Rob Curley: Gonzaga sits back, relaxes when it comes to taking flight

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We all hear the stories. The question is whether we should believe them or not.

The whispered stories about recruiting trips, private chefs, extravagant locker rooms, luxurious living quarters and private jets ignite our imaginations.

It’s that last one – you know, the whole private jet thing – that seems like the one we should give the March Madness Mythbusters test.

So, what’s it like to travel when you’re one of the elite college basketball programs in the nation?

For Gonzaga, it’s nice. Incredibly convenient. And beyond practical. But it’s far from being over-the-top. Heck, it might even be a bit underwhelming … if flying on a chartered plane can possibly be described that way.

But none of that matters. It’s still absolutely one of the program’s secret weapons – though probably not for the reasons most fans might think.

That’s because Gonzaga does it in a very Spokane way: Staying focused on the real reason for doing something like this, and not getting wrapped up in the arms races other schools might want to engage in.

Fundamentally, this is about making sure the players miss the least amount of class as possible, while ensuring more time is spent on homework and resting than wandering through airports.

But, for the sake of argument, how do some other teams travel? Well, let’s just say there are a few that really do jet around on planes that seem more like the juicy rumors that are perfect for fan gossip.

Like the University of Kansas and some of college basketball’s other “blue-blood” teams.

A little more than 10 years ago, a Sports Illustrated reporter embedded with the Jayhawks on a road trip. The team’s plane was every bit as glamorous as you imagine it might be.

The Kansas basketball team flew on a 76-passenger, all-first-class-seating, chartered 737 jet. Along with being elegant and loaded with features, even the snacks were extraordinary.

The reporter noted that when the team was served cheese and crackers, the cheese was custom-cut in the outline of a Jayhawk. If the players wanted to watch movies, there was a massive selection to choose from.

It seemed like it was all straight out of Hollywood. Only the story noted the Jayhawks flew out of Topeka, so not exactly.

Now compare that with how Gonzaga travels.

The Zags fly on a Dornier 328JET, chartered through a Colorado company that specializes in this kind of group travel. Unless you know a lot about planes, that probably doesn’t mean much. The plane the team flies on is basically a large turboprop that has been retrofitted with jet engines.

The first thing you notice is the size. It’s a lot bigger than most of the other private aircraft most of us typically see, but a whole lot smaller than the commuter jets that connect through Spokane on commercial flights, like what Alaska Airlines flies.

Inside, the Dornier looks incredibly similar to the smaller commercial planes that fly between Spokane and Seattle. Only with just 30 seats.

When you enter the cabin, you immediately wonder how a team filled with incredibly tall people possibly fits. About five years ago, after the Gonzaga men’s team had won another West Coast Conference Tournament championship in Las Vegas, a video was posted that was shot inside the plane with the team –led by 7-footer Kelly Olynyk – doing the Harlem Shake.

At first, the video makes you smile. Probably even laugh. Then you look in amazement at just how these huge guys are fitting in that little space.

This is a very standard-sized plane for very standard-sized people. Not towering basketball players.

The taller Gonzaga players will typically set in the aisle seats, and the aisle will quickly become filled with legs shortly after takeoff. Don’t even get the players started on the modest – make that small – bathroom inside the jet.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t cool. It totally is.

Most college basketball teams fly to games on commercial airlines, in the exact same planes we all do. They fly when an airline has flights scheduled, not when it’s convenient to take an Econ test with the rest of your sophomore business class.

The teams that fly commercially wait in all of the same lines we do. That’s one of the coolest perks for the Zags in flying on chartered planes.

There is no TSA line. There is no bag check. The Gonzaga team bus drives directly from campus to the plane’s door. The team members will grab their bags and place them next to the plane, then get directly on the plane.

Many immediately start working on homework as soon as they’re seated.

It wasn’t always this way for the Bulldogs.

Like most teams in the WCC, Gonzaga used to fly commercially to road games. Well, not always. There were years when the University of Portland would fly to Spokane for games, but Gonzaga would bus to Portland for games.

Now Gonzaga is the only school in the WCC to fly on chartered planes to every game – both the men’s and women’s teams. It’s something Gonzaga women’s head coach Lisa Fortier said she’ll never take for granted.

She makes sure her team understands how unusual and special this is, and that there may never be another time in their lives when they travel like this.

Fortier has long lived the other side. After years of canceled flights and the other stresses related to travel – compounded with so few direct flights to many of the places that Gonzaga plays – the benefits are not only immediate, she said, but impactful.

Flexibility is the differentiator – not just around game times, but around test times for the student-athletes. Or things that are even more powerful and personal. Take, for example, a Saturday afternoon game in years past that may have resulted in the team arriving back in Spokane sometime on Sunday evening.

“Our team can now get back on Saturday night, with our student-athletes getting a true day off,” Fortier said. “We have a lot of kids who go to church, so they get a chance to do that now, and it’s nice to not be traveling on your off day. That’s not really a day off.”

The luxury isn’t the plane. It’s the time.

“Spending another night on the road doesn’t feel the same as a true day off, where you don’t have any basketball requirements, and you can just study or rest or do life and just be a human,” Fortier said.

This is one of the reasons why the Gonzaga men’s and women’s teams aren’t just powerhouses on the court, but in the classroom. The Zags typically rank near the top – and often at the very top – of NCAA student-athlete academic ratings.

That was a huge reason why Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth wanted to figure out how to help the team travel less, but doing it in a way that doesn’t break the bank.

A couple of benefactors stepped in to cover the costs … all of them. Those benefactors now get to be a part of the team’s travel party.

“A lot of our benefactors help us make this program what it is in various ways.” Roth said. “But these benefactors are specifically making our travel work for us, and it’s such a great part of our program. It really is a tremendous opportunity for our teams to leave when we want to leave and return when we want to return, which helps with classwork on both ends.

“It also really helps us with the basketball piece. It helps us with recruiting, it helps us competitively and it helps us academically. The only way we could make travel like this work financially is with these gifts from our benefactors, and we make it very clear to them how important they are to us.”

So, what about the food on Gonzaga’s charter?

Again, nothing special – and certainly not cheese cut in the shape of a bulldog – but exactly what the players request.

Not just full-size candy bars, but the huge king-sized versions. There are granola and protein bars. There are the same soft drinks available on most commercial airlines, but there’s also Gatorade and milk, including chocolate milk. And not just any kind of milk, but milk from Spokane’s own Darigold.

This is one of the few differences between the men and the women’s flight arrangements: The men’s team also requests strawberry milk. The 6-year-old version of me approves.

But this isn’t about tasty flavored milk from our childhood. It’s about how two college basketball teams from Spokane, Washington, have the ability to not only compete, but beat the best in the nation on the court. And do it now. In March. During the Madness.

Keeping your legs is tough during a long season, but becomes even tougher during the rigorous schedule and travel during the postseason. Not spending unnecessary time in airports is an advantage.

There’s another advantage, as well.

“It’s a team-bonding experience,” Fortier said. “There’s only us. Just those 30 seats. It’s basically just our players and our coaches. It brings you together as team.”

Almost like a secret weapon.

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