Recent conference realignments have created new rivals and eliminated others, it’s also created new travel challenges for athletic programs, but few conferences have the travel worries of Pioneer Football League (PFL) squads.
The PFL, an FCS conference, is made up of 10 private universities and one public institution (Morehead State) in eight states. It stretches across the country from California to Florida and up the east coast to New York.
One of its top programs is the University of San Diego (USD). The only program that consistently travels more miles than the 2011 and 2012 PFL champion Toreros is the University of Hawaii.
PFL teams do not offer football scholarships and that’s what actually helps make the model successful. League members say that, compared to what it would cost to fund scholarships the travel is a bargain.
Tuition at USD — a private, Catholic school with an enrollment of 5,600 is $42,908. So, meeting the FCS standard number of football scholarships would cost the school about $3 million.
USD’s recent trip from San Diego to Jacksonville, FL was over 4,100 miles round trip. Road games against Marist, Butler, and Drake will total over 11,000 air miles. The trip to Marist includes a 2,446 mile air trip, followed by a 90 mile bus ride.
“Your legs tighten up a little more [on the bus],” said senior safety and team captain Troy McClelland. “The last thing you want to do after a long plane ride is travel some more, but at that point you are lazy, relaxed, and ready to get to the hotel.”
Despite the long distances and the 35-18 loss in Jacksonville this year, the Toreros have a successful league road record. Since 2010, on the field USD is 10-6 on the road in the PFL. A record many west coast NFL teams would be more than happy with.
The reasons for the success are preparation and mental toughness.
“Our coach says good teams win at home but great teams win on the road,” said McClelland.
“Every time we travel two or more times zones, we leave on Thursday,” said Torero head coach Dale Lindsey, a former NFL player and assistant, “After seven years with the Chargers [as an assistant] you learn your body is out of sync when you cross time zones, you need to rest and get caught up.
“We don’t have money for charters like big time programs and NFL teams, so we travel commercially both going and coming. We are at the mercy of the airline’s schedule.”
“Since my days as a player with the Browns, it’s been my philosophy to arrive two days ahead [of the game]. Some people don’t believe in that, but it works for us.”
“Fortunately we have a generous university that sets us up with nice hotels, feeds the guys well. Our staff starts in March, setting up buses, hotels, meals, flights. We even try to get hotels as close as possible to the stadiums in case there is a bus problem.”
When USD hits the road they take the league maximum of 56 players, along with 11 coaches, two trainers, a team physician, and two or three administration staffers.
Travel days are lengthy for the Torero players and staff. Said McClelland, “It’ a long day and it catches up to you. So, our Friday walk-through gives a chance not just to go over things but to exercise and get things moving again.”
The team also copes with weather conditions that the predominately California-born and raised roster aren’t use to.
“Two years ago we played Marist on December 1. That was maybe the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced. It was certainly the coldest temperatures I’ve ever played in,” said McClelland, a native of San Diego. “It’s all mind over matter. Last week, in Jacksonville it was hot and humid,” he added.
That trip to Jacksonville started at 9:30 AM Pacific Time and ended with team arriving at their hotel at midnight Eastern.
It doesn’t end there.
“We are up on Sunday at 4 AM to catch a 6:30 AM flight back to San Diego. We have a great bunch of kids and they get it,” Lindsey said.
The lack of a local rival is something that McClelland and his teammates do miss out on.
“Most rivalries are based on location. It would be cool to have a local rival. I mean our closet league team is in Iowa. It would be nice if it was like high school, where you go up against guys you see at the grocery store, but Dayton has become a rival,” he said.
Coach Lindsey agrees. “Dayton, Marist, we consider all of our opponents to be rivals. There’s no problem that the closest opponent is 1,500 miles away.”
Travel may also be a recruiting aid for Lindsey and his staff. “It’s an advantage to see the U.S. Most of our players are from California and haven’t been anywhere outside of the state. I think they appreciate the chance to see the country. Travel can be something special, especially for those of us that come from nothing.”