Planning travel for college basketball teams can be complicated. Flights and hotels have to be booked, buses rented, meals planned. Schedules have to be worked around practices and games.
Planning amid the COVID-19 pandemic makes it exponentially more difficult.
Coaches and administrators have to consider ventilation systems, vendor testing protocols, shifting state requirements, airport policies, bus layouts and meal service options.
“You’re trying to balance logistics, but you also trying to balance a budget and health and safety in a pandemic,” Arkansas director of basketball operations Anthony Ruta said. “It’s not always easy.”
The NCAA set the college basketball start date for Nov. 25. When the announcement was made in mid-September, coaches began scrambling to fill out schedules. With the start of the season 10 days away, some of those schedules still aren’t finalized.
Within that scramble was another, more complex one.
It’s one thing to have a schedule set, another to wade through the minutiae to make it work.
The pandemic has put a huge financial strain on athletic departments, sending many millions of dollars in the red. Staying within a travel budget has become even more important.
The preferred method of pandemic travel would be to take a charter flight for the social distancing aspect, but smaller schools don’t have the finances to do that, even under regular circumstances. The financial hit of the pandemic shrinks the charter pool even more.
Charter or commercial, there’s still plenty to worry about. Testing protocols at a variety of airports have to be identified ahead of time. Finding space to spread out in the terminal becomes a priority. There’s also concern about close contacts in the airport, from TSA personnel and gate agents to other passengers.
Even bus rides, the preferred mode of pandemic travel when possible, are fraught with concerns.
Coaches setting up travel have to ask about the filtration system, testing protocols for employees and the interior layout to allow players and coaches to spread out. If the travel party gets too big, maybe a second bus will be required.
No longer is it just asking about bus types and setting up a schedule. Coaches need to know what questions to ask to keep their travel party safe and avoid surprises on the road.
“Nothing unforeseen, but just the different questions you’ve got to ask people,” Wisconsin director of basketball operations Marc VandeWettering said. “Where’s your bus driver been the last few weeks on the road? Who have they been driving? Have they been tested recently? What’s their protocol? I assume they’re going to be wearing masks the entire times, but what else are they doing to assure the safety of the team that they’re transporting?”
Getting there can be half the battle.
Finding hotels with the best pandemic protocols becomes a top consideration with price and proximity. Figuring out room assignments and keeping social distance is part of the equation.
Meal planning is no longer merely deciding whether to go to a restaurant or have food brought to a meeting room at the hotel.
Coaches want to know the protocols for vendors bringing the food. Maybe they ask the vendors to serve the food so players and coaches aren’t sharing spoons. Perhaps they have the food prepared ahead of time so members of the travel party can take it back to their rooms.
“How they’re implementing these protocols is key,” VandeWettering said. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is generally the same but it will look different, so how are they going to accommodate the changes we need to make happen?”
The key is being flexible.
The pandemic has raged since the NCAA Tournament was canceled in early March, so coaches and players have learned how to navigate the ever-changing flux. They know that whatever the rules are today, those could change tomorrow.
“We’ve been in the COVID period long enough where pretty much everything we do has had to be adjusted,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “So having to make travel adjustments and following different guidelines we wouldn’t normally have to follow is just another of a long line of things where we’ve had to adjust. Those are things that we can’t control. They’re things we need to do.”
Make plans, expect to make modifications. That’s the rule for planning travel — and just about everything else during this pandemic.
Associates Press reporter John Marshall wrote this story, with contributions from AP's Steve Magargee in Milwaukee.