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Reconnaissance Man

Think you know what it takes to get a football team from Point A to Point B?

 

Josh Brooks, Georgia’s assistant athletics director of internal operations, is responsible for making travel plans for the Bulldogs’ football program. He and the Georgia Athletic Department let Champion magazine show what goes on behind the scenes when a Football Bowl Subdivision team travels for a road game.

Josh Brooks’ life is similar to that of a football referee.

If no one notices him, he’s doing a good job.

But that’s not easy when you’re paving the logistics path for a 140-person travel party and there’s a major college football game on the line.

The job title for the 32-year-old Georgia assistant athletics director says he’s responsible for internal operations, but when the Bulldogs hit the road, Brooks becomes a reconnaissance man. His mission? To make everything as routine as possible so the Georgia coaches and players can concentrate on playing – and winning – the game.

Left to right: Meet with hotel staff. Review and sign forms. Walk-through with Teri Weise at hotel; check areas for breakfast, taping and team meetings.

That means coordinating planes, buses, police escorts, hotels and meals for people who don’t have the time or necessarily the patience to make adjustments on the fly. There aren’t many second chances in Brooks’ line of work.

When we visited Brooks, he was greasing the skids for the Bulldogs’ arrival in Columbia, Mo., where they would take on their newest SEC Eastern Division rival – the Missouri Tigers.

It was only Thursday, but it was already game day for Brooks.

 

THURSDAY, SEPT. 6

Top to bottom: Head to stadium to get credentials. Stadium walk-through. Back at the hotel to meet with Jim McNeil to ensure hotel keys are prepared.

It’s around 7 p.m. and Brooks is heading to a downtown Columbia restaurant known for its pizza.

Having a quiet meal will be a nice respite after the day he’s had. In his business, you expect the unexpected to occur. He just hopes the obstacle isn’t too big.

Today’s obstacle involved the weight distribution on the three airplanes Georgia will use to transport the 70 players, coaching staff, athletics administrators, athletic training staff, athletics board members, coaches’ wives and others who are making the trip.

Brooks arranged travel with Delta Airlines, which sent a 70-seat plane and two 50-seaters. The Bulldogs need three planes because the runway at the Athens airport is too short for larger jets.

He and Brad Hutcherson, the Bulldogs’ director of football operations, estimated the overall weight distribution on the planes. Today, because of the 93-degree temperature in Georgia and the amount of jet fuel needed to make the longer-than-normal flight, a third-party engineer told Brooks that the travel party was 2,500 pounds overweight.

Brooks and Hutcherson have to fight the urge to panic. Both men say Georgia head coach Mark Richt is even-keeled. Still, it’s not the kind of news they want to give the leader of Bulldog Nation right before the first road trip of the season.

“Since we had already made our projections, we were stuck,” says Brooks, who was promoted to his current job two years ago after having worked in football operations since 2008.

There were two solutions. One was to put less fuel on the planes and gas-up in Atlanta or Nashville, Tenn. The other was upgrading one of the 50-seat planes to another 70-seater.

Fortunately, Delta provided the latter.

“In times like that you have to tell yourself that at the end of the day, you are going to get things worked out,” says Brooks, who is a native of Hammond, La., and a 2002 graduate (kinesiology) of LSU, where he was a student manager and student-assistant coach. “Cooler heads have to prevail.

“This was a good lesson for us. We thought we had planned for the worst-case scenario, but the third-party engineer inspection showed there was more for us to consider.”

Clockwise: Head to airport to review escort route with patrolmen. Welcome football players and staff upon arrival. Confirm itinerary with head coach Mark Richt. Guide convoy to hotel before (and during) torrential rainstorm.. Get team and coaches checked in and settled in rooms. Sort players’ information cards.

Brooks, who always arrives a day before the team to make sure all the hotel and bus arrangements are ready, told Hutcherson that they had to look at it like the team does when it turns the ball over.

“How are we going to respond?” Brooks says. “You feel good when you solve a problem like that.”

