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On the Move: A Road Trip with the Louisville Cardinals


By the time any college football game kicks off, one team has already executed a game plan. Behind every major college football team is another team of support staff making sure the players and coaches can focus solely on the game at hand. Athlon Sports followed Louisville’s equipment and training staff for the Dec. 5 game at Cincinnati for a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics of moving a football team from Point A to Point B.

Slideshow: Behind-the-scenes images as Louisville prepares to face Cincinnati

If Mike Kurowski hasn’t received the call yet, he knows to expect it soon. The call will come from his counterpart in equipment operations at Texas, where Charlie Strong became the head coach after the 2013 season.

Kurowski knows to expect that call, because that’s what Kurowski did when Louisville hired Strong. Kurowski, who has worked at Louisville since 2009, called the equipment manager at Florida for insight on how Strong, the former Gators defensive coordinator, would want to run his program, down to gameday wardrobe and snacks.

The job of the director of athletic equipment operations in its simplest terms is to make sure that each player has his helmet, pads and uniform for practice and gameday and that each coach has a working headset and the proper sideline attire.

This feature and more can be found in every regional edition of the 2014 Athlon Sports College Football Preview.

Again, that’s the simplest way to put it. Every coach has his idiosyncrasies. Even the most routine road trip has its challenges.

Kurowski and his staff — along with the trainers and director of football operations — are charged with the task of making sure a traveling football team and its coaching staff arrive at the stadium without any concerns aside from winning a football game.

Through repetition and game-planning, the travel process is down to a science, but Kurowski knows enough to plan for surprises.

When Texas calls Kurowski for what to expect from Strong, Kurowski will tell the Longhorns what Florida told him: Make sure to have plenty of Atomic Fireballs. Even then, after Kurowski did his homework on his new boss and his affinity for cinnamon candy, Strong threw a curve.

“The very first time we were out at practice, I said ‘What are all these little white pellets?’ and I finally saw him do it,” Kurowski says. “He sucks the fire out of it and throws them down. He doesn’t chew or anything.”

The responsibility of Kurowski’s staff and every member of Louisville’s support staff is to remember that no detail is too small, from the sideline candy to the uniforms to the pregame meal.

One floor up from Kurowski’s equipment office in the Schnellenberger Football Complex, Clifford Snow, the director of football operations, works through his meticulous checklist.

The team needs Kurowski and the equipment staff to set up the locker rooms. It also needs Snow to make sure the players have a place to sleep, food to eat, a space for the pregame walk-through and a room large enough to accommodate team meetings.

Snow’s preparation for the Cincinnati trip and nearly all of Louisville’s road trips for the season started in the spring when the American Athletic Conference announced its schedule. A road game to Cincinnati is easy, comparatively speaking. It’s one Snow has organized before, and the best part for him is that the team will travel by bus.

If Charlie Strong seems like the most particular or detail-oriented person in this chain, he’s not. It’s Snow.

Snow is the one with a six-page checklist for a 100-mile bus trip to face an opponent Louisville has visited every other year for nearly 50 seasons. The checklist accounts for every phone call, e-mail and fax Snow will send during the two weeks leading up to the game to confirm hotel and meal arrangements, bus reservations and a police escort for a travel party of nearly 200 people.

“Winning the game is the object. My object is to make it so nothing is going to distract from the purpose of winning the game,” says Snow, who joined Strong in the same role at Texas. “Everything is supposed to be seamless.”

The process of moving Louisville to Cincinnati for a Thursday night game begins immediately after practice Tuesday.

The equipment staff, consisting of two full-timers and seven student managers, has cleaned and sorted jerseys and placed them in trunks with cubbies for each player. Anything outside of the standard items — uniforms, helmets and pads — is the responsibility of the player to pack in a duffle bag. This includes extra contact lenses, mouthpieces, Breathe Right strips and knee braces.

When one defensive back arrives in Cincinnati, he’ll find out he won’t have a hand warmer waiting for him in the equipment truck. He didn’t return his after the previous game.

