48 Hours in Omaha: Traveling with the Team

Daniel "The Warrior Friar" James —  March 12th, 2014 3:10 PM —  Comments
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I’ve traveled to a lot of places to support the Friars. Syracuse, Philadelphia, New York City, Queens, Storrs, Boston and Kingstown just to name a few. I’ve met Providence fans, opposing team fans and even some of the some of the team. That said, all these trips have been on my own accord.

My trip to Omaha was the first time ever traveling with the team and some of the high profile donors.

This trip was a privilege for me – as a fan, an alumnus of this school and a donor of this program is was an amazing experience not only to see the inner workings of the program, but also to see how the support that fans provide this program gets repaid to the team.

That part has already been laid out for you though. Craig Belhumeur was on the trip with me and wrote a great piece that you can read on Friar Basketball about the benfits of donating, how it helps with travel and team support, and what it means to the program. This is strictly an overview of what it’s like to be on the road because fans who donate have the opportunity to go on trips like these.

And trust me, this is an experience you don’t want to miss.

The Arrival: At around 2:45 PM I arrived to a small airport down the street from T.F. Green for a 3 PM departure time. I think it goes without saying to anyone who’s familiar with flying that showing up 15 minutes before your departure time can make you a bit unwound. Parking alone at an airport can take 20 minutes, and I had to park, walk over, go through security, find the gate, and get on the plane. So, roughly, I was two hours behind on a flight leaving in an eighth of that time.

But I’d never been on a charter before, so I didn’t know that showing up to a small airport meant that I would get free parking. And that the parking lot was right across the street from the airport. And I didn’t have to go through security – just have a metal wand waived around me really quickly and then boom, walk right to the plane. The whole process took less than ten minutes and I was virtually walking from my car through a hanger right to the plane. So with backpack pressed against me, rolling suitcase dragging behind me and anticipation boiling in my stomach, I boarded the plane to Omaha.

"Next stop: Omaha"

“Next stop: Omaha”

The Flight: You get a paid-for meal by the athletic department, complimentary drinks, complimentary snacks and free in-flight wifi. In terms of team interaction, coach Cooley would come around and chat with fans, thanking them for coming on the trip and getting to know them a bit better. For the most part the players stayed focused on the upcoming game, sitting on the back of the plane and relaxing or hanging out with the assistant coaches. Other than these things though it was your average flight. The amenities did make a world of a difference though. Who knew that having internet access on a plane could be so clutch?

Landing/Pre Dinner: We landed after a fairly short flight thanks to free in-flight wifi to head onto coach buses and get taken to the airport. There were two buses for the entire party of about 75, so everyone got a seat and if you wanted you could have an entire seat section to yourself. Big, cushy seats with plenty of leg room with overhead compartments to throw your carry on in so it wouldn’t be on your lap was nice. The bus ride to the hotel was fast and the hotel was comfortable, slightly removed from the downtown area which is (what I imagine) for purposes of keeping the team focused. After a quick ride and retreat to the room to change we were all back on the buses to our dinner reservations.

Dinner: We had a private room reserved at a decent steakhouse with a selection of steaks, fish, chicken and I think a vegetarian option (though who knows by that point, I got down to “top sirloin” and stopped reading). The entire meal was paid for, including drinks. There were thank you speeches given by key members of the athletic department such as Steve Napolillo (Bob Driscoll was in attendance but under the weather) and we all participated in a quick blessing before getting our food.

The dinner was the first time everyone had been slowed down from the travel so this was when I really got the opportunity to get to know some of the people at my table. Now, if you know me, you know I wear my fandom on my sleeve (I think I own more Providence College apparel than I do everyday clothing) so when I say something like “I was a small fish in a big pond” in relation to passion you know I’m not messing around. The fans on this trip are some of the most diehard fans there are. What made this a treat was that, while I have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of Providence basketball history, these people lived for parts of it and had insight that I could never hope to find out because they were there for it. I like Marvin Barnes for what he accomplished, but only on a historical level. Some of these guys told me about what it was like watching him play and going to school with him. The name Jimmy Walker carries a ton of weight with me, but these guys told me about who Jimmy was as a person. Having the common ground of being passionate about Providence basketball helps the conversations at the table to get going, but being able to hear stories that you can’t look up in a statistics book or on Wikipedia is what made the night awesome.

Leisure Time: After dinner we had time to do whatever we wanted, so I hopped a cab to downtown Omaha with a few other fans and went around to meet people from the area. No great stories from here, but since it was “do your own thing” time anyway this time could be used for anything. Some people chilled at the hotel, some went out for a movie, some hung out at the hotel bar.

Breakfast/More Down Time: Breakfast was another part of the leisure time, but the hotel we were staying at had an amazing breakfast buffet so no complaints here. The nice part about waking up for breakfast was getting to hang with some more key members of the basketball program. The lobby and dining areas were filled with black Providence shirts, Cooley would chat up any fan who wanted to talk, and John Rooke and Joe Hassett were floating around, which was really cool to see.

From breakfast until about 2 PM everyone had more time to do whatever they wanted, so again experiences on this varied. I used my time to explore downtown Omaha and hit up thrift stores, but other people used the time to sleep in, go on brewery tours or hit up the malls. We all regrouped around 2 in the hotel lobby/bar area and, after some appetizers and beverages, hopped on the bus to the next part of the trip.