After dinner, Brooks returns to the team hotel, the Holiday Inn Executive Center, to prepare for a morning meeting with the hotel management staff. Brooks will double- and triple-check the complex itinerary in his three-ring binder that he compiles for each locale.

Now that Missouri is a conference foe, Brooks will need to know everything he can about this Midwestern destination.

 

FRIDAY, SEPT. 7

At 8 a.m., Brooks is in the hotel restaurant to meet with the hotel management staff. He wants to make sure the staff understands exactly what the Bulldogs will need during their stay.

As the meeting begins, Georgia President Michael Adams enters the restaurant and asks Brooks how things are going. Brooks tells him about the weight issues.

“Do we have to leave our offensive tackles home?” Adams jokes.

Brooks good-naturedly tells him everyone will be arriving on the planes later that day.

During the meeting, Brooks emphasizes to the hotel staff the importance of having all the players’ and coaches’ rooms and the meeting rooms set at 68 degrees. He asks that this be done well beforehand.

“When you put 70 football players in a room, it is going to heat up,” says Brooks, who got his start as director of football operations at Louisiana-Monroe in 2004. “They have larger bodies than most people, and when you put them in small spaces, the temperature is going to rise.”

He also knows players will complain of a stuffy room, and Brooks doesn’t want any type of negative thoughts creeping into their minds.

Brooks, who usually has all the hotels and plane contracts signed in the spring, also tells the staff that all the buffet-style meals need to be ready to serve 15 minutes in advance.

“I’d rather have cold food than no food,” Brooks says. “When I tell them to set it up in advance, I can go in and check, and if there is an issue, I can come up with a Plan B. But if I’m just finding out that the chef dropped a pan of eggs at the time of the meal then I don’t have time to correct it.”

The group also goes over when and where the hotel keys will be laid out. Then they go on a walk-through of the meeting rooms to make sure all the audiovisual needs are met. They also scan what will serve as the training room.

Teri Weise, the hotel’s director of marketing and sales, appreciates the attention to detail.

“You expect teams to come in with a detailed checklist, but that isn’t always the case,” Weise says. “I’d rather have too much detail than not enough. If you want fruit, I want you to be specific and tell us what kind and how much.”

She doesn’t have to worry about that on this weekend. Brooks’ binder is full of checklists.

 

10 A.M.

Top to bottom: Arrive at stadium; unload buses, including mascot Uga, at designated stadium entrance. Oversee the “Dawg Walk.” Make sure semitrailers of equipment arrive and drivers know where to park and unload.

Brooks drives to Missouri’s Faurot Field to meet with Derek Doolittle, who is the Tigers’ game-day operations manager.

They review the logistics at the stadium, such as where the buses will drop the team off and where players will conduct their celebrated “Dawg Walk” through a gantlet of adoring fans.

They also tour the press box to see the suite where the VIPs will sit. Rita Manning, Georgia’s executive director of special events, and her assistant director, Elizabeth Beckett, take the lead role on this part of the tour.

 

2:45 P.M.

Brooks is in his rental car headed to Columbia Regional Airport, where the three planes carrying the travel party will land.

He has his GPS plugged in just in case any detours appear.

“This thing is my best friend,” Brooks says. “I don’t let this out often, but I am directionally challenged.”

The truck carrying the equipment and the student-manager sleeper bus with around 30 passengers arrived earlier in the day. They left Thursday and made the 12-hour trip from Athens safely.

On the drive to the airport, Brooks reflects on how this type of job fits his personality. Even in his personal life, he is the planner for his family that includes wife Lillie, 3-year-old twins Jackson and James, and 5-month-old Davis.

In late June, he took the family on a Disney World vacation in Orlando, Fla. Just like his football travel trips, it was planned to a T.

“I’m sure I have a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” says Brooks, who also helps schedule future football games and assists in developing and managing the athletics program facilities. “I went on TouringPlans.com. If you have OCD, it is an awesome website. It tells you the average wait times for rides, and it can tell you which day of the week, month or year is the best time to go to the park as far as crowds.”
As he nears the airport, Brooks’ game face starts to show. He has a more serious look as he surveys that the police escorts are ready, and he is keeping an eye out for the four buses that will transport the travel party.

