Final Dakota Trip
Beginning in July 2020, the Purdue-Fort Wayne Mastodons will move from the Summit League to the Horizon League. Geographically, the western shift of the Summit League left Purdue Fort Wayne with a 6-hour drive to the closest Summit League member, Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois.
The League offices even moved from Chicago to Sioux Falls in 2018. The Mastodons men’s basketball travel issues…dealing with snowstorms, blizzards, closed highways, and canceled flights…are well documented.
The final Dakota trip is here. Other than the Summit League Championships (the tournament that is played in Sioux Falls), the Mastodons road trip over Valentine’s weekend is the last as a Summit League member. We logged the final trip, beginning to end. This is how it went.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 12
A Midwest snowstorm is approaching Chicago and Fort Wayne. The Mastodons are scheduled to depart the following day from Fort Wayne International Airport at around 11:00 A.M., but nearly 26 hours before their planned departure, a text is sent out…
“LEAVING TODAY AT 3:00 P.M.”
Head coach Jon Coffman remembers the trip to Fargo, North Dakota last year. The Dons had a two-game weekend that started in Grand Forks and concluded in Fargo. That trip included delayed flights, more delayed flights, canceled flights, bus rides, and re-routing. PFW flew FWA to O’Hare, and after cancellations to Fargo, took a flight to Minneapolis and the next morning rode a bus from Minneapolis to Grand Forks.
With the winter storm expecting to hit Chicago and Fort Wayne Wednesday night, there was concern the Thursday morning flight out of Fort Wayne would be canceled. The decision was made to get on the road to Chicago by bus and try to beat the weather to the Windy City.
The bus couldn’t arrive until closer to 3:15, so the departure was moved back a few minutes. It’s just cloudy, no snow, as the Dons leave campus.
The snow starts near Warsaw. At times, it is really coming down. Roads stay just wet as the trip rolls on.
After gaining an hour in the time change, the ‘Dons arrive at the Embassy Suites near the airport. There have been consistent snow showers but the ride clocks in at 3 hours 35 minutes…about the same time as a summer day. A quick film session followed by food delivery of burgers and fries ends the night for most of the travel party. Coaches leave around 7:00 P.M. for a scouting trip.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 13
It’s an early wake-up call as players get a knock on their door and head downstairs for a quick breakfast. The Mastodons have arranged court time at a local college to get in a practice before checking in at O’Hare for their 1:16 P.M. flight. It’s the same flight they were scheduled to take on the original FWA to Fargo ticket.
Players enjoy the Embassy Suites’ complimentary breakfast. It’s one of the best benefits of staying at an Embassy Suites hotel. That, and the room with a separate living area.
The bus is waiting outside the hotel entrance as players load their bags and board for the 15-minute ride to practice.
Practice starts at a local college. The practice starts a little slow, but the Dons have their “juice” by the time it wraps up at 10:00 A.M. Players are handed soap and towels to get showers and prep for the bus ride to O’Hare.
The bus is checked and a passenger count is relayed to Coach Coffman in the front seat. This is routine before every bus departure. There’s still light snow in Chicago after a 3-5” snowfall, but now the temps are dropping into the teens. It’s still over thirty degrees warmer than Fargo, which has an actual temperature of -16 at this hour.
The guys get a per diem to find lunch at O’Hare airport. It’s actually difficult to get a nutritional lunch and stay under the per diem at O’Hare. Most of the guys know their personalized nutrition plans, whether it’s to put on weight, take-off weight, high-protein diet, etc., so each will usually order based on their personal situation. As they wait for the flight, some nap, some finish academic work, and some just relax with headphones or earbuds in/on their ears.
There are numerous cancellations at O’Hare but the ‘Dons are only delayed about 30 minutes. They board the plane to Fargo and prepare for the two-hour flight.
Check-in at the Fargo Radisson. The team receives two Chic-Fil-A sandwiches with a fruit cup to hold them over until dinner.
