The first team travel exposure came about for me during my senior at Georgia when Dan Magill suggested to baseball coach, Jim Whatley, that I join the baseball team on its annual spring trip to Florida.
“You need to let Coach Whatley know if you can go with the team,” Magill directed. So, I followed up only to have the cynical and sarcastic Whatley say, “Yeah, I guess it will be okay. I’ll have to leave a reserve shortstop at home.”
The justification for the trip was that I would write about the Bulldog games from the Sunshine State for the Athens Banner-Herald. Being belittled good naturedly by the colorful coach would become a staple of my life, so I grinned and packed my bag.
Little did I know that it would come about that I would one day become the travel coordinator for the football team when Joel Eaves became athletic director. The first thing I learned was that Eaves, a military man, was a stickler for details. Woe be until the bus driver who was late or who was not familiar with the best and most efficient route to the stadium. I learned to remind everybody of every detail, most importantly, myself. With the new AD, no excuse, not one, was ever allowed. He and head coach, Vince Dooley, did not want single frustration to distract from the routine leading up to the game. You want your players to be in the right frame of mind to win the game. That has not changed.
Traveling with the team today is such relaxed pleasure. Put your bag in the proper holding area at Ben Epps Airport, and it will be waiting for you when you disembark at the team motel. In the Sixties, the team flew two Southern Airways prop planes, a Martin 404 and a DC 3, but with a remote airport, the team still bussed to many out-of-town sites.
Even in 1980 when the team was headed for a national championship, the team bussed to Knoxville, a five-hour trip. Later, when air travel was required, the team normally bussed to Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta. This past weekend it was a 27-minute flight over the mountain via a couple of Delta B717-200 jets. Georgia now can fly to any campus east of the Mississippi for a road game. Hallelujah!
While defeating Tennessee heightened the travel experience, it was fun to sit back and watch the Bulldog travel coordinators and the sprightly Delta personnel make sure there would be not a single faux pas that would make anybody the least bit irritated or uncomfortable. Things like giving 340-pound Jordan Davis two seats in the front of the cabin and waiting on him hand and foot.
The Atlanta based flight attendants, led by a long time Georgia fan, Beth Jensen, underscored extra effort for any need the Bulldog traveling party could ask. Energy, courtesy and smiles were as abundant as Powerade which is available for the players by the sackful. The players get a box meal when they leave the locker room. There are cheeseburgers for them as they board the plane if they want them. There are snack bags in their seat when they get to their designated location.
Delta’s finest walk up and down the aisles with ice cream snacks. They brought an atmosphere that was befitting the nation’s No. 1 team. High-Fives for this roll call of Delta/Bulldog aficionados: In addition to Beth there were Mei Tei Smith, Tami Chance, Cindy Williams, Linda Morgan, Donna Lowery, Robin Graham and William Guzman.
Of course, the most important group would be the pilots who managed those most valuable 27 minutes in the air. Pilots get the highest of high-fives as they all do when I board an aircraft of any kind from my friend Chris Davis’ single engine turboprop to the biggest jetliner in the business: Captains Gregory Dunn and Yoel Hernandez and first officers Blake Kononen and Mary Cocumelli. Not sure of all their alma maters, but for the trip to Knoxville, they were “Damn Good Dawgs.”
On the home front, it all begins with planning early in the first part of the year. The main participants include Josh Lee, Director of Football Operations, who knows every whim and nuance of Coach Kirby Smart’s right on down to the cereal the quarterback prefers.
Vince Thomas, assistant to the athletic director, not only is detail oriented and accommodating (magna cum laude level), he goes out of the way to make VIP guests enjoy team travel. Neyland Raper, Assistant Director of Football Operations & Recruiting, has checklists the length of a football field and like Santa, in the upcoming holiday season, always checks it twice. He particularly enjoyed last weekend in that the Tennessee family from which he hails, is so Orange they named him for the great Volunteer coach, General Robert Neyland.
Gage Whitten is the director of football equipment who makes sure the locker room is in peak order and Jay Chapman, Director of Football Management, is a multi-facer trouble shooter with a plethora of assignments. Team travel could not come off smoothly without the sage eye and contribution of State Troopers O’Neil Sadler and Matt (Sebastian) Miles.
Ron Courson, the director of Sports Medicine, is always involved in that there has to be a temporary training room set up in the hotel wherever the team spends its Friday nights.
General Eisenhower, master planner of the D-Day invasion, would give these guys high marks.