Getting there is half the fun for UCLA football

UCLA Coach Jim Mora says he’s looking forward to the upcoming season.

A loud thump — followed by an even louder curse — echoes from somewhere inside a cavernous semi trailer parked near the UCLA practice field.

It is Monday morning, five days before the football season opener in Virginia, and the student managers have already begun packing for the trip.

Boxes of cleats and crates of drinking water must be loaded, along with medical supplies and dozens of shoulder pads stacked on rolling carts. Brendan Burger, the equipment manager, feels pregame jitters.

“What if the truck catches fire?” he asks.

In college football, traveling to a road game can seem like moving a small army. With 150 or so players, coaches and staff to fit on the plane, UCLA ships much of its gear by ground.

Once in Charlottesville, Va., the Bruins will need a reliable charter bus company, a working knowledge of local traffic and hotel beds that can accommodate larger-than-normal bodies.


These logistics become even more important with Jim Mora as the boss. Like a lot of successful coaches in the game, Mora is intensely focused.

In other words, he sweats the small stuff.

“I’m probably OCD, probably a micro-manager, all those really good things,” he says. “Every minute is planned out.”

The time and expense that major universities devote to football — and men’s basketball — make some people worry about college sports ballooning out of proportion.

But those big-picture issues mean less to coaches whose job security hinges on winning. And with successful teams generating millions in revenue, athletic programs continue to wage an arms race that extends beyond new facilities.

For the UCLA-Virginia game, the travel planning started with a chartered jet out of Los Angeles International Airport. Team officials requested a Boeing 757 to accommodate more luggage, and stressed the need for an on-time departure.

“You don’t ever want the team bus to pull up and there’s no plane,” said Mike Dowling, an associate athletic director in charge of operations. “Coaches don’t like that.”

Two seasons ago, in the middle of a game at Washington State, Dowling’s cellphone rang — the Bruins’ return flight was stuck in Seattle with mechanical problems. Talking with the airline every few minutes, he estimated the delay, then calculated the driving time from stadium to airport.

“After the game, I went to our police escort and said, ‘Please don’t go any slower or faster than this particular speed,’” he recalled. “As we get to the airport, Coach Mora asks, ‘Where’s the plane?’ It was just pulling up to the terminal.”

Once on board, the players receive their in-flight meals at a specified time. They do not fly first class, but often have the luxury of an empty middle seat.

“You can really get comfortable,” linebacker Myles Jack said. “Flying and going to different places can be stressful, so getting a lot of rest is important.”

Which makes accommodations crucial. UCLA sends more than 40 pages of instructions, complete with diagrams and color photographs, to hotel staff.

Banquet rooms should be prepared in advance, tables and chairs arranged in specific order for team meetings. Upstairs, the rooms should be cool and dark, with curtains drawn and mini-bars empty.

With towns such as Pullman, Wash., and Manhattan, Kan., on the schedule from one season to the next, the team doesn’t always have much choice on where to stay.

“The most important thing for me is the bed,” receiver Jordan Payton said. “You end up in certain towns and you can’t get a good night’s sleep because you’re in a lower-rent hotel.”

Travel concerned Mora when he took over the Bruins’ program after years of coaching in the NFL, where, he said, “you get pretty spoiled.”

The son of a longtime NFL coach, he experienced plenty of trips growing up but truly learned the nuances as a San Francisco 49ers assistant in the late 1990s. The late Bill Walsh was a front-office executive back then and, apparently, the West Coast Offense encompassed more than a horizontal passing attack.

“You’re watching the ‘West Coast’ way of eating,” Mora said. “It sounds funny to say that — it’s what we eat and when we eat, the schedule, the final 48 hours of preparation going into a game.”

Mealtime is a big deal for the Bruins, taking up most of that instructional booklet they send ahead.

The snack table should be stocked with specific brands of chips, crackers and pretzels. Like most teams, UCLA prohibits soft drinks. Sal Alosi, the strength and conditioning coordinator, provides snapshots of fruits and vegetables he wants at the juicing station.

The routine becomes even more detailed for dinner and breakfast, with diagrams showing were everyone sits — linebackers here, receivers there — and a strict ban on desserts.

Steaks are to be ordered from a supplier that deals with the NFL and should be cooked to temperatures ranging from 160 to 180 degrees.

“We fly in our own grass-fed beef,” Mora said. “And our own butter.”

Jack said: “I’ve never heard any complaints.”

But healthy food means nothing if the equipment doesn’t reach the East Coast by kickoff. The semi-trailer — its flanks emblazoned with “UCLA Football” — departed from Westwood on Monday for the trip along Interstate 40.

To be safe, Burger decided to bring helmets and uniforms on the plane. That still left a long packing list for the truck.

The items ranged from small (wristbands) to large (plastic tubs for players to take ice baths after the game). Blocking dummies came along for the ride.

Burger worked closely with Mora on how much the team could bring and what had to be left behind.

“These guys understand,” Mora said of his travel staff. “As we get closer to kickoff, the anxiety level of the coaches really starts to rise.”

The truck is scheduled to arrive in Charlottesville on Thursday, shortly before the team plane lands. But the equipment manager knows there is always a possibility of breakdowns, severe weather or worse.

Which explains why he seemed a bit on edge this week.

“I’m feeling the heat,” Burger said. “Just get me to Saturday.”

Twitter: @LATimesWharton