March Madness Travel Q & A

See the NCAA travel experience from past champions.

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College basketball players endure the most arduous travel schedule of all college athletes. Playing as many as 3 games per week, they spend nearly as much time on the road as they do on campus from November to March. And at no other time is their travel schedule more intense than during the national championships for NCAA Division I basketball.

To gain insight into the travel madness that engulfs college basketball players during the tournament, basketball writer Craig Stouffer talked with Joakim Noah, who won 2 NCAA titles with the University of Florida and now plays with the Chicago Bulls, and Lute Olson, former coach at the University of Arizona who led the school to four Final Four appearances and a national championship in 1997.

CS: Joakim, where was your best NCAA Tournament experience?

JOAKIM NOAH: My favorite city was probably New Orleans [for the first and second rounds in 2007] because you just feel the vibe right away. It’s a really different city. It has a lot of European influence, French influence, and it was still pretty devastated [after Hurricane Katrina]. It definitely put things in perspective, and Coach [Billy] Donovan always made sure that we saw things like that.

CS: Were you able to get out of the hotel to explore the city?

JN: We were actually going to practice, and a bus driver knew the area very well so he drove us around [the Lower Ninth Ward] and spoke a little bit about the city. I love the French Quarter. It’s really pretty. I like looking at the old architecture, checking out Bourbon [Street], the music, seeing all the people with their instruments playing on the street. There’s just a vibe out there that’s very different compared to the rest of the country.

CS: What was it like to begin the 2006 Tournament in Jacksonville, not too far from Gainesville?

JN: It was a blast because we were basically playing home games. That’s one of the reasons I went to Florida, the warm weather and being able to play in front of friends was cool. We went from there to Minneapolis – we stayed in the hotel. I’m not a big fan of bad weather. It’s hard because you’re there for a couple days, and you’re playing the biggest games of your career. You’re not really there to go sightseeing. You’re just trying to stay as focused as possible. There’s a lot of fans in the hotel. There’s a lot fans in the city. You just try to stay in the hotel, get as much rest as you can.

CS: Coach Olson, what was your favorite NCAA Tournament city to play in?

LUTE OLSON: Indianapolis is really the best city. Everything is close by. In 1980, we took Iowa to the Final Four, we played in Indianapolis, and we won the championship with Arizona when we played in Indianapolis in 1997. Usually, the weather wasn’t all that bad, and they have the indoor walkways between streets and malls. I think a lot of coaches, if they were asked, would probably say Indianapolis because they’re basketball people there, and they really love having the spot for the Final Four.

CS: What’s the toughest travel experience you or your team ever faced getting to an NCAA Tournament site?

LO: In 1997, when we won it, we’d been assigned to the Southeast [Region], and we had a flight scheduled that was supposed to pick us up in Tucson at 7 in the morning to take us to Birmingham, Ala., for the Sweet 16. The jet had not gotten out of Vancouver early enough. After getting the kids up really early and out to the airport, we called the managers to get the vans back and take the guys back to the locker room and make arrangements to get back and try to get some sleep.

Once they finally got on the airplane, they had first-class seats, so most of them probably didn’t even know that we took off or landed. By the time the time we’d gotten to Birmingham, we’d missed the required press conference – that didn’t bother me at all – but they arranged for us to have a later practice, at 8 p.m. [The Wildcats won both of their games in Birmingham to advance to the Final Four.]

CS: How did meal-planning work ion the road?

LO: We’d usually have buffets set up in the hotel, and then the night before a game, we’d usually take them out to a restaurant meal but with reservations, making sure they’d put us in a private area so that they’re not bothered by the fans.

CS: What was the toughest part about being on site at a hotel and likely sharing it with fans and alumni?

LO: The biggest problem was coming down through the lobby to a practice session, and everyone wanted photos. We had one of our assistants go through before the team ever came down and let the people in the lobby know we can’t have any autograph signing or pictures because this is a business trip as far as the players are concerned.

CS: Did you take a strict approach with your players or were you able to figure out ways to let them enjoy themselves?

LO: I think the mistake you can make is sequestering them in a hotel and not letting them do anything. In 1997, when we won it all, we let our guys go out and just be, live like they normally did when they played in our league. It wasn’t a problem at all. In Indianapolis, we really didn’t restrict them from going to the Fan Jam or anything like that, and I remember [Dick] Vitale saying this is a mistake on the part of Arizona. Certainly, what we did, I felt was much better than to stay miles out of the city and keep them totally away. I think any time you ask kids to do something that’s not the usual thing that they would do, that’s when you’re asking for trouble.

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