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March Madness: Irish Logistics

March 15, 2017

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By John Heisler

College basketball fans everywhere are scurrying to fill out their NCAA Championship brackets–especially Notre Dame fans since the Irish men play the very first game at 12:15 p.m. Thursday.

Meanwhile there’s a massive behind-the-scenes logistical effort involving planes, trains and automobiles (and buses) for more than 100 men’s and women’s teams headed all over America.

A massive winter storm on the East Coast isn’t making matters any easier–including for the Irish men who play in Buffalo.

But, first, the back story.

The crazy logistics actually began last week in Brooklyn for the Irish.

The Notre Dame traveling party had planned to return to campus very late Saturday night (actually early Sunday morning) after playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title game. That’s the same thing the Irish did after winning that same event two years ago in Greensboro.

But, just as the team was boarding its bus early Saturday evening at its Times Square hotel to head to the Barclays Center, Notre Dame was informed that mechanical problems forced cancellation of the flight home that night.

Instead, after arriving back at its hotel from the championship game at 1:30 a.m. (and also losing an hour to daylight savings time) the Irish squad left the hotel at 11 a.m. Sunday for a 12:20 p.m. charter flight–and even that exercise had its hiccups.

The Irish band bus had left earlier, headed to the Teeterboro airport (in New Jersey). But, again, at the 11th hour, came word that the flight would depart from Newark instead, so the band bus had to be re-routed.

The Irish travel party finally arrived in South Bend at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and played host to its NCAA bracket announcement affair a few hours later.

While Notre Dame makes its own fight arrangements during the regular season, once the NCAA Championship begins all travel is coordinated and approved through the NCAA. The reality of quick turnarounds in postseason play is combined with the fact that charter fight options are limited–with many aircraft deployed to make multiple trips per day ferrying teams from place to place. That’s why there is a ripple effect when events occur such as what happened with Michigan’s plane last week on its way to the Big Ten Tournament.

“The problem with charter aircraft these days is that there is limited inventory,” says Jim Fraleigh, Notre Dame deputy athletics director and men’s basketball administrator. “That means planes are assigned all day long at this time of year. When one gets backed up, the whole system gets backed up. That’s what caused our issue in New York.”

Fraleigh and his assistant Karen Demeter have been working since Sunday to nail down all the details for the Irish trip to Buffalo. They work closely with men’s hoops director of operations Harold Swanagan who is responsible for all team-related specifics, including hotel requirements, buses and team meals.

Fraleigh took care of the travel manifest–including pep band and support staff–and official NCAA credentialing. For example, beyond players, coaches, student managers and a select few staff, the NCAA permits a list of 17 other individuals who are allowed to attend official (and otherwise closed) practices and be around the locker room. The announcement of the assigned NCAA sites prompts a mad scramble to pencil in all sorts of details in a short window.

Though weather has been the popular watchword and both Villanova and Irish opponent Princeton traveled to Buffalo Monday night, the Irish stayed with a 3 p.m. Tuesday departure. That confirmation did not come until late Monday.

In fact, some of the Buffalo tournament administrative contacts–in conversations with Notre Dame officials–scoffed at the idea the weather would be any serious obstacle. After all, white stuff is hardly foreign to anyone living in the Buffalo area in the winter.

Still, it was snowing when the Notre Dame flight landed in Buffalo about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, it was snowing when the Irish went to sleep and it was snowing when they woke up Wednesday morning. Maybe they’re doing penance for a particularly mild February in South Bend.

Two to four more inches of snow fell over night and another one to three inches were expected Wednesday. There’s about a foot of snow on the ground overall, not accounting for the lake-effect gusts.

A former roommate of Irish basketball athletic trainer Skip Meyer’s son is an assistant manager at the Buffalo airport, so Meyer checked in with him for extra local weather updates.

The Irish did benefit from a local connection via University of Buffalo athletics director Allen Greene, a former Notre Dame baseball player and administrative staffer. Greene assisted in making his campus facilities (not far from the hotel assigned to the Irish) available to Mike Brey and his team for practices during the week.

