The New Mexico State Aggies lost a heartbreaker in their first game of this year’s NCAA tournament, and their Big Dance nightmare didn’t stop there.
After the game, they had to rush to catch a 2 a.m. flight, snagging box lunches to eat on the overnight flight to El Paso. Once there, many had to wait another 2½ hours because there was only one bus to pick them up.
Athletic director McKinley Boston believes that the Aggie’s NCAA Tournament travel woes could benefit teams in the future, although he would have preferred to avoid them.
Boston said Tuesday that he accepted an NCAA apology offered after the Aggies and their travel party were forced to fly home in the middle of the night following their loss last Thursday to San Diego State.
Both teams were informed beforehand that the loser would have to fly home that night. But an already late-starting game in Spokane, Wash., became even later when the preceding game went into overtime. The Aggies and Aztecs also played to overtime, ultimately leaving NMSU’s travel party boarding a plane at 2 a.m. Friday.
Worse still, only one bus awaited the Aggies when they completed their flight from Spokane to El Paso at 7 a.m. Most of the party had to wait at the airport for an additional 2½ hours before the bus returned to shuttle them back to Las Cruces.
“Red-eye flights are one thing. They happen,” Boston said. “The thing that made it annoying was that we left with three buses and came back to one. That meant the cheerleaders, the dance team and the pep band all had to wait around for two or three more hours. No one was happy about that.”
The bus travel also was coordinated by the NCAA.
Boston said he received a call Saturday from Dan Gavitt, vice president of the men’s basketball championship.
“He said it was inconsistent with their effort to provide the full NCAA experience,” Boston said. “He was disappointed that our experience wasn’t a positive one and that they would do everything possible to evaluate it and try to make sure the experience going forward was adequate.”
The NCAA makes all travel arrangements for official 75-member parties from each school competing in its tournaments, Boston said. The parties include players, coaches, administrators, band members and cheerleaders. Boosters and fans are allowed to purchase unused seats and travel with the team.
While losing teams frequently travel home on game days, the late start and conclusion of Thursday’s game caused NMSU’s party to scramble.
After Aggies coach Marvin Menzies and the players fulfilled their postgame interview obligations, the team, pep band and cheerleaders went back to the hotel 15 miles east of downtown Spokane and quickly packed while hotel employees prepared 70 box lunches. The Aggies arrived at the airport, which is west of downtown, at about 1 a.m.
They took a charter flight to El Paso because the runway at Las Cruces’ airport is not wide enough to accommodate larger planes, Boston said.
The travel mess might not have been a big deal beyond Las Cruces if not for SDSU coach Steve Fisher, who ripped into the NCAA in his postgame news conference.
“I’m going to do something I never do. I’m going to complain about the NCAA process. And I hope somebody writes it,” the normally genial Fisher said, mentioning that neither team wanted to go home that night if it lost.
“It’s disgraceful,” said Fisher, who hired Menzies as part of his original staff at SDSU in 1999. “For the billions of dollars that we have here for them not to find a way to accommodate these kids, the student-athletes – You can’t tell me they couldn’t find charter planes. And that’s what they told me. I shouldn’t have to call the NCAA, and I did today to say, ‘Why?’ ”
Fisher even suggested that an NCAA administrator should have to fly home with a losing team “and see what it’s like to get home at 5 in the morning. It shouldn’t happen.”
Boston was AD at Minnesota for part of the time that Fisher was the coach at Michigan.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Steve,” Boston said. “I know he’s a passionate person. When I saw it on YouTube I was impressed. He’s a stand-up guy. Always has been.”
Mark Lewis, the NCAA’s executive vice president of championships and alliances, said complaints were “fair and genuine, but the fact that we can even accomplish something like this is an incredibly complex task and if the policies are something we need to work on, we’ll work on them. Other than the bus, everything worked the way it was supposed to.”
David McCollum, NMSU’s deputy AD, said he received an apology from the bus company. He said details about the Aggies’ arrival time somehow hadn’t been passed along to the company.
Lewis said a number of factors affect travel, including the number of planes available and new FAA rules requiring flight crews to have 10 hours of actual rest time instead of eight.
Lewis told the San Diego Union-Tribune the NCAA had one plane available to fly home the loser of the Cincinnati-Harvard game, which took place Thursday afternoon, and the San Diego State-New Mexico State game, the day’s last game. Cincinnati was allowed to spend Thursday night in Spokane and left town on Friday. If the decision was made to take Cincinnati home first, Lewis said, the length of the flight and rest regulations would have meant that NMSU wouldn’t have gotten home until very late Friday.
He said the NCAA is moving more than 120 men’s and women’s teams, “and then you don’t know who’s going to lose, so you don’t know who’s leaving and who’s staying.”
“Our tournaments didn’t shrink and the operation of a charter flight went down because the biggest constraint on us is supply,” he added. “It isn’t that we had a more expensive option and didn’t use it. We didn’t have other options to use. We are buying or renting every possible resource we can get access to.”
As far as policy changes, “Do we want to go to a policy that no team goes home if the game doesn’t end by 2 o’clock or something?” he said. “The counterbalance to that is you’re missing class time because you’re not getting home the day you played. The policies and procedures aren’t decided by our national office, they’re made by the membership.”
Still, Boston said Gavitt’s apology convinced him steps will be taken to avoid the kind of travel issues the Aggies encountered.
“I’m comfortable that next year, schools won’t have to deal with this,” Boston said.
The Associated Press’ Bernie Wilson and Journal Staff Writer Ken Sickenger contributed to this report.