Skip Stern has been driving his whole life.
The Air Force veteran got his start behind the wheel of military fuel trucks on the runways of U.S. air bases in Germany. He was serving his country then. He serves the players and coaches of the College World Series now.
Skip has been a bus driver for Arrow Stage Lines in Omaha, Neb., for decades. Arrow has the contract to drive the College World Series teams everywhere they need to go during their time in Omaha. For the past 18 years, Skip has done exactly that.
If you stand outside TD Ameritrade Park during the series, you see the team buses pull up out front, flanked by police escorts. The players and coaches of the respective teams get off the bus and get mobbed with high fives, fist bumps and camera flashes by excited fans.
In the background, the drivers like Skip sit quietly out of view. These teams are at the stadium on time, and guys like Skip Stern are the reason why.
This year, Skip is the driver for the North Carolina Tar Heels. It's the third time in his 18 years of driving for the series that he's been assigned to the Tar Heels and he couldn't be happier.
"UNC is fantastic," Skip says. "From the moment I pick them up at the airport, the players and coaches are nothing but happy to see me. We shake hands and exchange hugs at the airport, catch up a little bit. Mike Fox (UNC's coach) is a great guy. Great coach."
Skip drives the teams to and from hotels to practice, press conferences, dinners and various other public events. Most of the time he logs 10-hour days. He shows me the itinerary he has been given, which looks like a military technical order. Everything is about being in a certain place at a certain time to make the College World Series work like a well-oiled machine.
It's a good thing Skip has that military experience to fall back on.
As we were sitting and chatting on Skip's bus, a UNC assistant leans in the door and tosses a white and Carolina-blue polo at him. "Here ya go, Skip!", the assistant says. Skip looks at me, smiles and says "I've got a closet full of this stuff. Miami, North Carolina, Purdue." Those free shirts are just a small perk of Skip's job.
For the most part, Arrow assigns drivers to teams as they qualify. Guys who have been driving a while, like Skip, usually get to pick who they drive. "Everybody knows, if Miami, North Carolina or Arizona make it here, that's who I drive. I've drove for Miami a total of seven times and have built a nice relationship with their coach, Jim Morris."
That relationship began during Skip's first year as a CWS driver. Plans were being finalized that year to take the Miami Hurricanes to a prominent local steakhouse for dinner. Once Morris knew when and where his team would be dining, he asked Skip if he'd be eating with the team. "I didn't know I was invited," Skip said. Morris looked at him like a manager talking to one of his pitchers on the mound and replied, "You're part of this team."
That wasn't just lip service on the part of Morris. After the Hurricanes won the College World Series in 2001, all of the players and coaches received gold national championship rings. One of the people who received a ring for doing his part for Miami was Skip Stern.
"It's real heavy and I don't wear it often," Skip says. But I take it out and put it on during the series."
In all, Skip Stern has been a part of three national championship teams. His first two were with the Hurricanes. The third came in 2012, when he was the driver for the Arizona Wildcats. He's also been the driver for two runners-up.
Skip also thinks about some of the former player's he had the opportunity to drive for, many of whom went on to have careers in Major League Baseball. He rattles off names like Ryan Braun (Brewers), Alex Cora (now with ESPN), Darwin Barney (Cubs), Mark Prior (Cubs), John Jay (Cardinals), Yonder Alonso (Padres), Chris Perez (Indians) and Dustin Ackley (Mariners). He makes it a point to follow the careers of all of them as closely as he can.
I asked him what the best thing about his job was. Without hesitation, he cited the relationships he's built. "I like baseball, going to games, going to practices...all of it. But the thing I like most is the relationships. I love to get to know the players and coaches and build those relationships. That's what makes this job special."
As we concluded our discussion, I light-heartedly brought up his first name. He was quick to smile and say "I was Howard Stern before Howard Stern was Howard Stern." I certainly won't argue.
If you are lucky enough to be in Omaha this year for the College World Series, look around for the North Carolina bus. As you might you'd expect, it will be decked out in Carolina blue, so it will be hard to miss.
Once you find it, give Skip a holler, high five or a fist bump and thank him for being literally behind the wheel of one of America's greatest sporting events for the better part of the last two decades.
Maybe he'll show you his ring.
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