There’s a 30-minute video session before a buffet-style dinner is served. The menu is often the same…chicken breast, pasta, and salad and/or green beans. Dinner wraps up around 8:15 and guys are reminded about the 9:00 A.M. wake-up time the next day.
Nights before games, phones are collected by coaches and bagged up for retrieval the next morning.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14
After the rounds are made and players have been awakened by the staff, a breakfast awaits in the hotel restaurant. A special buffet is a set-up, with French toast, scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon and oatmeal available. There’s also a fruit tray…a coach Coffman favorite.
Video review in the meeting room at the hotel. Since these two teams just played two weeks ago, not a lot of change since the first meeting. Each team is assigned to one of three assistant coaches on the staff…Ryan Sims, Paul Corsaro, or Adam Blaylock. These assistants scour through hours and hours of video, looking for trends, patterns, sets, and in-bound plays. The meetings in Fargo focus on North Dakota State, and the Bison have been assigned to Blaylock. He and Coffman jointly lead the scout meetings in preparation for the game.
The video wraps and it’s straight to the bus for a 10-minute ride to the Scheels Center. It’s the game venue, so the Mastodons will get a chance to put up shots for about 30 minutes prior to tonight’s game. The other 20-30 minutes are spent reviewing the “scout” and acting out the defensive principles that will be used. These principles, such as whether to double the post, switching or not switching ball screens and how to rotate in help-defense situations, will differ depending on the opponent and personnel.
Returning to the hotel, the team gets sub sandwiches to hold them over until team dinner later in the afternoon. The players have a couple of hours to themselves, and some will relax and others get in some school assignments.
Four hours before game time and the team meets for a quick video review of NDSU. By 3:25 a line forms for the pregame meal. Today’s meal is the same as all other pregame meals…Chicken, pasta, baked potato, and salad. A special treat is the ice cream, a reward for a road win the last game at Denver. It’s 3:45 P.M. as guys clear out and return to their rooms.
The bus departs for the Scheel Center on the NDSU campus. The arena was renovated four years ago and has almost 5,000 padded seats with the North Dakota State logo embroidered onto each one. The Mastodons usually arrive at the venue around 80-90 minutes before the scheduled tip. Tonight, they pull up to the side door at 5:35 P.M.
Just over an hour before the game, players begin arriving on the court to warm up. The last player will make it on the floor by 6:05 P.M. Doors have just opened and a handful of early arrivals start to take their seats.
The game tips off. Mastodons play well, but an 8-point possession (3-point FG, flagrant foul off the ball awarding NDSU two free-throws, and a 3-point FG on the inbound) breaks apart a second-half rally as the Bison win 80-70.
The ride back to the hotel is silent. Losses are difficult, and the team seems extra disappointed over this one. Postgame meal includes a sandwich with baked beans and macaroni & cheese. Players take the food to their rooms along with waters and Gatorade to begin the rejuvenation process and prep for another game in just 41 hours.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 15
Coaches have had a meeting to review the days’ agenda. Players get their wake-up calls (knock on the door) and a slow procession begins to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Players pack and prepare for check-out since they will have a video session after eating. The meeting wraps up a little after 11:00 A.M. and the bus is ready to roll on a 3 1/2 hour trip south on Interstate 29 to Brookings, South Dakota.
The team bus rolls up to the hotel in Brookings, South Dakota. Brookings is a small community of about 24,000 people an hour’s drive north of Sioux Falls. It’s a big weekend on campus at South Dakota State University, with women’s basketball today, wrestling tonight, and the men playing PFW tomorrow. South Dakota State is the “Indiana University” of the State, drawing huge fan support from boosters, alumni and residents. There are ten Division-I basketball teams in Indiana, plus the numerous programs that border the State…Northwestern/UIC/DePaul in Chicago, Wright State/Dayton, Miami University in Oxford, Xavier/Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, and Louisville.
In South Dakota, you have an entire region all to yourself. Despite an enrollment of only 12,750, the loyalty of the blue & yellow Jackrabbit fan base is impressive.
