Eastern Michigan will play in its first bowl game in 29 years on Friday when it faces Old Dominion — a school that revived its own football program in 2009 after a 69-year hiatus — in the Bahamas Bowl. And as the 7-5 Eagles have learned over the past few weeks, preparing for, getting to and playing in a football game overseas does not make for a typical road trip.
Of course, that wasn’t going to dissuade coach Chris Creighton and his players from leaving the bitter cold of Ypsilanti to spend Christmas week in paradise. But as the Eagles prepare to take the field in Nassau, here’s a look at what it took to make it happen.
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The university bought passports for the team — in 2014
In July 2013, Eastern Michigan hired Heather Lyke to replace Derrick Gragg as its athletic director, and within a year Lyke had convinced the powers that be that it would be prudent for the school to invest in passports for its football players.
The decision was made with this particular trip in mind, as the Bahamas Bowl is one of five games with a Mid-American Conference tie-in. It was an ambitious plan for a 2-10 team in the midst of a nearly three-decade bowl drought, but now, the investment (ongoing for incoming freshmen) looks like money well-spent.
“You could have thought she was crazy for wanting to do that, or you could see it for what it was: preparing for success, expecting to be successful and then being ready to go if and when our number got called,” said Christian Spears, Eastern Michigan’s deputy director of athletics. “And sure enough, we were ready to go.
“When we had the bowl call and (they asked), ‘Is anyone prepared to receive an invitation from the Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl, where you’ll have to leave in the next 20-plus days?’ I’ve got to be honest, the majority of the ADs on that call were not prepared with passports,” continued Spears, who said just one of the team’s 103 players had a valid passport prior to attending the school. “But Heather was able to raise her hand and say, ‘Eastern is ready.’”
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They had to send their equipment via boat
Typically, when programs travel for a road game, the gameday gear gets loaded on a 48- to 52-foot tractor trailer a day or two before the team leaves campus. But driving to the Bahamas clearly wasn’t an option, so the Eagles had to get creative.
The solution? Both Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion agreed, in the spirit of cooperation, to use the same freight company to haul their helmets, pads and radio equipment to Miami, where it was then put on a freighter bound for the Bahamas. The shipment arrived on shore in Nassau on Saturday, giving equipment staff plenty of time to prepare before the team’s arrival Monday afternoon.
“We chose to do that so there wasn’t any chance that one team would be with their stuff while one team was without their stuff,” Spears said. “If the ship reaches port, we both get our gear.”
And why didn’t they just fly their equipment down, you might ask? For starters, it would have created weight issues on the team plane, but there was more to the decision to hit the high seas than physics alone.
“To get through customs, the individual parts have to be itemized and serial coded, and you have to provide the numbers,” Spears said. “So imagine a helmet that has multiple snaps that you have to individually identify for customs agents going into a new country. But if we freight it, we provide them with a sheet acknowledging all of the things on the freight and that is sufficient for their purposes, because of how they check. So we did that, which is what all of the teams have done that have played in the Bahamas.”
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They hired lots and lots of buses
With some 200 players, coaches, administrators and support staff making the trip for the game, Spears and his colleagues also had to figure out how everyone would be getting around once they arrived. When traveling domestically, the program typically hires a few 55-passenger charter buses to drive the team where it needs to go, but in the Bahamas, the largest bus on the island only holds 29.
“No matter what you do, you’re going to be taking six, seven, eight buses, and you’ve just got to get right with that, get used to that, and be really prepared to have a bus captain who knows, ‘These are the people on your bus,’” Spears said. “Often we only have 40 people on (larger buses back home), so there’s a bit of leg room, someone has an empty seat. But here, you’re sitting right next to the guy next to you and you’re going to enjoy the 20 miles to the stadium and the 20 miles back to the hotel that way.”
Of course, the cramped quarters on the bus are a small price to pay for the opportunity to play in the game.
“If you grew up playing sports, you grew up doing these kinds of things, sitting right next to someone in the schoolbus-style bus, and you go and have a wonderful experience that you’ll never forget,” Spears said. “And that's what we have in the Bahamas.”
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They had plenty of help back home
With so much to do in such a short period of time — the team had less than three weeks between accepting the bowl invite and playing the game — Eastern Michigan used an “all hands on deck” mentality when finalizing preparations.
“People who have never been involved with football before are working this game,” Spears said, “and were working the logistics to get us to this game.”
In addition to the challenge of getting the participants and all their gear where they needed to be, Eastern Michigan also had to figure out how to get its band and cheerleaders down, as well. (They’re staying for just three days, as opposed to the team’s five.) The school also sent down its business manager and staff to sell merchandise, and development staff to host alumni events and coordinate travel plans for more than 30 former Eagles players making the trip, including Charlie Batch (pictured).
And that’s just the start.
“It became an all hands on deck effort within our department,” Spears said. “Even if you’re not going on the trip, (it’s a challenge) just to get the logistics done, to spend five days in a foreign country, with five days of events, and to have five days, really, of hosting people who you care about, who are affiliated with your program.”
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They brought in a third school to help
At the end of the day, one of the biggest challenges the Bahamas Bowl faces is simply getting the field itself ready for the game. And that required reinforcements in the form of the Central Florida facilities staff to get it done.
Tom Snyder, UCF’s associate athletics director for facilities and event operations, serves as the Bahamas Bowl’s director of game operations, and he, UCF associate director of facilities and operations Paul Bender and a hand-picked team have been the ones prepping Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium to host the event.
“When we went down for the site visit, Paul was there, kind of walking it through with the coaches — how the field will get set up, how they want it set up, where they want activities, how they want their benches, and everything that goes along with the logistics of running a practice and playing a game,” Spears said. “And I’m 100 percent confident it’ll be exactly like that (on game day).”
Earlier this fall, the stadium had new Bermuda grass field installed, and while much of the physical equipment is already on site — the bowl purchased its own goal posts in 2014 and stores them in the Bahamas — it’s just not feasible to have Bahamas natives, who may not be familiar with American football, putting the complex puzzle together.
“Unfortunately, they just don’t know how to do it,” Spears said. “They don’t know that it’s 100 yards — and here’s the yard markers, and here’s the hashes, here’s where you put the pylons, and here’s where the radio cords need to be set up, and here’s where the booth needs to be, and here’s where the water should be. So you’ve got to bring someone in to do it, and they brought in a pro.”