KENT: How does one get an entire Division I football team and its coaching and support staffs to and from road games?
Zack Tilves, Kent State’s first-year football operations director, does it on little sleep and with meticulous planning, working ahead of scheduled road games to get the Golden Flashes’ traveling party of more than 100 people on and off planes and buses, in and out of hotels and meeting rooms and to and from practice fields and dinner tables to ensure the Flashes are ready for game day. The Beacon Journal went behind the scenes with Kent State on its trip to Penn State.
Friday, Sept. 20
10:30 a.m. — Kent State players and coaches gather in the team’s meeting room in the bowels of Dix Stadium for a brief talk before leaving for Penn State. On their way out of the door, players grab a white bag filled with a cold submarine sandwich, a bag of chips and a cold Gatorade to help occupy their time during the four-hour drive.
10:52 a.m. — Ron, Bus 3 driver, stands and gives a quick speech as everyone settles into their seats. Toward the end of his spiel, he points to a fire extinguisher located under the second seat on the right side of the bus.
“In case we catch fire,” he says quickly catching everyone’s attention. “If we do, I’m the first one off the bus, ya hear?”
10:59 a.m. — Packed with players, coaches, support staff, equipment and luggage, four buses pull out of the stadium parking lot, winding their way out of Kent and onto the Ohio Turnpike to head to Pennsylvania.
11:23 a.m. — Eron Hodges, a Flashes graduate assistant on defense, sits quietly in the first seat on the right side of the bus, his brown dress shoes kicked off on the floor and his black-socked feet resting on a ledge in front of him as he leans back comfortably.
A large volume of Robin S. Vealey’s Coaching for the Inner Edge rests open in Hodges’ lap. As he reads Chapter 3, Hodges clutches a handful of neon-colored markers in his left hand, ready to mark an important passage as needed.
“The reading is for my class,” said Hodges, a four-year Navy veteran who worked on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004. “But it also applies to my job as a coach. I use some of the methods on the guys to see what works.”
Another graduate assistant sitting nearby gets up and shuffles through a stack of DVDs and puts the movie World War Z into the bus’s player. The volume is pretty loud for the size of the small screens located above every couple of seats. Thus, those not interested in watching Brad Pitt save the world from a bunch of the not-so-scary half dead have to crank up the volume on their headphones.
1:39 p.m. — Bus 3, which passes mile marker 89.6 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, is eerily quiet for a while with a majority of its occupants snoozing — some with heads back and mouths wide open, others with their heads bowed and resting on the seat in front of them. As expected, Pitt managed to rescue civilization as we know it. Now, it’s Tom Cruise’s turn in his sci-fi thriller Oblivion. After an hour or so break, Hodges gets back to his studies as the bus hums along.
2:58 p.m. — Still in their original order and without incident, the Flashes’ four buses exit the highway and make their way 2 miles through picturesque State College before pulling into the back of Beaver Stadium.
The last player off Bus 3 needs crutches as he slowly makes his way down the aisle. Sophomore defensive end Nate Terhune had his season cut short the week before at LSU where he suffered a right broken leg. He’ll continue to support his teammates from the sideline, including on road trips.
3:11 p.m. — After seeing where the visitor’s locker room is located, the Flashes file into an empty Beaver Stadium, a venue that can hold a crowd up to 107,282 on game days. Many players walk out onto the field and take pictures with their cellphones, posting them on Twitter and Instagram.
3:35 p.m. — A small snack of chicken tenders and more cold Gatorade is handed to the players as they exit the stadium and make their way back onto the buses. This time it’s just a short trip to a nearby hotel.
9 p.m. — Since arriving at their hotel, the Flashes players have already attended unit and individual meetings, participated in a team walk-through, gathered for dinner, watched a movie or rested in their rooms (two players to a room, as signified on a list that was passed out in the morning along with the team’s itinerary for the weekend).
There’s one final team meeting of the evening before coaches begin to make their rounds for the 10:30 p.m. bed check.
“I’m nervous!” junior running back Anthony Meray whispers as the group of 88 players and the coaching staff all file into a hotel meeting room. “I have to give a speech.”