“When he asks for it, we’ll remind him he has to bring one back,” Kurowski tells his staff.

The next gear to pack is the sideline attire for the coaching staff — T-shirts, polos, hoodies and, most important, Strong’s mock turtlenecks. Again, the coach’s wardrobe habits are one of Kurowski’s primary concerns. Strong started on polos in his first season and moved to the cotton mock turtleneck in the second. That stuck, so when Kurowski needed a Dri-FIT mock turtleneck, he custom-ordered one.

"If everything goes smoothly, nobody notices anything."

And then comes the sweatshirt, and it’s always one from Strong’s first season at the school. The lettering is outdated from the standard issue sweatshirts the rest of the coaching staff receives, but the head coach is the one who wears exactly what he wants.

“Coaches can be just as superstitious as the players,” Kurowski says.

That said, the players don’t have much room to be superstitious under Strong’s watch. Every week, one team or another in college football wears a specialty uniform, a throwback or some new combination of jerseys and pants.

Not Louisville.

In this regard, the traditional look of Texas is perfect for Strong. At Louisville, the Cardinals wore all red at home and all white on the road.

“Any time I have an idea, (Strong) says, ‘Alabama doesn’t change, Penn State doesn’t change,’” Kurowski says.

Elsewhere, the staff prepares trunks filled with 55 cases of Gatorade, gum, towels, wristbands, extra pants and facemasks and, certainly not to be forgotten, the locker-room stereo. The training staff has its duties, too, packing trunks full of athletic tape, splints, IV materials, a defibrillator and exercise bikes. All of which is packed snugly into the Louisville team trailer before the equipment staff leaves at 10:30 a.m. sharp on Wednesday for the Thursday night kickoff.

“It’s real-life Tetris,” freshman student manager Drew Miniard says.

By the time the busload of equipment managers arrives at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, it’s time to wait. The truck with the equipment is running an hour behind the bus.

When the visitors’ locker room opens, assistant equipment manager Ed Connell and student manager David Moser diagram who will sit where. Connell puts the 31 defensive players to the right, the 24 offensive players on the left and the five special teamers in the back. Star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater gets the prime real estate in a corner locker.

Connell sets up a makeshift equipment area in the corner of the locker room where players can grab towels, wristbands and hand warmers.  

It’s the last game of the year and a short road trip, so Strong has brought everyone on the roster, including walk-ons and freshmen who are redshirting.

The Nippert locker room, as a result, is too small for Louisville this week. Connell had sized up the situation and texted Snow to remind the players who aren’t dressing for the game that they’ll need warm clothes and rain gear — they’ll be outside of the locker room all night.

By 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the trailer has arrived from Louisville, and the managers and trainers begin setup. Moser begins sorting through the magnetic nameplates for each player, matching them with jerseys. Senior manager Creighton Harley takes the audio equipment up to the coaches booth to set up the headsets. The underclassman student managers get the grunt work of buffing helmets, fresh with new decals for the Cincinnati game, and touching up scuffs with Wite-Out.

Meanwhile, the training staff is setting up the training room at the front of the locker room. Most important is the sign-in area for pre-game taping, where six rows of masking tape will show the waiting list for six trainers.

“They’re creatures of habit,” assistant athletic trainer Sam Zuege says. “Some of them have to get taped by the same trainer every day.”

By 3 p.m., everything that can be offloaded and set up the day before the game is done, and the equipment staff heads back to the team hotel for the walk-through.

At the hotel, Snow is working through his checklist: Two banquet rooms for team meetings (one for the full team and a second when they split into offense and defense), a banquet room for trainers, 125 guest rooms for the Wednesday night before the Thursday game and two buffet lines for players ready to feed the equivalent of 160 people.

“I tell my hotels, they’re going to eat two-and-a-half or three times the amount of a normal person,” Snow says. “Don’t quote me on what you think I’m going to eat. They’re going to eat three plates.”