Tour of Creighton: Steve Napolillo and Kevin Connolly made arrangements to take us to Creighton University to check out the campus and tour the athletic facilities. Creighton has some beautiful sites on campus, and the initiatives they’ve taken on their sports facilities is nothing short of impressive. The highlight for me was seeing the soccer field – a beautiful turf field in an open area that seats 8,000 people, complete with luxury boxes, covered seating, and a skyline view of Omaha where you could see the CenturyLink Center and the TD Ameritrade Park, where the College World Series is played. This was a big part of the trip for me. Like I said, I’ve visited a lot of places but I’ve gone on my own and never had the privilege to see the workings of what we go up against. I like knowing what our competition does because I want to outdo them in every aspect of it. While I’m obviously not building any soccer fields – or any buildings for that matter – by myself, seeing what Creighton does for their athletes gave me some perspective on how a fellow Big East school handles their business, and makes me confident both in what Providence is doing and what they plan to do for growth (e.g. practice facilities, new soccer field, etc.).

Creighton's Soccer Stands

Creighton’s Soccer Stands

Creighton's Practice Facilities

Creighton’s Practice Facilities

Pregame Reception: We were carted from Creighton down towards the CenturyLink Center, where the Old Mattress Factory – a popular Creighton bar – sits a parking lot away from the front doors of the CenturyLink Center. An entire room on the second floor was reserved for Providence and Creighton fans upstairs, which was part of what is called “Big East Breakfasts.” These are events hosted by Creighton for Big East schools, where fans from the other school can come, eat food, have a few drinks and get to know some of the Creighton fans.

Again, my first time being at something like this, my initial thought was “oh God, this could end up being like the Red Wedding” but I was wrong. Creighton fans as a whole are incredibly nice (we’ll talk about that momentarily) but this reception was designed to bring fanbases together. We had open seating but elected to sit with some Bluejay supporters and talk to them about their team. It was a nice way to learn more about how their fans see their team and what they think of ours, and it was incredibly enjoyable.

Pregame Atmosphere/Game: The CenturyLink Center is a short walk from the Old Mattress Factory, and even though tip off wasn’t until 7 PM I decided to head over early and check out the arena. If you’ve ever been to the Wachovia Center (I refuse to call it the Wells Fargo Center) then CenturyLink is somewhat similar to that. Big outer bowl area to walk around with plenty of food variety and beer options. There was some cool shopping and even an interactive zoo exhibit (go figure) but my main interest was talking with the fans.

A picture from the zoo exhibit. The exhibit was huge, taking up a good portion of the wall in the CenturyLink Center.

A picture from the zoo exhibit. The exhibit was huge, taking up a good portion of the wall in the CenturyLink Center.

Home Turf

Creighton’s home turf, about 5 minutes after the doors opened. Behind me there’s an outer bowl like the Dunk completely PACKED with people.

Here’s the thing about going to away games: you’re the odd one out. No matter how many fans you travel with it’s still their home turf, and you’re going to get some looks. It’s happened to me everywhere I’ve gone, and it’s always a little weird.

What’s even weirder is when the fans of the other team are actually really cool towards you.

I wasn’t expecting it but it was a welcomed surprise when, after walking around a bit with a black PC shirt, black PC zip up, and black PC jacket, four fans started shouting over to me “Hey! You! You in the black!” and then motioned me over to talk with them about Providence. Yes, there was some playful banter (“I bet you guys are gonna lose by 30 tonight?” “Really? That’s weird, because I seem to remember that there’s one Big East team you haven’t been able to beat this season, who was it?”) and some betting going on (“How much you want to bet we win by 30?” “I don’t know, I don’t have cash on me…” “How about a hot dog?” “Yeah, that’ll work.”) but for the most part these guys were interested in talking to me about my team. It made me reciprocate and want to talk to them about them and their team. Before you knew it 20 minutes had past, the arena was packed, and we were laughing like we’d been friends for years. Creighton Fans

Goes without saying that this was unexpected for me, but as I’d been learning through this trip this wasn’t unusual. It was a nice, added bonus of going on this charter that I didn’t expect because when you travel with other fans you generally expect to stick with them and not branch of. While on this charter you’re getting exposure to the other team in a fun way, so when you do go out there it’s not so much “us against them” but more about “let’s see who we can talk to.”

The Game: Was super rough to watch from a fan perspective because hey, we lost. That said the atmosphere was pretty impressive to be in and to be at the highest-sold game in university history was something special. Oh, and the fact that I got to see history made with Doug McDermott hitting 3,000 points.

The Ride Home: More food on the bus was a welcomed comfort as we left the CenturyLink back to our flight. Another easy “get a metal wand waved over you and hop on the plane” experience was had, and the flight for the most part was smooth. Cooley came around again and spoke to fans, chatting with them about the game, basketball, the Big East in general and just whatever was on anyone’s mind, which was cool to see. He also took the time to thank us all individually for coming out to support him and his team. I fell asleep writing recaps and articles and woke up in time to see the city lights of Providence out the window, bringing my journey to Omaha to a close.

Overall: Overall this was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a Friar fan. Going to away games is fun, but getting to travel with the team was something special entirely. I thought going in that it would be made special just because hey, I’m on a charter flight and staying in a hotel that the team also stays in, but it was more about who I was with that made the experience special. I met fans I wouldn’t have otherwise met, and spoke with them about a mutual passion. I got to interact with and see things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see if I had gone on my own or stayed at home and watched the game. On top of that, seeing the inner workings of our own program was a rare glimpse into something I’ve been look towards for years now, and all the small moments really added up for me. As a fan it’s cool to see how a team gets ready in an away game environment, and as a donor it’s amazing to see what the support does to keep this program competitive.

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