There are a couple of dozen Jackrabbits fans in the hotel lobby celebrating the women’s basketball win by 4:00 P.M.
There’s a video meeting prior to a bus trip to practice. It’s a quick meeting since gym space is reserved, and the Mastodons have a 90-minute block of time starting at 4:30 P.M.
Back at the hotel and there is more video prior to the team dinner. The Mastodons spend almost as much time in video sessions as time on the court (especially on road trips). The service the program subscribes to allows coaches to have multiple clips accessible on categories like out of bounds plays, offensive sets, and packages on each player. One assistant spends up to two weeks putting together a scouting package that’s presented to the players. This is a huge responsibility for the assistant that has been assigned this particular opponent. After the road trip opener at North Dakota State (Assist coach Adam Blaylock’s scout), this condensed period is assigned to Assistant Paul Corsaro. This is where sleep is lost for young assistants since many of their decisions on defensive match-ups and defensive principles that will be used (double team, switch/fight through on screens, etc) could have a major impact on how the game is decided.
Dinner arrives from a local chain restaurant. All meals were pre-ordered by each member of the travel party a few days ago, so each meal is packaged and identified with the name written on each container. This is a rare “eat in your room” night. Phones will be collected tonight, so the guys have some time to touch base with loved ones before lights out.
Brett Rump receives a text from Coach Coffman that he would prefer to record the pregame interview tonight to save time the following day (since it’s an afternoon start). Rump meets with the coach in Coffman’s hotel room to record the following day’s pregame interview. This process of recording the night before started a couple of seasons ago, but has caused long recording sessions when Coffman would refer to the game as “tomorrow”. Since the interview airs moments before the game, he would have the recording re-done or edited depending on each situation. But just as he asks his players to forget mistakes of the past and use a “next play mentality”, he also has improved and has been close to perfect on pre-recorded interviews this year…getting today/tomorrow, and yesterday/today consistently correct. Within 15 minutes an 8-minute pregame is recorded and immediately after, is sent via email to tomorrow’s producer, Heather Starr.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16
It’s a beautiful day for the Mastodons to end their regular season run against teams from the Dakotas as a Summit League member. Temperatures are near 32 degrees with bright sunshine.
It’s a gameday wake-up call 30 minutes prior to a stretch and scout exercise in the meeting room. Will, a student manager, and Mike Wolf, director of operations, had carefully designed a court on the carpet floor around half-scale. This had been done late the night before and was supervised by Assistant coach Ryan Sims. Sims worked for more than 20 minutes perfecting the dimensions and the exact arc lined on the floor with blue masking tape. This replaces a practice at the arena on game day.
Video review in the meeting room. With this being the second meeting against SDSU, most of the 20-minute session is a review.
Today’s afternoon tip-time makes the pregame meal, always four hours before tip, a breakfast spread. Players line up to eat first and today the options include fruit, pancakes, hash browns, sausage, and scrambled eggs. The food has been prepared and catered to the hotel, with a buffet line along with some counter space along the wall. The mood seems relaxed as the guys chat with each other as they fill up their plates. Within fifteen minutes everyone has returned to their rooms. The last announcement before departing the meeting room was to let everyone know “the bus leaves for the arena at 12:25 and won’t return to the hotel…pack your bags and bring them with you”.
The first person to the bus is the Mastodons, student manager. He’s busy loading gear in the cargo space before any players or coaches arrive. Most of the group exits the hotel between 12:20-12:23, and right on time, at 12:25 P.M., the bus rolls out of the Hampton Inn parking lot headed to Frost Arena.
The bus pulls around to the back of the arena, squeezing in between the garbage bins and a TV truck near a private entrance. It’s quiet as the ‘Dons exit and parade to the locker room. Coaches usually wear warm-up gear or dress pants without the suit, so garment bags over their shoulders are the norm for each coach on a game day.
