One challenge that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to the new-look Big 12 and Big Ten
You seldom hear it mentioned, but conference coaches have to be worried about it
Call it the suitcase anchor.
It’s easy to gloss over a key hurdle when college presidents, conference commissioners, and TV moguls are trying to create Power Five leagues that benefit — who else — themselves.
Expansion sounds great on paper, but then you get in the weeds and learn the toll that travel takes on sports teams. You see it in the NBA, and you are seeing it in the expanded Big 12. Certainly, UCLA and USC will feel it once they are members of the Big Ten.
Long travel will adversely impact athletes over the course of a season.
This past weekend West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins explained that one of the reasons his team is struggling right now is that travel has extracted some life and buoyancy out of his team; that packing, flying, riding a bus, staying in hotels and changing time zones has come at a cost.
Bob Huggins: "This has been a really hard run. This is a hard run for anybody. Playing as many games as we’ve played, travel the way we traveled, it's rough. The other teams in this league have no idea. They complain about coming to Morgantown — how about what we do"— Wesley Shoemaker (@wesleyshoe) February 11, 2023
His comments came after losing to No. 5 Texas, dropping to 15-10 overall and 4-8 in the Big 12 standings.
This is going to be a tough reality for a lot of teams in the years to come. You can’t ignore it.
By bringing this up, Huggins may have uttered the unspoken words coaches try to avoid. Understand, folks see it as first-class excuse-making.
For decades the league slate for USC and UCLA has been 90- to 120-minute flights to Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City or even shorter trips to Berkeley or Palo Alto, and the trip to the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl is a short bus ride.
Seattle is 1,136 miles from Los Angeles. But from Los Angeles to State College, Pennsylvania, is 2,566 miles, a 38-hour drive. Rutgers University in New Jersey is 2,787 miles via driving and 2,449 by air or four hours and 38 minutes. No, Trojans teams are not going to drive to the Midwest or the East Coast, they’ll fly. But there’s a reason these leagues were created with nearby neighbors in the beginning, when trains and bus trips were the norm. Today, jet lag is a real thing.
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta knows travel is the biggest issue in expansion.
“Whatever the solution is — and yes, we’ve talked about that possibility (about travel partners) — whatever the solution is, one of the first things the ADs and the presidents said to the conference is we’ve got to figure out how to mitigate the travel challenge,” Barta said during a press conference at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Because if you’re at Rutgers and you’re going to USC or if you’re at UCLA and you’re going to Maryland there’s going to have to be some sort of recognition of that when we get into travel.”
Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Indiana players and fans will find it fun to go to California. The coaches never will. In time, it will become a strategic grind.
BYU will find this to be true when trips to Morgantown, Cincinnati, Orlando and Houston kick in, sometimes back-to-back. Visiting teams to LaVell Edwards Stadium will also feel the lag. Perhaps the Rose Bowl-bound Utes found this to be true in the loss to Florida at Gainesville last September.
I remember back in 1980 when Ladell Andersen’s BYU team was 17-0 and was loaded with Michael Smith, Brian Taylor, Jeff Chatman, Marty Haws, Andy Toolson and Jim Usevitch and the Cougars were ranked No. 3 nationally. Just after beating Utah in the Marriott Center 102-83 on Feb. 4, the schedule called for BYU to travel to Alabama-Brmingham, near Chatman’s home in Talladega.
On game night the Cougars were flat and lacking energy. In no way, shape or form were they the same 17-0 team that arrived in Atlanta and took the bus to Birmingham. After the loss, at the team hotel, Andersen was beside himself and according to radio play-by-play voice Paul James, who was invited to his room to let him vent, he was rearranging furniture — so uncharacteristic of his personality.
The next morning in the hotel lobby, Andersen asked reporters Brad Rock (Deseret News), myself (Daily Herald) and Ray Herbat (Salt Lake Tribune), what we thought of the game. Herbat, replied quietly, “Coach, I don’t think you guys played very good defense.”
Andersen snapped at Herbat, questioning what he knew about the game. This was totally against his nature and none of us had ever seen this from him. An hour later at the airport, the veteran coach called us over and apologized to Herbat, calling him a longtime friend. This was exactly like the kind of man Andersen was, the man we all knew.
As I’ve thought about it all these years, and how Andersen was so unhappy that his athletic director Glen Tuckett had scheduled that game — a long road trip — sandwiched between games with Utah and Miami at home, I began to understand how much coaches fret about these travel issues.
It isn’t as easy as it seems.
It isn’t as simple as some college administrators make it out to be. You can chalk in a USC or UCLA on a team schedule in the Big Ten and think it’s all roses, and nifty and neat. But when the grind comes week in and week out, it can become a real anchor.
You won’t hear coaches bring it up — it’s their job to put on a stone face and declare, “We’ll play anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
But then you have a long trip, like Utah losing to Florida 29-26 in Gainesville; a top-10 team losing to a 6-7 finisher in September 2022.
Or, BYU in 2017 continuing to falter in back-to-back losses at Mississippi State and East Carolina on Oct. 14 and 21.
Now, of course, that 2017 BYU team had its issues, but it didn’t help to rectify what was going on when those two short-week road trips surfaced in the middle of the struggle.
Travel does impact sports teams. It is a matter of energy, focus, preparation time and an interruption of the regular schedules bodies are used to. Road games are hard, especially in basketball.
The midpoint of the current 351 Division I home-court winning percentage is 67.65%. The home-court advantage is no myth. Neither is the home-field edge in football.
So, when considering what impacts will come through conference expansion, the travel schedule is certainly considered and debated, but often overlooked. But not by coaches.
If the Pac-12 were to add San Diego State and Southern Methodist to get back to 12 schools after USC and UCLA leave, the travel schedule will be minimal for Utah and that’s a good thing for the Utes.
But for the Cougars, there will be weeks that travel for all of their teams will take a toll, as Huggins has explained from his perch in Morgantown, a college town tucked away in the mountains of West Virginia.
The Bruins and Trojans — and the rest of the Big Ten, and certainly the Big 12 — are going to face some reality soon.
Travel can be hard. Even with most teams in the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten using private charter aircraft, it is a very tough challenge.
Glossing over this issue is a mistake.
The coaches know.