This is his most hectic time as he goes over in his mind whether all the “what ifs” are covered.

 

3:30 P.M.

No sign of the buses yet, and Brooks keeps his eyes peeled. Five minutes later, four buses can be seen just outside the airport.

Brooks knows from experience that Hutcherson will be pleased to see the buses. When you are director of football operations, you don’t rest easy until you land.

“Someone said, ‘What’s going on, Brad? There are only three buses out there,’ ” says Hutcherson, who graduated from Georgia with a degree in sports management in 2008. “I guess they thought that would be funny.”

Around the same time, a weather alert blares from one of the policemen’s telephones indicating a severe thunderstorm warning. The red cell on the screen is closing fast, and one look to the west from the runway reveals a purple-and-black wall cloud enveloping the sky.

The wind picks up and there is no doubt that the area will soon be soaked. At 3:52 p.m., the first of the three planes lands.

The second touches ground four minutes later, followed by the third at 3:59. They are more than an hour early.

“No one complains that they got somewhere too early,” Brooks says.

He also doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the weather.

“I can’t get blamed for that,” he says.

The passengers walk down the stairs, including Russ the Bulldog mascot (who a week later was “Collared,” and officially became Uga IX).

“This is the first time I’ve done a trip with the dog on the plane,” Hutcherson says. “Normally they drive to the games from Savannah, but this trip is too far. It just happened that I assigned him to an exit row seat. I will make sure to do that from now on when he flies with us.”

Hutcherson is making sure everyone is collecting bags and moving to the right bus as the storm closes in. He has received a text message from one of the student-managers of golf-ball size hail at the team hotel.

Both he and Brooks know there isn’t much time before it hits the airport. Fortunately, everyone is on board the buses. Just as the police escort starts to head out, the rain hits the convoy.

All the while, Brooks’ cell phone is ringing or receiving texts. One comes from a fellow administrator telling him that one of the board members left a Kindle in seat 11B on one of the planes.

But everyone is dry.

“Clean living, man,” Brooks says.

 

Top to bottom: Review with football ops director Brad Hutcherson. Watch SEC Commissioner Mike Slive conduct opening coin toss. Secure postgame food and transportation. Celebrate victory.

5 P.M.

The Bulldogs were scheduled to have a walk-through at the stadium, but after arriving in the bad weather, they decide to go to the hotel instead.

All of the players and coaches have lanyards with a laminated schedule card. The front of the card contains the plane, the plane seat and the bus assignment for each person.

It also contains the time for each meeting and meal. The back of the card has a layout of the hotel and meeting room locations. Brooks said he came up with the idea after seeing another school use this system.

“If you put the cards in a clear pouch on a lanyard, it makes it like a cool VIP-type of souvenir and they don’t lose them,” says Brooks, adding that the players lost their schedules regularly when he just handed out pieces of paper. “When you see them after games, they strap them on their book sacks. Ninety-nine percent of them don’t lose them.”

All the times and scheduled events are printed in black with the exception of the entry at 6:50 p.m. Sept. 8. It is printed in Georgia Red and simply says: “BEAT MISSOURI.”

 

SATURDAY, SEPT. 8

With this being a night game, it means a long day of waiting around for kickoff.

The first big item on the agenda is a walk-through at 10:30, followed by brunch 15 minutes later. That is followed by more meetings, then some down time until the pregame meal at 2:50 p.m.

With the down time, Brooks and Hutcherson, who are rooming together, are in their room making phone calls, checking to make sure the buses are on time and watching the early college football games.

The two men work closely together. Hutcherson, 26, is around the football program daily, while Brooks manages the periphery, including dealing with the athletics department staff and the coaches’ wives who are on the road trip.

This is Hutcherson’s second season as the director of football operations. Previously, he was a student assistant who helped the coaching staff with whatever tasks he could. Now, he has even more responsibility, and he’s constantly learning on the job.

