Before I left North Carolina to head down to the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, I was listening to a local sports radio show. They were interviewing a local college coach and asked him what the key to winning a bowl game was in his opinion. He replied, “Honestly, it’s been my experience that the team that wants to be there more usually comes out on top.” I thought about that on the flight down. The team that wants to be there more.
Here’s part 1 of my behind-the-scenes story of the Red Wolves’ bowl experience.
The Happiest Place on Earth
My flight landed in Orlando Friday morning. I was surrounded by families headed to Disney World for the week. They were all looking forward to a magical time with Mickey Mouse and friends. I’m sure Red Wolves’ fans in town were looking for a magical end to the Red Wolves’ season. As I headed to the team hotel at Universal I thought about where this season had taken Red Wolves’ nation. From the frustrating start to the season to the resurgence through the conference schedule, it was safe to say it had been a roller coaster of a season. So it was only fitting that the team was staying on the Universal Studios property, the Orlando amusement park known for its roller coaster selection. The only question I had was, how would it all end?
Team Hotel Reunion
As I checked into the hotel, I felt like I was in Jonesboro. Everywhere I looked around the expansive hotel property I saw red and black. When I checked in I was asked, “Are you with our football team?” You read that right. They asked me if I was with “our football team.” Obviously the Red Wolves had already made an impression on the hotel staff since arriving earlier in the week.
I made my way to the ballroom where they were serving lunch. The first people I encountered were Head Coach Blake Anderson, Coach Trooper Taylor, Coach Dan Dodd and Coach Allen Johnson. Everybody looked loose and relaxed. I took that as a good sign. After saying our hellos I asked them how the week had been.
“I tell you what, I’ve been to around 15 bowl games in my career and this one by far has been the best experience we’ve ever had,” remarked Tight Ends Coach, Dan Dodd.
“I agree with that opinion,” responded Anderson. “We have had a blast here this week. Starting with Tuesday night, I mean, we closed those parks down and hit every roller coaster there was to ride. I think everybody here is having a great time. This really is a first-class bowl operation. It’s been an amazing experience so far.”
Unlike most road trips, the coaches all had their families with them in Orlando. And why not? A trip to Disney World and Universal Studios for the holidays? It served as a perfect reward for those spouses and children that sacrifice so much during the season in terms of not seeing their husbands and fathers much at all. Add in the pressure the coaching staff endured early on in the season and one couldn’t write up a better way to end the season for their families and reward that perseverance.
That all sounded great to me. It was cool to see their wives be a part of everything and watch the kids run around having fun. I mean, what kids don’t love Disney World? So the team was obviously having a great time. But did that mean that they wanted to be here more? At least in terms of playing football?
“We’ve had really good practices so far,” said Taylor. “The guys are having fun, but when it’s time to go to work, they’re going to work at practice. I think their heads are in the right place in terms of the real reason we are here. But we’ll find that out Saturday night.”
Giving Back to the Community
After lunch the team circled back up to head out to two different charity events. One group of players went with Coach Taylor to visit children at a local hospital. I paused for a second when I heard that because I couldn’t think of a better person to cheer kids up at a hospital than Trooper Taylor. Definitely a great game plan there by Director of Football Operations, Jason Andrews.
The rest of the team went with Coach Anderson to a “Feeding Children Everywhere” event. When we arrived the organizers were excited to see so many Red Wolves. One organizer remarked, “Wow, did you bring the whole team?” Indeed, we had. When we walked into the room we realized why she asked us that question. The UCF guys were already in the room when we walked in. I noticed there weren’t many of them.
Anderson explained, “No, that’s not their whole team. I think they only sent their scout team to be honest. Their coaches aren’t even here either.”
Wow. I say wow because this bowl game is different than most. It’s called the ‘Cure Bowl’ because beyond football, the purpose of this event is to give back and donate the proceeds to breast cancer research. Last year the bowl officials wrote a $1million check for research. I guess the point is that this is a bowl that was centered on giving back to those who need help. This was the first moment I took a mental note, “Which team wants to be here most?” Mark one down for the Red Wolves.
The event was an awesome experience. Coach Anderson and his players packaged over 20,000 meals for children and their families. Each box they filled could feed a family of four for a month. They guys had fun with the event too. As the organizers generated some fun competition with it the Red Wolves’ players got more hyped up and started cheering each other on to do more. At the same time they started challenging the Knights’ players to do the same. There wasn’t much of a response back.
