Life on the Road: Traveling with the Nittany Lions to Alabama

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Alabama game had been circled on the calendar for months, if not years, for Penn State sports fans.  While Saturday's final score did not turn out as everyone had hoped, it was still a great experience to be a part of.

 

I have traveled to every Penn State football game since the beginning of the 2008 season, covering the Lions in '08 and '09 for the Penn State Official Sports Report, but not as a member of the team's official travel party.  Heading into the 2010 season, I joined the Penn State Athletic Communications staff as a content producer for GoPSUsports.com.  With that transition came the opportunity to travel with the team on the road to provide extensive coverage from all 12 games on the schedule.

 

That being said, last weekend was my first experience traveling as a member of the football travel party for a road game.  Over the past few days, I've had numerous people ask me how the trip to Alabama went.  With the help of my notebook, I thought I would share a few things about what life is like when traveling with the Nittany Lions to Alabama.

 

Friday, Sept. 10:

2:50 p.m. - Bus Leaves Lasch Building

The football team's travel party is broken into three buses for a road trip.  The coaching staff and players occupy buses one and two, while the rest of the support staff rides on bus three.  After dropping off luggage at the equipment room, the buses rolled off to University Park Airport just before 3 p.m.  As a member of the communications staff, I occupied a spot on bus three for the weekend.  Bus three arrived at the airport shortly after 3 p.m. to begin the TSA screening process.  The security check was quick and efficient.  From there, we re-boarded the bus and were driven on the tarmac to the Boeing 737 charter jet that served as the transporter to Alabama.

 

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3:47 p.m. - Doors Close for Departure

The charter plane is arranged to have the coaches in the front, the support staff immediately behind and then the players in the back.  Coach Paterno, who sits in the front row just inside the door, was the last one on the plane.  The doors shut shortly after Coach boarded and the pilot began his pre-flight announcements before the flight departed for Birmingham International Airport.

 

4:45 p.m. CT - Greetings from Birmingham

The smooth flight from State College to Alabama was just shy of two hours.  Just after the wheels touched down in Birmingham, the flight crew welcomed everyone to Alabama with an announcement that the current temperature was 95 degrees.  To say it was warm and humid when the team stepped down the stairs from the 737 would be an understatement. 

 

Three buses were ready and waiting for the squad on the tarmac in Birmingham.  After transferring the luggage to the buses, the team departed for the Marriott Birmingham with a tremendous police escort from the Alabama State Police.  Five motorcycles and three cars led the buses off the tarmac.  Alabama's finest paved the way to the hotel in the middle of rush hour traffic.  The motorcycles blocked entranceways on the freeway, cleared intersections and stopped traffic throughout the 20-minute drive to the hotel.  It felt like we were the only vehicles on the road during the busiest time of day in the city of Birmingham.  A tip of cap goes to the Alabama State Police.

 

5:35 p.m. CT -Arrival at the Team Hotel

The buses pulled into the Marriott in Birmingham to a round of applause from a large crowd of fans gathered inside the hotel hoping to get a peak at the team.  Upon arrival, the members of the team went immediately into dinner at the hotel.  The communications staff opted for a trip to one of Alabama's famous BBQ establishments for dinner on Friday.  With some help from a former Penn State marketing staff member, whose family now lives in Birmingham, we toured the city before dining at Dreamland BBQ.  If you are ever in Alabama, be sure to experience Dreamland.  Meanwhile, the team relaxed at the hotel before going to bed.

 

Saturday, Sept. 11:

8 a.m. CT - Gameday Breakfast

The squad participated in its continental breakfast before break down meetings and a team meal at 2 p.m.  The team buses were slated to leave the hotel for Tuscaloosa at 3:15 p.m., again with a police escort.  However, with it being the first trip to Tuscaloosa for the communications staff, we opted to leave the hotel early to take in some of the atmosphere around on campus around Bryant-Denny Stadium.


3 p.m. CT - Inside Bryant-Denny Stadium

After touring the surrounding areas on the Alabama campus and quick walk through the Paul "Bear" Bryant Museum, we entered the stadium.  With sweltering temperatures and high humidity on gameday, the brief downpour prior to entering the stadium was a welcome sight.  I recently looked back at Saturday's weather report on the National Weather Service's website.  It was officially 97 degrees with a heat index of 105 in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, and it felt like every bit of that as we walked around campus in suits and ties.


