Packing for a road trip

Packing for a road trip

Adam Braun has a clipboard in hand, but he’s not calling Xs and Os.

Rather than a script of plays or what defensive scheme to use, Braun’s job, as the assistant athletics director for equipment operations for the University of Houston football program, is to make sure nothing, no matter how big or small, gets forgotten.

“No,” Braun said when asked if anything has ever been left behind. He bends down and knocks on the wooden floor. No reason to take a chance after years of loading up many of the same essential items.

On a chilly Wednesday morning in mid-November, Braun, Evan Tucker and Flynn Munroe do most of the heavy lifting as they load the UH football team’s 53-foot trailer for the roughly 2,570-mile round trip from campus to Greenville, N.C., for a game against East Carolina.

In the span of a few hours, the UH equipment staff will pack a “mobile locker room,” between 12,000 to 15,000 pounds’ worth of uniforms, helmets, strength and conditioning equipment and trainers’ trunks for one of the longest trips of the season.

Braun glances at the clipboard.

From a nearby door, Munroe, the athletic equipment intern for the football program, pulls a pallet of sports drinks and water. Next come two exercise bicycles. Tucker, the director of equipment operations, rolls out one of the final items: a 1,000-pound communication system, the hub that allows coaches on the sideline and press box to stay in contact throughout the game. Each of the 70 players on the travel roster will carry a personal bag on the plane.

“If it’s not on this truck, we’re at DEFCON 1,” Braun said.

Part of the process, Braun said, is to prepare for the unexpected. The contents of the trailer vary each week, depending on the team’s needs and destination, everything from a dozen blue water coolers, a specific trunk for cold-weather gear, video screens and projectors, a medical tent, kicking nets and even a couple of tubas for the Spirit of Houston marching band. There’s even a special cooler with Red Bull for coach Dana Holgorsen. And a secret stash of Dr Pepper that athletic director Chris Pezman gulps as he walks the sideline.

“It’s like a big game of Tetris,” Braun said.

Most of the same items, including practice equipment, will be needed as Cougars relocate this week for the Independence Bowl, which will be played Friday in Shreveport, La.

With the last items loaded, Braun pulls down the tailgate. Later that day, two drivers contracted through Houston-based Roadrunner Moving & Storage hitched the cab to the front of the trailer that features the UH logo and “HOUSTON COUGARS FOOTBALL” in massive white letters set against a red background. The trip was scheduled to be completed in 32 hours of driving over two days, just enough time to arrive ahead of the team’s charter flight on Friday.

The truck is a traveling billboard for the school, driving along interstate highways and back roads to such destinations as Annapolis, Md., Lubbock, San Antonio and Dallas. Total mileage for five games this season: 8,558.

As the Cougars move to the Big 12 next season, long trips to Temple and Navy will be replaced by more fuel-friendly drives to Waco, Austin, Lubbock, and Fort Worth.

“People think it’s cool,” Braun said of the reception UH’s truck gets on the road. “It’s like seeing a rare bird in the wild. You see an equipment truck and people are taking pictures, waving at them, telling them to blow the horn, stuff like that.”

Once the truck has arrived, that’s when Braun and his crew — which includes seven student managers — get to work. Some items are unloaded at the team hotel. The rest was taken to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, home of the East Carolina Pirates, to begin setup for game day.

Braun arrives a day early for road games, placing jerseys in each locker. He adds a special touch with a name plate for each player.

“I try and make it as Power Five as possible,” said Braun, who is in his fourth season with the program after previously serving as head equipment manager at Army. “At the end of the day that’s what we are trying to be.”

On game day, the equipment staff arrives at the stadium five hours before kickoff. At that time, the staff sets up the sideline, everything from the medical tent and kicking nets, white boards and play cards and water coolers. The most important piece of the puzzle is the communication equipment, which is tested and retested to ensure there are no issues. To save space, heaters were rented locally with temperatures forecasted in the 40s.

“If we don’t do our job the game won’t go on,” Braun said. “The best way to sum up what we do: if the only thing the players have to worry about is playing and the only thing coaches have to worry about is coaching and they don’t have to worry about anything else, then we’ve done our job.”

Braun wears a headset during the game and is on the lookout for any potential problems.

“Our job on game day is boring if everything is going right,” Braun said. “If we are just hanging out, that’s a good game for us.”

Holgorsen said the equipment staff is part of a “big organization” that is needed for the football program to function on daily basis.

“Those are hardworking dudes that don’t get thanked a whole lot for the number of hours they put in making things function,” Holgorsen said.

Of course, some unexpected issues do arise. Like a game last season when running back Ta’Zhawn Henry’s jersey tore and Braun sewed it back together with a shoelace. On the opening drive of last year’s American Athletic Conference championship game at Cincinnati, a TV cart on the sideline pulled the connection jacks out of the communication hub. While Braun and his staff troubleshooted the problem, coaches in the press box could not communicate with the sideline.

“Biggest game of the year,” Tucker said. “We did score.”

Depending on how the game goes, the equipment staff will usually begin the packing up process at halftime. Their version of the two-minute offense begins at game’s end, with the goal for the truck to leave shortly after the team departs the stadium.

“It doesn’t look as nice going back because we’re in a hurry,” said Tucker, who worked at Army, Miami and Austin Peay before joining UH in 2021. “But the fact it gets done in less than an hour is a minor miracle.”

With everything on board, the truck tailgate is closed.

Next stop: Houston.