Hitting the road never routine
One of the most satisfying feelings a coach can have is winning a big game on the road. The Subway sandwiches taste better; the trip home seems shorter; and the mood of the team is upbeat.
Well, it's that time of year -- the start of conference play -- when everyone has to go on the road and put away the "cupcakes" until next November. And, the ability to be successful on the road usually defines what type of season a team is going to have. Not to mention, if the NCAA Tournament is in its future.
Stanford went on its first road trip in Pac-10 play this season and pulled off an impressive sweep of Arizona schools, capping off the weekend in the desert with its fourth straight victory in McKale Center -- an 82-72 statement over the Wildcats. Gene Keady's Purdue Boilermakers won at the new home of his former protégé, Bruce Weber, Illinois' Assembly Hall. And, in case you don't keep track as closely as I do to my former team, Manhattan, well, the Jaspers went north and won both MAAC contests on the always dreaded "Buffalo trip" -- Niagara and Canisius.
What makes a road trip difficult? One reason is the travel. When I coached, my motto was "Hope for the best, expect the worst." Things will go wrong on a road trip, sometimes more than others. Usually, it's weather-related. You have to teach your team to go with the flow and not get rattled.
Remember last year's NCAA Tournament when Vermont's first trip to the Dance in 103 years meant a trip to Salt Lake City to take on top-seeded Arizona? Well, the Catamounts wound up stuck in a snowstorm in Denver for two days. After finally chartering a flight out of Colorado Springs, they arrived at their destination in the wee hours of the morning on the day of their first-round game. While they didn't win, their inspired play during the first 10 minutes was a credit to their character under adverse conditions.
My most memorable win at St. John's University came when we played Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on ESPN, with blizzard-like conditions as a backdrop. Our bus was stranded on the steep hill that leads up to the Dome. The nationally televised game had to be delayed. Our players had already pulled on their uniforms at the hotel and were so excited to play, they were willing to walk the final quarter-mile to the Dome in the storm so the game wouldn't be canceled. It would have ruined a lot of sneakers, not to mention my only nice suit! Instead, we loosened up everyone on the bus by telling jokes. Eventually, a path was cleared by university personnel and the New York state police escorted us to the arena. The delay actually broke some of the team's tension and we played relaxed and pretty well.
Destinations can also make some road trips harder than others. Take, for example, the Big Sky Conference. This conference is a travel agent's worst nightmare. Like the Pac-10, the conference pairs its teams with travel partners, allowing teams to play two games per road trip. Still, the travel is brutal.
In the case of a team like Montana, Pat Kennedy's squad will play at Sacramento State on Thursday night and 48 hours later, play at Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Montana State, the Grizzlies' travel partner, just reverses the order. Needless to say, it is difficult to get from Missoula, Mont., to Sacramento and then to Flagstaff ... before returning to Missoula.
To put this trip in perspective, it's like visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, being at the rim of the Grand Canyon two days later, and then returning home to Glacier National Park.
Down South, winning in the SEC is tough enough, because the league is always competitive. The travel makes it even tougher.
Because the majority of the teams are in small college towns, booking commercial flights is difficult. So, every team must charter flights into small airports. And, once in town, there isn't exactly a five-star hotel or fancy restaurant on every corner -- although you'll find some of the best barbecue in the county in places like Starkville and Tuscaloosa. Rick Pitino, when he coached Kentucky, finally decided to fly his teams in and out of these small towns the day of a game, and follows the same itinerary for Conference USA games when the destination is a place like East Carolina.
Maybe the most obvious reason a road game is so difficult to win is because the comfortable environment the home team usually enjoys is a psychological advantage. It's their arena, their rims, their locker room, and their fans. Often, in a hostile environment like Connecticut or Utah, it's just you and your team. Those 50 complimentary tickets given to the visitors are nice for the die-hard fans who travel with a team, but they are quickly drowned out by the other 13,000 lunatics rooting for the home team ... and questioning your ancestry.
Still, good road teams stay focused and don't allow the crowd to determine the outcome of the game. Usually, a team that wins on the road gets off to a good start and keeps the fans quiet. In Stanford's win over Arizona, the Cardinal jumped out early, led by 13 at the half, withstood the Wildcats' mini-runs in the second half, and eventually got its lead back up to 18 before putting the game away with Chris Hernandez's free throws. I'm sure Stanford's players enjoyed the silence of the McKale Center crowd as the game was winding down.
I used to try to keep my teams focused during a road game, "TV time out by TV time out." In other words, we'd try to play "four-minute games" and not get daunted by playing well for 40 straight minutes. This strategy is especially important when a team is an underdog. The longer it can stay in a game on the road, the tighter the home team gets. The key is doing anything it can to keep from being blown out early.
Despite what anyone says, officiating can be a little tricky for the visitor. It is just human nature for an inexperienced official to get caught up, at times, in the excitement and energy of the home crowd. And, some officials don't want to be involved in an "upset," especially when the home team is supposed to win. But, my experience has been that the best officials bend over backwards to ensure the visitor gets fair treatment. In fact, I remember a Final Four-level official tell me at UConn one night, "Your team is playing great. If they deserve to win, they will." That is a comforting feeling for a visiting coach.
Obviously, each coach has routines on the road that work for him. Some want to practice at home before leaving, while others prefer to practice on their opponent's court. Some want to get to the arena early on the day of a game, while others get there as close to tipoff as possible. Some are superstitious and will change hotels if they lose. Almost everyone will have a film session the night before a game before putting the kids to bed with a snack. Some coaches' game-day practices are intense and some are just designed to make sure the players are awake.
Regardless of the stress a road trip puts on the coach, it also provides an opportunity for education. Not only do coaches learn about their teams, but they can expand players' horizons.
When we played at Niagara, we would drive from Buffalo to the morning shoot-around on the day of the game. The ritual was to take all of our newcomers over to see Niagara Falls, which was an awesome sight -- the first time. But, after several visits in bone-chilling January, the novelty wore off. And, when we'd arrive at the observation area, the spray off the falls would freeze on our warm-up suits. It would take about 20 minutes to thaw. No wonder we never shot well up there!
I can also remember our NCAA Tournament trip to Memphis in 1995. We took all the players to Civil Rights Museum at the hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. That was as memorable as playing in the tournament and it was talked about long after we got back to New York.
Every road trip is full of memories, both on and off the court. But the trips that end with a win or two on the court are always the best. Not to mention, the most satisfying.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.