After everyone has found a seat in the rows of padded chairs, Meray stands at the front of the room, all eyes on him. He proceeds to give a poignant eight-minute speech that includes a few relevant Bible verses as he implores his teammates to continue to come together and to fight as one despite a rough 1-2 start to the season.
“If you see your brother struggling, help him,” Meray said. “Remember, you’re only as strong as the guy next to you.”
9:09 p.m. — After Meray’s emotional speech and a round of applause, first-year Kent State coach Paul Haynes makes his way to the front and addresses the team.
“I want us to get better at two things tomorrow,” he said. “No. 1, missed assignments. We’ve had too many. We have to cut them down. No. 2, let’s focus on our average rush [offense] and stopping the run [defense]. You’re prepared. Now you just have to go out and execute everything we’ve talked about this week.”
With about an hour left to themselves before lights out, tight ends/special teams coach Dave McMichael goes over a handful of plays with four of the Flashes’ tight ends. With the players sitting in chairs in a semicircle, he draws plays on a dry erase board using X’s and O’s as the players glance at the plays written in their individual Kent State/Penn State playbooks.
Saturday, Sept. 21
12:32 p.m. — The Flashes all gather in the hotel rotunda in a semicircle, their travel bags spread out in front of them as a Pennsylvania state trooper and his canine assistant go up and down each row, the dog sniffing each bag carefully as part of Beaver Stadium’s security process. The trooper flashes a thumbs up and he and the dog briskly exit the hotel.
12:45 p.m. — Before boarding the bus, the Flashes break up into offensive and defensive groups for final pregame meetings. Wearing khaki pants, sweater vests and ties, Kent State’s defensive players make their way past the hotel’s indoor pool and toward a medium-sized meeting room.
On the way, senior defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix stops by a cleaning cart outside of a room being cleaned by the housekeeping staff. After a quick conversation with a cleaning lady, Nix gladly accepts a handful of hotel mini soaps and shampoo.
“Hey, that stuff smells really good!” he said, stashing the freebies in his pocket as some of his teammates stop and stare with questioning eyes.
After they all turn and head into the meeting room, the cleaning lady smiles and shrugs. “Anything to make them happy,” she said.
1:25 p.m. — If you know anything about football’s defensive players and coaches, you know they tend to be the loud, rah-rah, chest-bumping types. Despite his quiet demeanor off the field, KSU defensive coordinator Brian George quickly morphs into the stereotype as he runs through the team’s key defensive alignments during what’s called a “clap session,” steadily working himself into a red-faced frenzy.
By the end of it, the players are whipped up into the emotional game shape, too. Jumping up and down and yelling, they form a tight circle around George as if in a huddle and together shout “Blue Storm” on the count of three before roaring out of the room, down the hall and out onto the team bus headed to Beaver Stadium.
3:38 p.m. — The day’s steady rain has turned into monsoon-like sheets just minutes before the Flashes and Nittany Lions emerge from their respective tunnels in time for the national anthem.
The field holds up reasonably well, and the game goes off without a hitch. The Flashes manage to keep the score close at halftime, trailing 14-0. But with KSU’s offense struggling to make any ground, the defense wears down in the second half and gives up 20 points as Penn State rolls to a 34-0 victory.
7:18 p.m. — Haynes and junior cornerback Dylan Farrington enter the visitor’s small media room and attempt to make sense of what happened. Haynes and Farrington, who recorded his first career interception while getting a career-high eight tackles, try to put as positive of a spin as they can. Haynes wraps up the session by reminding everyone that the tough losses absorbed the past two weeks will make them better prepared for the Mid-American Conference schedule.
11:49 p.m. — Four buses ferrying groggy players, many of whom are just waking up from much-needed postgame naps, make their way back into the Dix Stadium parking lot before coming to a halt and opening doors.
Players wearing headphones around their necks and clutching pillows to their chest spill out into the chilly night air. They congregate by the side of the buses until the luggage doors are pulled open, everyone grabbing their travel bags before making their way to their cars in the parking lot to head back to their dorms and apartments.
In 15 hours they’ll all head right back to the stadium for treatment followed by a 4 p.m. team meeting and subsequent film watch of the loss to Penn State. Monday, the routine starts all over again as attention turns toward the Flashes game Saturday at Western Michigan with a similar trip to Kalamazoo, Mich.
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.