This past week I had the opportunity to travel with the Montana Grizzly Basketball team to the 2012 NCAA Tournament. I had an absolutely amazing time.
Our Montana contingent left Missoula on Tuesday morning. Three buses that consisted of the players/coaches and their spouses, athletic staff, media personnel, the Dance Team, and our pep band left campus at 10:30am en route to the Missoula airport. Escorted by the Missoula Police, we had a hero’s send off as people lined the sidewalks as we drove down Broadway Street. It was so cool to see all the support and pride that Missoula has for the program. We got to the airport and went through security. One of the perks about going on these special trips is that you get to fly charter. That means you don’t have to worry about checking in, checking luggage, or hauling big bags all around. Everything is pre-arranged and pretty much done for you. After eating lunch at the gate, we boarded our plane.
Me just about to board the bus and start the trip to Albuquerque.
The plane ride had a couple of little quirks thrown in. First, we were delayed on the ground for about a half hour. Once we finally got in the air, it was pretty much smooth sailing. However, as we started to fly over Albuquerque and descend into the city we all of a sudden flew out and ascended higher into the air. It turned out that because of our late start, the schedule had been messed up a little bit and other planes were landing at the time. So we had to spend some extra time in the New Mexico skies joyriding around before we were finally cleared to land. Once we touched down on Albuquerque soil, we picked up our luggage that was conveniently waiting for us right outside of the plane and hopped on buses to take us to our hotel. The first thing that hit me upon our arrival in Albuquerque was the beautiful weather. In the low seventies and sunny, my mood was sky high.
Doug and Megan at the El Pinto bar as we wait for our table.
We got back to the hotel and once again gathered as a staff to just enjoy each other’s company, chit-chat, and watch sports. I stayed up until around 2am talking with our radio announcer and one of the basketball managers before hitting the hay.
I awoke at 7:30am the next morning, showered, and went down to the hotel lobby where I caught up on necessary work as I updated our website and social media outlets. Joining me in the lobby were several staff members who were tending to the activities that were going on that day. At 10am, I went right outside the hotel with Christie as we watched the Dance Team and band practice. It was another amazing day out. I had not felt so comfortable in a long time as I stood outside in the beautiful New Mexico morning sun.
After practice I hopped on the bus and we went out to the University of New Mexico campus for the basketball team’s practice. The team practiced at the venue they would play at tomorrow, the famous facility known as The Pit. The arena holds around 16,000 people and is simply a great facility. Even though it was decked out for the NCAA Tournament, the New Mexico Lobos presence was everywhere, serving as an example of successful branding. The practice itself was pretty much just a formality. For one hour the team just got loose, ran some basic drills, and became accustomed with the floor they would be playing on. After that practice they would go to a local high school for a more intense and traditional closed session.
The team practicing in The Pit.
My meal at Sadie’s. So good!
After dinner we returned to the hotel and once again it was more staff bonding time. I think one of the best parts of all this time we got to spend together as a staff was getting to know people you did not know very well (or in some cases even at all) before. By this time, my mind was starting to focus on the game tomorrow and my adrenaline started to pump a little bit. Later on in the night, Megan, Doug (assistant director in the equipment room), a couple people from our student government, and I went out for a little bit. Being the younger people on the trip aside from the student athletes, band, and dance team, we had a little more energy than some of the other staff members. We returned to the hotel and then Megan, Doug, and I stayed up and talked until around 5am. As I said, it was just tough to sleep with an NCAA Tournament game looming the next day. In fact, after Doug and Megan went to bed, I just made it an all-nighter…no sleep for this guy.
At 7am I showered and caught up on updating everything on the web and socially. I got put in charge of giving all of the people in our travel party their tickets for the game. I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant with Jerek (our video person) and a couple of the local sports anchors who had made the trip with us. I had the New Mexico omelette that came with chorizo sausage, cheese, peppers, and you guessed it…green chilis. After breakfast we hopped on the buses and made the trip down to The Pit…it was show time.
When we arrived at The Pit, excitement was starting to build outside of the arena. Several Griz fans were gathering around the gates and I was passing out WE ARE MONTANA cards to them. Again, the weather was beautiful. Christie and I entered through the media entrance and made sure the dance team and mascot were settled in one of the New Mexico weightrooms so they could warm up and stretch. I then went out to the floor and sat on the team bench and just looked around for a few minutes. Looking at the court, press row, television cameras, and various NCAA officials actually made me get a little emotional. Here I was courtside at the NCAA Tournament…the thing that I had watched religiously for the past fifteen years of my life and believed to be the greatest sporting event in the world. It was a little surreal and a little magical.
Getting Monte ready to go!
At 12:10pm on Thursday, March 15, the Montana Grizzlies tipped off against the Wisconsin Badgers. Most of you know how the game went. For the first half, the Griz stayed right with Wisconsin. Although trailing by ten points at half, it was a very competitive first twenty minutes. When the second half started, Wisconsin started to pull away. The lead started to extend. At one point, the lead was cut back to ten points on back-to-back three pointers but it was not meant to be. Wisconsin beat Montana 73-49.
Me at the tournament.
At the press conference after the game.
After our game ended, word quickly got around that we would be leaving at 8pm that night. After the Vandy-Harvard game we got back on the buses to go back to the hotel and pack. Before we packed though, a bunch of us shared one last meal at the hotel restaurant. As we ate and chatted, I realized that I really did not want to leave New Mexico.
Megan got macaroni and cheese one more time.
Despite the early exit in the NCAA Tournament, I had a wonderful time in Albuquerque. It was a true highlight for me and something that I feel very fortunate to have experienced. I love working for Grizzly Athletics and I love working with the people who I work with. This trip could not have confirmed those two facts any more. Don’t Blink.
Christie and I…what a great trip.