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Schools must take steps to ensure athletes' safety


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001

Forty years ago, I was a kid sports writer from Jacksonville who flew, with some uneasiness, aging and bouncy charter airplanes that transported coach Norm Sloan's basketball team from the University of Florida.

After one game at Tulane, our scheduled 35 minute flight from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, riding a World War II-vintage Martin 404, stretched to almost an hour.

I was fidgeting.

Word came from the pilot that a cockpit light, indicating landing gear was locked for touchdown, wouldn't come on. He said there was no guarantee the wheel assembly wouldn't collapse, sending the fuselage skidding across concrete and grass.

Result was, about two dozen passengers were told to remove sharp objects from pockets and lean forward, grasping ankles, preparing for an emergency landing. Fire trucks and ambulances lined the runway.

Lumps grew in throats.

We were lucky. Gear held. Twin-prop plane alit safely. Problem was a burned-out bulb. So long ago, my insides churned with concern about the dominant dynamics of

collegiate sports air travel.

Periodically, there have been devastating incidents. Last week, a Beechcraft King Air 200 Catpass transporting Oklahoma State University basketball personnel plunged from the Colorado sky. Ten were killed

Frankly, as queasy as it is to say, I'm surprised it hasn't happened more often. Consider the factors and odds. Hundreds of colleges, from big hitters like Auburn, Iowa State and Minnesota to less-celebrated programs such as Elon, Eastern Washington and Grambling, make thousands of air voyages every year.

We're talking, for major schools, air travel serving 10 to 20 sports, programs for men and women, often flying in small planes from little airports in weather that runs the meteorological gamut. I don't exactly have Eddie Rickenbacker grit about such things.

Austin is state capital of Texas, and encompasses a million-plus population. Not exactly Orono, Maine, or Manhattan, Kan. Even so, when the University of Texas Longhorns go on the road for hoops, they fly state-owned planes with eight seats each. Maybe travel is no safer in a 737, but I tend to feel comfort in larger aircraft.

It's not just team trips. Coaches fly in similar machines to recruit athletes, make speeches, do scouting and raise money.

Unquestionably, most every flight is enormously safe, but when weather turns bad, the complications multiply, and it's a widely, long-held emotion that it is not as good to be using a small plane from a less-than-major airport.

Just this weekend, probably 150 aircraft are afloat, involving 100 to 120 schools, bearing 1,000 to 1,500 players and maybe 500 coaches, trainers, broadcasters and publicists.

No news is good news.

College football teams tend to use larger equipment, frequently something in the 727 or MD-80 category, chartered from familiar airlines.

With those factors, risks seem less, at least to me, even though a 1970 crackup wiped out Marshall University's squad and that same year Wichita State had a crash that killed 14.

Answers? I'm not sure. Other than taking the ultimate in care. As long as colleges engage in far-flung competitions, with conferences covering six to 10 states, with a demand that athletes and coaches travel as expeditiously as possible, often from small and/or remote college towns, I quiver that there will be the occasional OSU calamity.

It's not just college sports. NASCAR drivers bounce from Darlington to Talladega to Dover. Golfers own airplanes. Country singers are always taking off from Nashville to make one-nighters at Branson, Peoria and Paducah. Crackups in little planes took the lives of Knute Rockne and Rocky Marciano and Tony Lema, also Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly.

Daring elements is lunacy.

Schools can use well-checked aircraft with wholly competent pilots and an extraordinary attention to safety, but still the scare factor escalates, I think, when human beings board a turboprop to fly from a Lubbock to a Lincoln or from a Tallahassee to a Charlottesville when the sky is well shy of blue calm.

Toughest of all, it seems, is basketball season. Winter complications, with many university locales dealing with snow, ice, fog and nasty winds.

What price convenience?

Why do I think, for every accident with victims, there may be dozens or even hundreds of unpublicized near-misses, like our experience with the Gators over Baton Rouge an eternity ago? You can bet that high-mileage coaches, especially from small-town schools, could tell many frightening stories, but do we want to hear?

Teams from big-league professional sports seldom use tiny aircraft or boondocks airports. NFL franchises have charters, as do most NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball teams. A few have customized planes, like the Orlando Magic jet styled to accommodate notably tall fellows.

Oklahoma has been through far too much devastation, with the bombing of a federal building, last year's murderous tornadoes, and now the OSU crash. Hearing of the toll is nauseating, even when you don't know the victims. If a personal attachment is involved, the pain magnifies.

Among the Oklahoma State dead was Will Hancock, the media contact for men's basketball and golf. I didn't know Will, but his father, Bill Hancock, is a high-ranking NCAA official who called the shots when St. Petersburg staged the Final Four two seasons ago. A longtime buddy of mine.

Can there be anything more tragic than losing a child? Bill Hancock is a terrific fellow, a marvelous professional administrator. I got to know him at Final Fours in the '70s. He was the go-to boss when NCAA basketball came to Tropicana Field.

In November, Will Hancock became a father for the first time. His wife, Karen, coaches soccer at OSU. How intense the hurt. Just one of 10 tragic stories involved with that ill-fated Beechcraft.

But such stories aren't apt to curb collegiate sports. Schools will, for the most part, always be in smaller cities with less-sophisticated airports. Athletes must not be kept away from classes any more than necessary.

Air travel, often on little planes, is mandatory for many schools, although some universities are now switching from small charters to commercial flights. Anything that can be done, in quest of safety and sanity and regulations, is a more than a must.

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