Hurricane prep becomes standard operating procedure in CFB

Hurricane Florence in the Atlantic Ocean threatens the East Coast, including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. NOAA via AP

UCF athletic director Danny White is among the athletic directors in the South and Atlantic regions with hurricane preparation plans on their preseason checklists.

"I'm 2-for-2 in my two seasons at UCF with hurricanes," he said back in August. "Hopefully we get a year off this year."

About that ...

For the third straight season, a hurricane will impact a UCF football game, a weather-related trend that schools must grapple with when football season and hurricane season merge for a few months every fall. Recent history suggests that they must be as proactive as possible, with both planning and making game decisions.

Over the past two years, Hurricanes Matthew, Harvey and Irma forced games in Texas, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina to be moved, rescheduled or canceled. Hurricane Florence has now done the same: The UCF-North Carolina, West Virginia-NC State and East Carolina-Virginia Tech games were canceled Tuesday, while Virginia moved its home game against Ohio to Vanderbilt to avoid the storm. UCF will miss an opportunity to play a Power 5 opponent in consecutive seasons.

Each time a hurricane forms, administrators must answer the same questions about what to do if a major storm heads their way, understanding the unique puzzle they must solve as they work to get answers from university, local and state officials and emergency personnel.

"The fact of the matter is playing a home football game is a big deal to these communities," Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. "It's one of the biggest events of the year. We're all motivated to try to hold those events if we possibly can, so if we can't, there's got to be really significant reasons why those games can't take place.

"It goes back to safety, available manpower, electricity and everything else. The great thing about college athletics is people care and they have opinions, and sometimes the harmful thing about college football is people care and have opinions. When those opinions can be destructive is typically when people are trying to connect dots that don't exist and come up with conspiracy theories."

Even the best planning cannot predict with 100 percent certainty what hurricanes will do. That is why decisions that impact entire universities and athletic departments are much more complicated than they appear.

To that end, there are a few points athletics departments want to make clear:

  • Their first priority is safety: for everybody on campus; for student-athletes, coaches and administrators; for fans traveling to games; for first responders who might be needed to help elsewhere in the state.

  • Nobody wants to cancel or reschedule football games in order to avoid an opponent.

  • No one can predict with 100 percent certainty where a storm will strike, and that is why decisions involve educated guesses and calculated risks.

  • No plan works universally, nor will one plan work the same way every time a storm threatens a campus.

  • Often, decisions made by university, city or state officials determine whether games are played. In general, athletic departments have guidelines they follow once a storm forms: One liaison communicates with the university to get the most up-to-date information as soon as it is available. Then the athletic director and staff get to work, holding conference calls with a host of representatives: the conference office, the opposing school if there is an upcoming game, university officials, local, city and state personnel, emergency responders and hospital officials.

"It becomes a minute by minute management situation because you're looking at a weather event, and you don't know exactly what's going to happen," Stricklin said. "There are factors beyond our control responding and reacting to that information."

The past two seasons, Florida had one game rescheduled and two games canceled because of hurricanes. In October 2016, Florida had to make a decision about playing LSU at home with Hurricane Matthew looming in the Atlantic, and a rancorous back-and-forth between the schools (and fan bases) ensued.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey stepped in to work out a resolution: Florida would travel to LSU to play in November, then host the Tigers in 2017 and 2018. After that, the SEC passed a rule that gave the commissioner ultimate authority to make decisions on rescheduling games. But that did not stop angry LSU fans from accusing Florida of trying to duck the Tigers, a point made more contentious when the Saturday of their scheduled game turned out to be sunny.

When Hurricane Irma started coming toward Florida last season, Stricklin decided that opening communication lines earlier and more frequently would be the best course of action. Florida canceled its game against Northern Colorado after Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and closed all state schools. Emergency personnel simply couldn't be pulled away for a football game, and the highways leading to Gainesville were clogged with people evacuating the storm.

Hurricane Irma ended up forcing UCF to reschedule a game against Memphis and cancel a home game against Georgia Tech. Those was not decisions anyone on the Orlando, Florida, campus came to lightly.

The university has a state-of-the-art forecasting center on campus that the athletic department relies on to help predict what path a storm could take. Forecasters in the control center told UCF athletics officials that it would be safe to play the Memphis game, so they moved it up one day to Friday, Sept. 8. Memphis flew to Orlando on Thursday. But while Memphis was in the air, Scott closed all state schools, so UCF decided to postpone the game.