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Bryant-Denny Stadium recently completed a renovation to add a second deck to one end zone, which completely enclosed the perimeter of the stadium.  The facility was immaculate.  Equipped with four HD video boards, a spacious visiting locker room and wide spaces on the concourse, Bryant-Denny was an outstanding place for a football game.  The press box was a three-level, open-air facility with great sightlines and amenities.  It was easy to see why Crimson Tide football is a first class operation inside the stadium.

 

4:15 p.m. CT - Team Buses Arrive at Bryant-Denny

After making the one-hour trek southeast from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, the Nittany Lions arrived at Bryant-Denny Stadium to a warm welcome from the Penn State faithful in attendance.  One of the pregame rituals for the Nittany Lions is to walk off the bus onto the field, clad in suits, before changing into uniform.  It is a cool sight to see the Penn State players walking out of the tunnel onto the sod dressed in their finest before changing into game uniform.

 

5:30 p.m. CT - Warming Up

I was fortunate enough to spend most of pregame and the first half on the field taking photos for the Gameday Photo Blog on Saturday night.  When Coach Paterno met with Alabama head coach Nick Saban and former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden at mid-field, the warm reception from the Alabama crowd spoke volumes about how classy the Tide fans were throughout the trip.  Coach Paterno received a standing ovation from the Alabama fans when he took the field for the first time.

 

6:11 p.m. CT - Kickoff

After months of anticipation, Trent Richardson received Anthony Fera's opening kickoff in front of 101,821 fans.  Standing on the field, the noise level was as loud as I have heard at any road game.  Fans of the Big Ten often hear from the SEC faithful how tremendous the SEC football environments are.  For years, I never really knew what to expect.  But to see it first hand on Saturday night, it lived up to all of the expectations, and then some.  It was an unbelievable atmosphere for a college football game.  The crimson-clad crowd was into the game from start to finish.  At times, you just looked around at the surroundings in awe of what the environment looked and sounded like.


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10:15 p.m. CT - Boarding the Buses for the Airport

Following the game, Coach Paterno and a few select players met with reporters in the visiting team media room.  Like the rest of the stadium, the visitor's media room was significantly more spacious and organized than most venues on the schedule.  Derek Moye was the final player to wrap up interviews.  When Moye was done, we headed to the buses parked just outside the tunnel.

 

As the team pulled away from Bryant-Denny Stadium a crowd of Alabama and Penn State fans cheered and waved, just another representation of the classy Crimson Tide fan base was.  Although the team flew into Birmingham, the Boeing 737 charter jet was waiting for the squad at the Tuscaloosa airport, which was 15 minutes from the stadium.  After a quick trip through the TSA screening process, we boarded the plane for the University Park Airport shortly after 11:15 p.m. CT.

 

2:38 a.m. ET - Back Home in State College

After whirlwind two days, the charter jet touched down in State College just after 2:30 a.m. local time to cap off the first road trip of the season.

 

Looking back on the trip to Alabama, it was a tremendous experience to be a part of.  Granted the game did not turn out as everyone had hoped, but to play the No. 1 team in America in an environment like that, it was something the team will not forget.  The Alabama fans welcomed Penn State with open arms.  I cannot count on two hands the number of Tide fans who came up to me at Dreamland BBQ, walking around on campus on gameday and at the stadium to welcome me to Alabama.  The respect for Penn State was terrific.

 

I can't say enough positive things about the treatment the team received in Alabama.  The atmosphere was unlike anything else in the Big Ten.  From the crowd singing along to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" blaring from the stadium speaker system prior to kickoff to the several thousand tailgaters under tents in grassy areas surrounding the stadium to the infamous "Roll Tide" saying, Alabama fans create a unique environment for a game and take their Tide football very seriously.

 

All in all, it was a very interesting experience rolling with the Tide in humid Alabama for a couple days.

 

After two home games, we will again board the charter to Iowa for another night clash in Iowa City.

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