“There is always something to check on,” says Hutcherson, who is from Savannah, Ga. “When we get to the stadium, you are thinking about calling the hotel to make sure everything is lined up. Until we land in Athens and everyone is back safely where they live, I’m on pins and needles. I take a deep breath and wait until 2 p.m. on Sunday, and then it starts all over again.”

Brooks’ travel budget is about $900,000. This trip will eat up $230,000 after taking into account the planes, buses, meals and hotel.

Brooks’ boss, Director of Athletics Greg McGarity, is also a part of the travel party. McGarity spent 18 years at Florida, where his duties included coordinating football travel for the Gators during Steve Spurrier’s tenure.

He’s a good role model for Brooks, who aspires to be an athletics director in the future.

“I want to run my own athletics department one day,” says Brooks, who is working on a master’s degree in sports management. “I am a firm believer in being aggressive with that thought.”

Presently, though, his role is to douse fires and keep distractions to a minimum.

It hasn’t always gone so well in his 10 years of traveling with football teams. Once when he was working at Louisiana-Monroe, head coach Charlie Weatherbie and his wife placed their bags in the luggage carriage of one of the team buses headed to the airport. They thought someone was going to place them on the plane, and the bus driver thought everyone had removed their own bags. No one knew the Weatherbies’ bags were still in Monroe, La., until the luggage was being collected in Wyoming.

Brooks had to make a run to a Wal-Mart to pick up toiletries for his boss and his wife.

Brooks said he remembers times when none of the hotel keys worked and when a hotel ran out of prepared food when only half the team had eaten. That’s why his three-ring binder is so thick. Every misstep is on the checklist.

 

Top to bottom: Help student managers load equipment bags. Wait for players to sign postgame autographs. Distribute postgame meals. Check buses for airport. Herd players through TSA and prepare for flight home.

4:45 P.M.

The buses carrying the Georgia football team arrive at Faurot Field two hours before kickoff. Coach Richt leads his team down a flight of stairs and a hill toward the locker room. The jaunt serves as the “Dawg Walk,” with the red-clad Georgia fans chanting along.

The last person down the stairs is Charles Seiler, who is carrying Russ the bulldog. Russ gets the loudest ovation of all. Seiler’s dad helped begin the Uga tradition in 1956 when he began bringing the English bulldogs to the football games.

From this point to the game, Brooks actually gets a chance to relax and watch the game in the press box. After trailing 17-9 early in the third quarter, the Bulldogs rally and eventually win, 41-20.

In the fourth quarter, Brooks visits the locker room after the postgame meal arrives. It is 220 boxes of KFC fried chicken, grilled chicken, chicken strips, mashed potatoes, green beans and apple pie. Coolers of Powerade are there, as well. When it comes to sports drinks, no Georgia Bulldog player will be caught drinking Gatorade.

“When we win, it doesn’t matter what we serve after the game,” Brooks says. “The mood is different after a win. The plane could be late and the food could be cold, but it won’t matter.”

After the game, Georgia players and coaches are cheered as they enter the locker room. Some of the players stop to pet Russ. Freshman fullback Quayvon Hicks tells Russ, “You still need to lose some weight.”

It’s a hectic scene as Richt and several players who had key roles in the game are doing media interviews. All the while, student-managers are loading an equipment truck for the 12-hour ride back to Athens. The truck drivers, Joseph Buggs and Charlie Lumpkin, will share shifts to get the load back safely.

Brooks also makes sure the coaches’ wives get their postgame meal.

“It can be tough being the wife of a football coach,” Brooks says. “We want to make sure everything goes well for them.”

The Georgia players and coaches head to their assigned buses, stopping to receive well wishes and sign autographs for their fans.

The police escort beats the traffic, and the team arrives at the Columbia Regional Airport around 1 a.m.

The planes are ready to take off 30 minutes later. The one-hour time difference means they will land in Athens at about 3:30 a.m.

Brooks will be performing usher duties at his church about six hours later.

“All in all, this was a really good trip,” Brooks says. “Besides the early scare with the weight issues with the planes, it went well.”

After the church service, he can start praying that nobody notices him on the next trip, either.

 

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.