Go West, Young Men!


Dec. 24, 2007 (updated photo of plane-Dec. 25, 2007)

The Fighting Illini board the plane at UI Willard Airport for the flight to Los Angeles Christmas evening.

Coach Ron Zook met with the team after practice Thursday before sending them home for a five-day Christmas break.

What a difference a year makes!

"It's been a different environment this December," said UI Associate Director of Athletics Dana Brenner. "Life was a little slower last year at this time."

But Brenner and Illini Nation wouldn't have it any other way. He is leading and coordinating a cooperative effort to make sure that the Fighting Illini football team and its traveling party have the best experience possible on their Rose Bowl trip, which begins Christmas night when 276 passengers depart from UI Willard Airport for Los Angeles on the first of three charter flights this week.

Some preliminary planning took place in November, but on Sunday evening, Dec. 2, when it was announced that Illinois would face Southern California in the 94th Rose Bowl football game, lots of wheels began spinning.

Football administrative assistant Nicole Anderson and Director of Football Operations Adrian Melendez work on one of a myriad of checklists associated with Rose Bowl travel arrangements.

"Prior to the announcement, there wasn't a lot we could plan for," said Adrian Melendez, director of football operations. Dana and I spoke with our equipment, athletic training and strength and conditioning staffs to determine what their needs would be at a bowl site, and we discussed potential travel party lists and departure dates, depending on which bowl we would be playing in."

"Since setting up air travel is so time consuming, each year we include various bowl scenarios when we bid out our flights for the entire football season," Brenner said. But that's about all we can do that early in the game."

The arrangements for such a trip as this are almost unending.

"Things get pretty complex and expensive when you're moving almost 700 people (actually 690) such a long distance for such a long period of time," he continued. "We want everyone to have the best experience they can have, and it's our job to make sure everyone gets where they need to go safely, and with as few delays as possible. As far as the expenses are concerned, we receive $2.1 million to cover them, and we'll be right at that amount. The three flights cost a total of $700,000, right off the top."

Planning is very involved, especially when there are so many difference sub-groups in the travel party with different schedules and different needs.

For example, the Marching Illini group will number 344 people and will travel Dec. 29 on two 172-passenger planes, and 35 members of the football team who don't live within a three-hour drive of Champaign will fly to the West Coast Christmas Day from home on their own--from places such as Florida, Washington, D.C. and Mississippi.

The Rose Bowl staff is very experienced, very organized and extremely attentive to the schools' needs, according to the Illinois staff.

"The day after the announcement we received a very detailed, 129-page team manual from the committee," said Assistant Athletic Director James Morton. "It has been invaluable in our planning process. It helped us in formulating our checklists for what needs to be done here in Champaign, as well as what will be happening in California.

"The Rose Bowl staff does a phenomenal job. They listen to past participants and other Big Ten teams concerning their Rose Bowl and other bowl experiences. They truly want the student-athletes and others traveling out there to have a great time out there."

A few days after the Dec. 2. announcement, Brenner, Melendez, Director of Athletics Ron Guenther, Ticket Manager Jason Heggemeyer, Sports Information Director Kent Brown, Associate Vice Chancellor Bill Adams and Laurie Frost of the UI Alumni Association, traveled to Southern California for meetings and tours to facilitate the planning process. The following week, six members of the Tournament of Roses/Rose Bowl staff came to Champaign-Urbana to follow up with the Illinois people.

Trent Chesnut, John Birdsell and Justin Dixon pack equipment for the Rose Bowl trip.

"One of the more difficult aspects of all of this is the scheduling of each event during the week we're there, because of the uncertainty of travel times," said Melendez. "Traffic at different hours of the day can really make a difference in how long it takes to get from one place to another."

The team, for example, has meetings and practices each day, as well as press conferences and other appearances at places such as Disneyland, Universal Studios, Lawry's Prime Rib, etc., which can involve bus rides of 45 minutes or more. The band has similar obligations. The overall Illinois contingent will be using 15 busses to get around the Los Angeles area for the next several days.

And that's just the people-moving part of it. There will be plenty of luggage to be moved for the 690 travelers, in addition to literally tons and tons of equipment. Although the band instruments will be carried on the planes with the performers, they'll need a Ryder truck to transport the trumpets, flutes, drums, etc., from place to place in California. On the football side, the UI equipment staff began packing uniforms, pads, tackling dummies, kicking nets, video equipment, etc., last Wednesday into a semi, which left Memorial Stadium Thursday evening and arrived in the Los Angeles area yesterday with its full, 20,000-pound payload.

The Fighting Illini will be practicing at the Home Depot athletic complex in Carson, Calif., each day. The complex includes the 35,000-seat soccer stadium for the Galaxy pro team, as well as several practice fields and weight training facilities. So, unlike for training camp in Rantoul each August, the staff doesn't have to transport weight-lifting equipment for the team to use leading up to the Rose Bowl.

When this semi-truck trailer is full, it will hold about 20,000 pounds of equipment and supplies for the Fighting Illini football team to use during its Rose Bowl trip.

"We take just about everything else, though," said equipment manager Trent Chesnut. "We packed the truck strategically, with our sideline fans and game items at the front, our practice gear in the middle, and the things that need to go to the hotel at the back. As much as we're taking, I think we would have taken a little more, such as blocking sleds, etc., if we would have been playing in Florida. Taking a second truck there wouldn't have been nearly as big a deal as it would be to California."

All of this and more for a "working vacation." So many details to consider. Plenty of late hours and weekend in the office this month. A glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of Rose Bowl preparation.

"I haven't done much sleeping in December," Melendez admitted." I lay in bed at night thinking about all of this. When I need to make myself a reminder, I send an e-mail. One morning I had five e-mail messages from myself."