Radio equipment is connected as the Mastodons, one by one, come to the floor to start their warm-ups. There were serious connection issues in Fargo, requiring the IT people at NDSU to provide a fix just to get the broadcast on the air. Today is routine. Plugin the Ethernet line that’s provided and connect to the ESPN 1380/100.9 FM studios…simple. A quick meeting between radio broadcasters is typical if there are no technical issues, and today Tyler Merriam, the voice of the Jackrabbits, comes over to discuss any insights that will be worth adding to the broadcast. There’s also a quick chat with Elaina Lanson, the TV sideline reporter, to give her a nugget or two for the game broadcast.
SDSU has a home record of 117-6 over the last nine years for a reason…talented players but even better fan support. Today will be another loud crowd of over 3,500 and many have arrived early. There’s always an energy in the building unlike any other in the Summit League at Frost Arena.
The lights go out for a lively intro of the South Dakota State starters. It’s game time in Brookings.
The Mastodons brought a high energy defense today and jumped out to a 22-8 lead. At the half, the Jacks have scored just 26 points and trail by 10. The first half point total is the Jacks lowest in every half this season except one…when SDSU scored just 24 in a half against the Indiana Hoosiers.
SDSU went on a 40-7 run to start the second half and the game goes to the Jackrabbits, 75-64.
The Mastodons have a flight out of the Sioux Falls airport in less than two hours, and it’s an hour ride by bus from the arena. Players are being rushed along in the locker room as the radio broadcast ends with an abbreviated postgame show, which includes comments from a frustrated and disappointed Coach Coffman.
On the road to Sioux Falls. The flight is scheduled to depart at 6:09 P.M. It will be tight, but the ‘Dons should make it.
Two assistants with a rental car get to the airport to begin the check-in process. A system is set up to quickly take bags to be checked and hand out the boarding passes. Everything is ready as the players arrive.
The bus pulls up to the Sioux Falls airport and players quickly report to the ticket counter where the two assistant coaches instruct them to get their IDs ready and line-up. Within 15 minutes everyone is off to the security check-point.
Everyone is on board and accounted for as the United flight is ready for the one-hour twenty-minute flight to Chicago.
The flight arrives early and had to wait for a gate, but now the passengers deplane and the Mastodons rush through the airport to find a food selection to take with them on the bus. Wolf and a student manager remove bags (approximately 15) from the carousel and wait with them until the others arrive. Once all the players are accounted for at “Baggage Claim 2”, the team leaves together for a short walk to the waiting charter bus.
The Mastodons often ride on a charter bus out of Indianapolis, so the bus has come from Indy, will take the team to the Purdue Fort Wayne campus, and proceed back to Indianapolis. It’s around 9 1/2 hours round-trip for the driver just to get the Mastodons home from O’Hare.
Still on Central time as the team has picked up energy from the NBA All-Star game, being watched in the back half of the bus. This team often gets over losses fairly quickly…for better or for worse. It’s helped them stay together through some tough times, and also made them very coachable since they begin the process of preparing for the next game quickly.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 17
The trip is complete as the bus pulls up to the Gates Sports Center on the Purdue Fort Wayne campus. A final message to the players to let them know Monday will be an off day. Everyone quickly exits the bus and grabs their bags. It’s a tough trip, losing both games, but fairly uneventful after the adjusted start. It’s the last regular-season trip to the Dakotas for the Mastodons and fortunately, bitter cold was the worst of the weather.
Purdue Fort Wayne has one more road trip remaining before the Summit League Tournament, to Tulsa, Oklahoma to face Oral Roberts. Typically, it’s around 60 degrees this time of year in Tulsa.
There’s plenty of stories to tell about the challenges the ‘Dons have faced with travel in the Summit League. This year, with Western Illinois being a part of the trip to North Dakota, PFW will have played eight road games and flown to every one of them. Five round-trip flights, three two-game trips, and two one-game trips were on the Summit League schedule.
Bring on the Horizon League in 2020-2021.