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August 21, 2014

Column: Far from fun and games

For all of the things Bill O'Brien did well, the idea to kick off the 2014 season in Ireland might not have been his best.

Given buzz and used as a recruiting pitch at a time when the Penn State football program was in desperate need of positivity, there's no denying that, in theory, the notion that working around the NCAA's absurd sanctions and bowl ban by creating this unique event was a good one. Players would be excited and enticed by an opportunity that even their bowl-going brethren wouldn't have, fans would rally around the team and travel to Dublin, and regardless of what the actual football-playing product looked like this season, the Nittany Lions would own a few headlines at the top of the college football schedule.

In practice, however, this thing has already produced more headaches than it's likely to be worth.

And that's without including the recent revelation that a possible volcanic eruption in Iceland could prevent the Nittany Lions from reaching Ireland or, worse, returning on schedule.

Wednesday morning, Penn State set up a teleconference for beat writers to pick the brains of three behind-the-scenes guys who have everything to do with whether or not this jaunt goes off without a hitch. Or, rather, how well everyone in the traveling party is able to adjust if and when a hitch presents itself.

Penn State director of operations Michael Hazel, director of football administration Kevin Threlkel, and new head football equipment manager Jay Takach all took turns answering questions about the process of moving so much equipment, constant changes that need to be made, prepping the team for a foreign experience, and trying to stay on schedule in an unfamiliar environment.

The most fitting were the first words out of Hazel's mouth.

"It's a challenge."

No context necessary.

The by-the-numbers drive-by glance is a mess unto itself. Boxes of 24 pencils, laminating equipment, electrical outlet adapters, 180 pairs of socks, 190 pairs of cleats, and an entire 53-foot tractor trailer's worth of equipment for all 118 players making the trip, all needing to be documented as cargo. In total, roughly 310 people - cheerleaders, band members, administrators and teachers in addition to the football personnel - will all need to be accounted for and make it through customs. Oh, and don't forget the 5,000 pom-poms for fans being taken for the Alumni Association.

Throw in the fact that, as head coach James Franklin has repeatedly said throughout, true opportunities for sightseeing and culture-learning will be extremely limited at best, future decisions on games like this will need to weigh the cost/reward ratio.

Even beyond the itinerary hassles and logistical nightmares that come with planning and executing a trip of this proportion, all of which will be handled by this fully capable staff, one misstep that would have alleviated some of the pressure and challenges remains:

Akron.

For as much credence NFL teams are given when they need to turn around a Monday night game on the West Coast before a 1 p.m. Sunday kick the next week, what Penn State is facing is far, far more daunting a task.

Understanding that no one knew there would be the incredible complexity of a staff change between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, failing to adjust the schedule to create an open date on September 6 was a misstep in this trip's original planning.

Instead, following a brief dinner after the game, the Nittany Lions and all 310 in the traveling party will load back up on a plane and ship out for Pittsburgh, aiming to arrive back in the Steel City late Saturday evening for an expected 2 or 3 a.m. arrival in State College via bus. This, of course, all while maintaining the team's Sunday schedule that will begin only a few hours later. (For those wondering why the team's departure is out of Harrisburg and return arrival is Pittsburgh, MDT's personnel isn't set up to accommodate the late Saturday evening touch-down.)

Will it be a fun trip for a lot of fans? No question it will be.

Still, at a time when the football program is under its most duress in terms of adjusting to a new staff and overcoming the far-from-simple personnel challenges created by the NCAA sanctions, remembering the complexity of this trip and how it strains the parties involved will be important.





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