their kids were sick, having trouble in school, whatever," said Canisius's MacDonald. "The worst was this year when I had to call Jay Keys' parents and tell them he was in jail (after a shoplifting charge).

"That all pales to what (Oklahoma State coach) Eddie Sutton had to do, telling families that people weren't coming back from a road trip. The trip ends and you're supposed to be home."

Winter sports teams from Western New York schools rarely fly chartered aircraft. The Niagara hockey team traveled some 18,000 miles last season, taking six commercial flights out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport and covering the rest of the ground by bus. The women's swimming team at St. Bonaventure usually travels by bus or, for short trips, in two or three vans.

"We pretty much do everything with buses," Brennan said. "The only difference is if it's a three- or four-day event we'll take vans because there are different events at different times."

Brennan said his preference in most cases is to travel by bus.

"The problem is you have one coach, and if you have to take two or three vans you have to have a student-athlete driving," he said. "I'd rather be in control."

When they don't fly, Bona sports teams now use buses on virtually any trip that is more than two hours in duration. Gothard Lane, the university's vice president/director of athletics, made buses more readily available to all teams shortly after coming to Bona from the University of Maryland last year. Jerry Boyes, the football coach and athletic director at Buffalo State, said the Bengals also have gone predominately to buses for ground travel because of safety concerns.

The package of travel and athletics can test the stamina of the best conditioned athletes. Lane used the example of the Bona baseball team playing a doubleheader at Fordham, where players and coaches spend some six hours on their feet under the sun. To ask the coaches, players or other team personnel to make the six-hour drive home would be inviting a mishap.

"It's tough," Lane said. "It's a situation we wanted to try to correct. Safety is obviously our No. 1 concern, and it's costing us maybe $60,000 or $70,000 more a year. Buses aren't cheap."

Fierce winter weather can turn any trip into an ordeal. The Niagara hockey team twice encountered airport delays of at least four hours this season. The Canisius basketball team was forced to scramble when the heavy November snowfall upset its travel arrangements to Miami for a tournament at Florida International. The team eventually split into two traveling parties and met up in Orlando. There were tournament-provided minivans waiting to take the team to Miami but MacDonald went another route.

"We got a bus and paid for it ourselves," he said. "That was one where I was worried about safety. I was not making guys sit cramped in a van going 55, 65 or maybe even 75 mph for more than three hours to Miami. No way. You don't know the drivers and we weren't going to do it."

A common philosophy in the coaching ranks is that when it comes to winter travel, take it slow.

"I'm amazed there aren't more bus/van accidents just simply due to bad weather," Mike MacDonald said. "We go through it when we fly to Newark and then rent three vans to drive to Rider and it's snowing. I'm amazed more things don't happen like that and not just in basketball. It's amazing more coaches don't fall asleep at the wheel."

Joanne Wright, the synchronized swimming coach at Canisius, has driven through all kinds of weather during her time with the Griffs and the Tonawanda Aquettes. "I've just pulled over and waited or stopped at a rest stop," she said.

"We've had some very bad weather where it becomes scary but the bus drivers do an incredible job," said Margot Page, the women's hockey coach at Niagara. "I'm knocking on my desk. We've been very fortunate."

College coaches everywhere are bonded by common purpose. They all oversee the athletic careers - and, in some cases, the academic careers - of young adults. When a tragedy occurs, when a plane crash results in the death of 10 members of the Oklahoma State traveling party, the tremors stretch throughout the land.

"It's absolutely heart-wrenching," said Niagara's MacDonald. "As a university and a coach, parents put their sons and daughters in our hands for our guidance and their safety. As much as it's God's will, it's quite a burden for the university and the athletic department and the coach in particular."

There are no comments - be the first to comment