If the team will be waiting around for a night game, Snow is also charged with making the movie arrangements, which must fit into time parameters (roughly two hours) and genre constraints (action, not sci-fi).

“If everything goes smoothly, nobody notices anything,” he says. “That’s a win for me.”

The weather on this Thursday in December is dreary. Temperature at kickoff Thursday night will be 39 degrees.

In the afternoon, as the equipment managers are setting up, the temperatures are dropping into the mid-40s. It’s cloudy and windy, but dry.

“I hope it stays just like this,” student manager Jake Turner says. It won’t.

The rain will be on its way by the afternoon with the potential to wreak havoc on the pieces of equipment Kurowski and his staff spend the most time checking, re-checking and checking again: the headsets from the coaching booth to the sideline.

“Once ESPN comes on and the game starts, you just cross your fingers and hope everything is ready,” Connell says. “You hope no one trips a fuse or crosses a frequency.”

The problem right now, though, is the rain. Kurowski would prefer snow, but it won’t be cold enough before kickoff.

“You try to be a step ahead all the time. But they’re right behind you on your heels.”

Rain has caused plenty of problems for Louisville in the last two seasons. A deluge for the Southern Miss game in Hattiesburg in 2012 left a foot of standing water in front of the equipment truck as the Cardinals loaded for the trip back to Louisville. A week before that Southern Miss game, a storm in Miami before a game against Florida International forced the Cardinals to scrap plans to do a walk-through at a high school stadium, which had flooded. Louisville did the walk-through in a parking garage instead.

At Cincinnati, Kurowski is checking the weather report on his iPad: Rain it is. The primary concern is the headsets, covered only with towels. Without tarps readily available, Kurowski cuts open two equipment bags to drape over the headsets. Crisis averted.

Beyond the rain, the cold will be an issue, especially for a team with its share of Floridians.

Strong’s strict dress code includes an edict forbidding tights, even for cold night games. When a player attempted to take the field wearing tights during a game against Rutgers in 2010, Strong turned the player around to change. The ‘no tights’ rule is similar to other facets of Strong’s dress code: No helmet visors without a prescription and no sleeves on a single arm.

As for keeping warm, the trainers have brought a tub of Vaseline for players to put on their legs. When asked if that actually helps, Zuege shrugs.

“They think it keeps them warm,” he says. “I’m sure it insulates a little bit.”

They didn’t even have to find out for certain. Six hours before kickoff, Kurowski receives a text message from the big boss: Did he bring the forbidden tights? Strong had changed his mind on one of his uniform rules. Lucky for Kurowski, he brought a full complement of leg tights just in case.

“You try to be a step ahead all the time,” Kurowski says. “But they’re right behind you on your heels.”

The team is scheduled to arrive at 5:30 p.m. By 3 p.m., nearly every preparation for the Cardinals’ arrival is made.

With two-and-a-half hours to kill, the student trainers and managers sit in front of lockers on the training tables, lined up in a row with their laptops flipped open. The country music that filled the locker room during setup has been turned off, and the trainers are working on papers and PowerPoint presentations and studying for finals. Or trying to grab a quick nap, outstretched across folding chairs. This is the down time, before the kickoff brings new responsibilities.

Turner, the senior equipment manager, holds the poster board to send in plays from the sideline. Other managers warm up the quarterbacks and dry the footballs. The student trainers who aren’t on the field are in the locker room starting to tear down the training room they set up only 12 hours earlier.

Other than the in-game essentials, they’ll be packed up for the trip back to Louisville 45 minutes after kickoff.

Amy Riordan, a video assistant, will be busy changing memory cards in the six cameras set up around the field so coaches can review the game on the ride back.

Snow, with no more pregame meals to schedule or hotel reservations to double-check, has his own duties on the sideline. When Louisville scores the first touchdown less than three minutes into the game, Snow is reminding players on the bench to celebrate on the sideline and not on the field; he’s the “get-back” coach.

“In my position,” Snow says. “I worry about everything.”

Mainly, so his coaches and players don’t have to.