Planes, trains and automobiles: A day in the life of a low-major program

I spent a few days on the recruiting trail with UT-Pan American coach Ryan Marks in July of 2011 -- and it was highly entertaining (yes, and also informative). Our travels were interesting to say the least, but they were nothing compared to what Marks endured on Thursday. 

Here's his first-person account of how he and his team went from Texas to Chicago -- in a jaunt that took nearly 24 hours and covered nearly all forms of transportation. Enjoy!

By Ryan Marks, UT-Pan American coach

As I walked into the visitor’s locker room following our 63-48 loss at UT-Arlington on Wednesday night, it was with mixed emotions. UTA has played great basketball over the last month and had just pounded us on the boards en route to a 20-point halftime lead. The flipside was that we executed much better on both ends in the second half and hopefully can carry that momentum forward into our last three regular-season games, starting at Chicago State this Saturday.

When we returned to the Hyatt Place in Arlington later that night, everything was status quo. Like clockwork, we passed out a postgame meal -- our finicky eating point guard Aaron Urbanus complained incessantly like always because Schlotzky’s had put something healthy like tomatoes or pickles on his sandwich -- and then everybody headed back to their rooms to get a little sleep before an early morning wake-up call.

When my Blackberry alarm sounded at 5:15 a.m., I had no clue we were about to trump Neal Page and Del Griffith to become the new gold standard for travel woes even without driving down a highway in the wrong direction while singing Ray Charles’ "Mess Around" off key.  

6 a.m. -- The Van-tastic Broncs and our four mini-vans driven by myself and assistant coaches Nick Bennett, Tim Anderson and Joel Weiss depart from the hotel.

6:35 a.m. -- Negotiating through heavy traffic on Harry Hines Boulevard, we arrive at Dallas-Love Field, drop the players off to check in and returned the mini-vans to Enterprise.

7:15 a.m. -- Everybody is through security (my shoes smelled particularly lovely this morning), a quick stop for some overpriced airport snacks and breakfast items, and off to our gate.

7:40 a.m. -- Our Southwest Airlines flight to St. Louis begins boarding.  

8 a.m. -- The pilot announces we will endure a brief delay due to thunderstorms in the DFW area.

8:55 a.m. -- Our flight is finally “wheels up” to St. Louis.

10:15 a.m. -- We arrive at St. Louis Lambert Airport just as our connecting flight to Chicago-Midway is scheduled to depart.

10:20 a.m. -- Despite hustling off the flight, our travel party of 20 and approximately 10 other folks from our flight are too late for the connection. We are re-scheduled on a 12:45 departure.

10:30 a.m. -- I distribute meal money to the players, and most of them lounge around the gate doing homework and listening to music.

11:30 a.m. -- Rumors are swirling that all flights schedule to depart after 2 p.m. might get cancelled because of bad weather.

Noon -- The plane that will takes us to Chicago-Midway arrives at the gate and, shortly after a de-icing, a truck can be seen approaching the plane.

12:15 p.m. -- An announcement is made that we will be boarding shortly.

The midwestern storm has brough havoc. (UTPA Athletics)

12:30 p.m. -- An ominous announcement is made that we might be experiencing a slight delay due to the increasingly accumulating snow.

12:50 p.m. -- The official announcement is made that our flight is cancelled. Coach Weiss, our video coordinator, Jason Benadretti, and our graduate manager, Dulce Danel, all get in line for re-booking while announcements are made that no further flights would leave St. Louis the rest of the day.

1 p.m. -- After learning that we would be re-booked on a flight for Friday night at 6,  I call Amtrak to check their availability for trains leaving that afternoon. Fortunately, they still have 20 seats for a 5:30 departure.

1:30 p.m. -- With cab lines numbering 150-200 people deep, we decide to take the Metrolink rail into downtown and the Amtrak station. The Metrolink stop at Lambert Airport is outside, and we stand for 15 minutes in the blizzard conditions with all our luggage, having purchased 20 ride passes from a vending machine. Interestingly, we have gained a small group of travelers who are following our lead on how to get to Chicago because we “appear to know what we are doing.” Oh, those poor folks.

2:15 p.m. -- We exit the Metrolink and trudge to through snow into the Amtrak station, where we wait for three hours to hopefully board Amtrak 306 to Chicago.

5:15 p.m. -- Amtrak begins boarding of our train. With four of our players being from the Chicago area, myself and Coach Anderson also Chi-town natives, and Coach Bennett being from Wisconsin, the declaration that we are departing for Chicago is a happy one.

5:45 p.m. -- Having pulled out of the station, I proudly text our AD, Chris King, with the message that the Broncs are “all-aboard” to Chicago, somewhat pleased with myself and our resourcefulness.

8:15 p.m. -- The train comes to a stop a few miles after passing Springfield, IL. The conductor proclaims that we are experiencing engine malfunction, and they will keep us posted.

The team remained in high spirits. (UTPA Athletics)

8:45 p.m. -- The bad news is the engine is non-operational. The good news (good is a bit of a stretch) is that a Georgia Pacific engine is coming to push us onto a sidetrack and that “sister train” Amtrak 305 is headed in the other direction with two engine cars and will give us one ... when it arrives in two hours.

10:45 p.m. -- Passengers (including our contingent) have grown grumpy by the delay and the fact that the café car is completely out of food after the Broncs purchased the three remaining bagels, a blueberry muffin, a cinnamon roll and two king-sized Twix bars. The genuinely accommodating Amtrak staffers working under tough conditions pass out small snack packs and water. The Amtrak 305 arrives, and work begins to switch the engines.

11:40 p.m. -- To a round of cheers, both sincere and sarcastic, we were finally rolling on.

12:45 a.m. -- We stop at the Bloomington/Normal station, and the café car receives a desperately needed delivery of Jimmy John’s subs and chips, of which we happily purchase 20 of each. Even Urbanus was happy to have one with lettuce.

3:05 a.m. -- Only five miles from Chicago Union Station, the train stops to wait for freight traffic.  

3:50 a.m. -- The train goes backward a quarter mile to potentially switch tracks.

4:00 a.m. -- An announcement is made that the switch for track “Main Two” is frozen and will have to be adjusted physically by the conductors. The train goes forward half a mile, and then we just wait again.

4:13 a.m. -- Everyone gets a reminder that there are a couple Jimmy John’s subs still available at the café car.  Hmmm ... could I consider it a breakfast sandwich now?

4:15 a.m. -- An announcement is made that the current conducting staff has exhausted their allowable work hours and a “relief crew” is on its way to meet us and bring the train into the station.

4:17 a.m. -- An angry passenger has had enough and engages in a shouting match with one of the conductors. Profanity abounds!

4:28 a.m. -- Like an unbridled Carlos Marmol coming out of the bullpen at Wrigley, the relief crew has arrived. We are back on the move!

4:41 a.m. -- The train rolls into Chicago Union Station, 5 hours and 26 minutes late, as the midwest snowstorm hits the area. With our rental vans still at Midway Airport, my wife, Mara, who flew into Chicago earlier in the evening and is at my mother’s apartment, has scrambled to find a cab/shuttle/limo service to take us to the Springhill Suites about two miles away. My AD might not love the price, but we weren’t in a good position to barter.

5:02 a.m. -- After 23 hours and 2 minutes, we are finally checked into the Springhill Suites in downtown Chicago. We have 38 hours and 28 minutes to sleep, recover, practice and prepare for our game with Chicago State on Saturday night -- and, hopefully, we won’t have to sell any of Del Griffith’s shower curtain rings in order to get there. Go, Broncs!

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