When Tulsa plays its first league road game as a member of the American Athletic Conference this October, the trip to Philadelphia to face Temple will be the culmination of months of preparation and planning.
And none of that will have anything to do with the Golden Hurricane's plan for the game itself.
"Battles are won in the planning stages," said Kyle Grooms, director of football operations for Tulsa, citing one of his favorite quotes from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. "It's not about where you play, it's about how you travel."
As one of a dozen FBS programs switching to or joining a new conference for the 2014-15 season, Tulsa and its realignment brethren face much more than a change in the level of competition. With new cities to visit, some of which require cross-country trips, the logistics associated with taking a college football team on the road can be as intricate and involved as scheming to stop the opponent's read-option offense.
Concern about travel depends on the program, though. West Virginia was one of the first teams to make a major move, both competitively and geographically, in 2012, but Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen has focused more on the who instead of the where.
“We were facing a significant upgrade in competition,” Holgorsen said. “A lot of people want to make geography a part of it, but I don't buy into that. I've never viewed it as a problem.”
Whether it will bother Tulsa will depend on how well someone like Grooms does his job. A former Tulsa player (who experienced the program's move from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA in 2005) entering his fourth season handling all of the Hurricane's travel arrangements, he has had his work cut out for him of late. Including this season's American trips to Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and Temple, he'll have made arrangements for road trips to 11 different cities in the past three years just for league games.
“It gets easier the more you do it,” Grooms said.
Because C-USA went through a major overhaul in 2013—adding six schools while losing four—the Hurricane will take only one repeat trip (to Houston, in 2012 and this November) over a three-year span. And that's only because the American has become a de facto C-USA, with East Carolina and Tulane joining Tulsa in that league this year along with the four (Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU) who joined last season.
Tulsa's move becomes official on July 1, the same as for most teams making a conference switch this year. Most notable are Maryland (ACC) and Rutgers (American) to the Big Ten and Louisville (American) to the ACC, though all told five leagues will feature new lineups for 2014-15.
And while the main motivation for the changes centers around improved competition and better exposure (i.e., TV money), one thing that hasn't seemed to factor into the shifts has been a regard for travel impact.
|School (Conference)||Year Joined||Avg. Conference Road Trip Before Move (Miles)||Avg. Conference Road Trip After Move (Miles)|
|Idaho (Sun Belt)||2014||1,197||1,809|
|Nebraska (Big Ten)||2011||329||601|
|N. Mexico St. (Sun Belt)||2014||797||1,189|
|UTSA (Conference USA)||2013||328||593|
|W. Virginia (Big 12)||2012||422||1,018|
Idaho and NMSU were independent in 2013; pre-move travel data is from 2012
The massive realignment wave began in 2011 when Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, but it was the next year when things got really wacky in terms of geography. That's when Missouri and Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC, a move that resulted in Missouri getting lumped into the SEC's East Division with the likes of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
The Big 12 responded by adding TCU and West Virginia, the latter sliding over from the Big East and initiating a mass exodus from that league over the next two years that affected nearly every league in FBS.
For West Virginia, moving to the Big 12 meant far more travel than before when it came to league road games. In their last Big East season, in 2011, the Mountaineers' average conference away game was 422 miles from Morgantown. The first slate of Big 12 road games, in 2012, were an average of 1,018 miles from home.
The conference switch wasn't even a possibility when Holgorsen left Oklahoma State for West Virginia in December 2010. He came to the school to be an offensive coordinator in the Big East, then was tabbed as the head coach before the 2011 season and led the Mountaineers to a league title and a blowout win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. During that 2011 season was when West Virginia announced its move, sending Holgorsen back to the Big 12 where he'd spent nine of the previous 10 seasons as an assistant.
“I had a lot of familiarity (with the Big 12), having been there before,” he said. “I thought I could pass that on to the players. I was able to hit a home run with some of the boosters when it came to recommending some of the best restaurants.”
Holgorsen said he was more worried about how his players would handle facing better teams in bigger stadiums than anything to do with travel. While in the Big East his team had short 60- or 90-minute flights to games at Rutgers or Syracuse, but they also bussed the 300-mile trip to Cincinnati. As a result, having to fly more than two hours to get to cities in Oklahoma or Texas wasn't a big deal, he said.
“Sometimes we would bus five hours; it doesn't take five hours to get to Lubbock,” he said.
The key to minimizing travel and road woes is to stick to a routine, Holgorsen said, noting that whether playing at home or away the goal was to always be at the team hotel by 5 p.m. the day before a game. He said kickoff times, dictated by TV, can cause the most trouble because you have less control on when you're able to return from a road game.
“It just affects you on the back end,” he said. "It might take you an hour or two to load everything up, and then you still have to get home."
Tulsa's Grooms echoed Holgorsen's routine sentiment, as he plans for a hotel arrival between 5 and 5:30 p.m. the day before away games. Any earlier or later can mess with the routine and lead to too much idle time or a cramped schedule.
“We want to make it so that we plan the same way whether we're playing in San Diego or New York,” he said. “We want to keep it the same no matter the distance or destination.”
Tulsa announced its move to the American in April 2013 but didn't find out which teams it was going to play until February of this year, and when those games would be wasn't finalized until March. That put extra importance on what Grooms called his “spring recon trips,” when he visits three or four hotels in each road city to find the best place to stay and start working out a travel package.
If planned properly, players will have little exposure to the inner workings of a road trip. That's how UTSA senior offensive lineman Nate Leonard has seen it.
“We're so secluded when we go on the road, if we don't look outside we wouldn't know where we are,” said Leonard, who has started as the Roadrunners' center since the school began its football program in 2011. “The bus ride is the only time we know our surroundings.”
In Leonard's career he's seen UTSA go from being an independent in the FCS ranks to part of the now-defunct WAC and now to C-USA. He's played road games as far west as California and as far east as West Virginia, with a trip to Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton this season. He admits that travel can “take you out of your comfort zone,” but it's hard to complain about the opportunity.
“Playing football all over the country is a dream come true,” he said.
All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise specified.
Distances based on TravelMath.com figures.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.