With a Category 5 storm projected to barrel straight up central Florida, White allowed student-athletes to go home to be with their families, and that ultimately impacted preparations for the Georgia Tech game. Although Irma was not as devastating as many feared, central Florida experienced flooding and significant downed trees and power lines. The National Guard used Spectrum Stadium as a staging area. That didn't stop critics from wondering whether UCF was ducking a Power 5 opponent, cries that grew louder as the undefeated Knights kept winning. UCF and Georgia Tech have since rescheduled that canceled game for 2022.

"I never had any issues talking to the other ADs," White said. "I had some time to really explain to them even if we didn't have the National Guard, are we going to take first responders away from the flooding that's going on to host a football game? That's one of many examples before you get to the fact that half our football team wasn't here and hadn't been here for four or five days because they're with their families."

Florida schools know this is part of the drill every fall. But last year, Miami faced a different challenge entirely: the mandatory evacuation of its campus. The Hurricanes could have left early for their road game at Arkansas State, but many players asked to go home to help with storm preparations, as forecasters predicted the catastrophic storm would make landfall directly in south Florida. Not only that, but Miami had no idea when it would be able to return once it left the state.

For those wishing to evacuate, Miami secured hotel rooms four hours north in Orlando. The game against Arkansas State was cancelled. The campus was heavily damaged in the storm, so Miami stayed in Orlando to practice for a week, and its game against Florida State was rescheduled for October. Miami and Arkansas State remain in a legal battle over the game's cancellation.

"What we learned last year is we have to be a little more organized and well thought in our plan," Miami athletic director Blake James said. "As a university, our people on campus are very organized and well prepared, and I think in athletics historically we looked at it as though in some way we would have our world go on, and the reality is it can't. That's what became very clear to us last year. We need to have our students, our staff, our area ready for the storm just like the rest of the campus, the rest of the city and the state, so I think the biggest thing we took out of that is we realized it does impact us."

Sometimes, there is not much advance warning. Hurricane Harvey formed so quickly in the Gulf last season that Houston and Rice officials needed to come up with plans at warp speed. Like Tulane, Houston has a partner agreement with North Texas that allows student-athletes to practice and use facilities there. But because they needed to take decisive action so quickly, Houston needed a different plan.

Officials made the decision to move the team to Austin on a Thursday night and had everyone loaded up on buses by 1 p.m. Friday. Houston canceled its season opener against UT-San Antonio.

It was a little more complicated for Rice. The worst of the storm made landfall while Rice was playing its game against Stanford in Sydney, Australia. When they boarded their flight for Los Angeles, officials had no idea whether they would be staying in California until it was safe to go back home or perhaps going to another city in Texas.

Athletic director Joe Karlgaard and Rice officials spent the entire flight figuring out the best option. They opted to go to Dallas, where they could use TCU's facilities. Karlgaard delivered the news once their flight landed in Los Angeles.

"You have to put the student-athletes at the center of the process," Karlgaard said. "And it first has to be about their health and safety, and then you start thinking about competition after that. There's a lot of little decisions that go into the thought process of whether or not you decide as an athletics director to cancel a game or move your team off campus for practice. Those decisions all have to be made locally."

Every athletic director living in a hurricane zone needs to be prepared for that. But there might not be another school in the country with the game plan Tulane currently has in the event another hurricane forms in the Gulf.

Every summer, Chris Maitre and his Tulane operations team take a trip to visit Samford University. They check in with colleagues, take another look at the facilities and make sure their ironclad agreement still stands.

Because if another hurricane ever threatens the New Orleans area, Tulane athletics is headed five hours northeast to take shelter in Birmingham, Alabama. Not only does Tulane have a partnership to practice and train at Samford, but the athletic department also has two hotels on retainer for its various teams and support staff, along with a food service contract and buses at the ready.

Maitre, Tulane's senior associate athletics director for business and operations, helped rewrite the plan at Tulane, which was forced to revamp its entire model after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the school's campus in August 2005.

"We're doing a really good job educating ourselves but also educating our student-athletes and our coaches on why this is so important," he said. "We don't want to have games canceled because of poor planning and poor execution. We're all about looking ahead. We want to be in that planning phase so we can execute and then make things happen, and it doesn't look it's a whole lot of running around like chickens with their heads cut off."

Two years ago, deputy athletic director for internal operations Michael Lipitz and his team at NC State saw Hurricane Matthew barreling toward the Carolinas. NC State, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke all had home games scheduled that weekend, and they all made the decision to play, determining that heavy rain would pose the biggest issue.

NC State beat Notre Dame 10-3 in a game played in monsoon-like conditions, a situation coach Dave Doeren reflected on Monday.

"It would be hard to imagine playing in that again," he said.