Brey is more than familiar with the area, often staying at a Marriott adjacent to Notre Dame’s assigned team hotel when he came to see his son Kyle play football for the University of Buffalo.

Upon arrival at the arena Wednesday Irish assistant coach Ryan Ayers–who a year ago this time was coaching at Bucknell–exchanged all sorts of hugs and handshakes with Bison coaches, players and staff in a back hallway.

Meanwhile, Brey and assistant coaches Rod Balanis, Ryan Humphrey and Ayers spent long hours this week analyzing video of dozens of opponent games. Games can be loaded routinely onto laptop computers, so coaches have the option of heading home and viewing games off-site as opposed to being chained to their offices.

“We’ve done all this the last few years so there is a routine and familiarity with it,” says Fraleigh. “Karen helped with a lot of this, and we know what needs to get done in what order and when deadlines are for providing information back to the NCAA and the local organizers.”

Three games in three late-night time slots in Brooklyn meant late-morning wake-up calls and routine postgame snacks back at the hotel at very early morning hours in a seemingly deserted hotel. This week the timing script is flipped with the Irish playing just after noon.

Rebounding from three physical games in three nights, something the Irish did not do at any other point in the season, ensured that practice sessions this week were light–with more of an emphasis on walk-throughs and video preparation.

Says Meyer, “Mike (Brey) is great about recovery days and knowing the sweet spot for how much practice time on the court is enough.”

It’s spring break this week at Notre Dame, so the campus is virtually deserted. That’s also meant no arrangements for class misses were required based on travel this week.

All that free time might have provided both the Irish men’s and women’s teams with additional chances for on-court work, but Purcell Pavilion was dark Monday until early afternoon.

At 2:30 p.m. Rex Pflueger appeared to do some extra shooting and free-throw work, with Ayers assisting and rebounding. The men’s team practiced after that, and the Irish women followed in advance of their Monday evening NCAA bracket announcement.

“At this time of year, it’s way more about being healthy and fresh on Thursday,” says Meyer.

In a perfect world, both Irish teams will advance and next week will be crafting travel plans for regional action in San Jose (men) and Lexington (women).

Midway through the ACC Tournament title game Saturday, Meyer asked one of the officials if he had any idea where he would be assigned for the NCAA Championships.

The official had yet to be scheduled, and Meyer–knowing there might be weather issues–replied in jest, “You’ll probably get sent to Buffalo.”

Instead, that’s where the Irish headed.

With the Notre Dame women playing host to first- and second-round games Friday and Sunday at Purcell Pavilion, that saves on travel logistics for the Irish–though the hosting assignment brings with it a different sort of lengthy laundry list of assignments for the Notre Dame athletic staff.

Spring break means lots of other Notre Dame teams are on the road this week–including hockey (Boston for the Hockey East semifinals and final), men’s lacrosse (Colorado and Virginia), women’s lacrosse (Maryland and Virginia), women’s swimming and diving (Indianapolis for the NCAA Championships), baseball (North Carolina and Pennsylvania), softball (Georgia and Florida), women’s golf (Arizona), men’s golf (Georgia), track and field (Georgia to open the outdoor season) and women’s tennis (Virginia and North Carolina).

The weather back east already played havoc with the schedule for the men’s lacrosse team. That Irish squad had been slated to fly to Baltimore Monday, but the flight was cancelled before Notre Dame’s Sunday game at Denver even started. So Kevin Corrigan’s team stayed a few extra days in Denver and planned to fly to Raleigh, North Carolina, late Wednesday on its way to a Saturday night game in Charlottesville against Virginia.

Meanwhile, the Irish basketball team bus crawled its way Wednesday along snow-covered freeways at around 30 miles per hour on its way to KeyBank Center for its assigned interviews and open practice.

Said Brey, “I love lake effect because I live in lake effect in South Bend. This is like a January game for us.”

Planes, trains and automobiles (and buses), indeed.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on