Coach Anderson remarked, “I’m proud of our guys. They came in here excited to help those in need and it showed. We packed all of our boxes, and then we went ahead and packed half of UCF’s boxes too.”
When we arrived back at the hotel we met up with Coach Taylor and asked how the hospital visits went.
Taylor explained, “The guys are still there. We went to all the rooms they had scheduled for us to visit. But it was going so well and the staff and patients loved our guys so much they asked them if they’d be willing to stay a little longer.”
We found out later that the Red Wolves’ players at the hospital ended up visiting 40 more rooms at the hospital. I just got goose-bumps typing that out. Those players, like the ones who participated at the feed-the-children event, understand that giving back was part of being involved in the Cure Bowl and they were excited to do it. They wanted to be there more.
Pep Rally at Universal City Walk
After the team regrouped from the charity events it was time to head over to Universal City Walk for The Cure Bowl Pep Rally. Fans were invited to welcome the teams and watch a ‘Battle of the Bands’ between Arkansas State and UCF. I didn’t know what to expect and neither did Coach Anderson.
“I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to see. Honestly, I’m anxious to go and the get the guys back and into their Friday night pregame routine,” he said.
When we arrived it’s safe to say that whatever expectations we had were exceeded. The little amphitheater for the event was packed full of Red Wolves’ fans. They were loud and they were having a great time. When the players arrived they set off big cheers that had other tourists stopping to see what was going on. After the players got settled in the marching bands and cheer squads marched in.
Again, I noticed a stark difference between the Arkansas State contingent and the UCF group. I remarked to Coach Anderson that they didn’t have many players on their team. He explained that once again, they basically sent their scout team as opposed to the whole team. It didn’t look like any of their coaches were there either. Just to remind you, every player and coach from Arkansas State was in attendance.
When the announcers got the event started up I think it was obvious to all that in spite of this game basically being a home game for UCF, the Red Wolves’ fans that made the trip made sure their presence was known. They were cheering loud early and often. Both bands and cheer squads performed well, but the excitement meter tilted towards the Red Wolves once again. Mark another one down for the Red Wolves.
Graduate Assistant Bobby Dodd looked at me and said, “That makes us 2-0 today in my mind. We’re going to crush them tomorrow.” I appreciated his confidence but the game itself looked to me to be a much greater challenge ahead for the players and coaches.
A Familiar Routine
After the pep rally the team returned back to the hotel to begin their normal Friday pregame routine. You could tell right away that once we arrived back to the hotel a switch had been turned on. The guys no longer looked like they were there to have fun. Both players and coaches had fully turned their attention to the reason they were here. It was time to go win a football game.
They had practiced earlier in the day before lunch. Fridays are usually just for final walk-throughs and last minute adjustments base on what the coaches saw on film and in practice. The team did more of a conditioning practice on Wednesday to get their legs back under them. Due to the hotter weather in Orlando the strength and conditioning staff, led by Coach Matt Shadeed, wanted the players to get acclimated to the heat and make sure they increased their hydration preparation. On Thursday the team put their pads on and had a more physical practice. In speaking with the coaches they all felt like the practices in Jonesboro and the ones here in Orlando went well and they liked what they saw mentally and physically from the players.
Coach Johnson remarked, “I think our guys have been on point in practice. Our focus has been there and our game plan is sound. We just have to go execute it when those lights come on Saturday night.”
The first item on our agenda was dinner. Well, at least for the coaches and me it was dinner time. The players began their body maintenance activities. That consists of working with Coach Shadeed’s staff. Some players get massages and treatment of whatever is nagging them. Others do stretching exercises or hop in the cold tub. The cold tub. My nightmare had returned. I was brave, or stupid, enough to try out this routine last year on the road trip to Boone, North Carolina. Just seeing the cold tub full of ice sent a chill up my spine. Never again.
Every Friday night before a game the team goes to a movie. For a Star Wars fan like me, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were going to see a certain movie that night that had just been released. The buses headed out to Universal City Walk once again. We indeed were going to see the latest release from the Star Wars franchise, Rogue One. Everybody was excited like me, right? Coach Anderson put that thought to rest.
“Honestly, half the guys could care less. They didn’t grow up with it and so it’s not really in their wheelhouse. Those guys will probably sleep through the whole thing. Either way, whether they watch the movie or take a nap our mission in getting them to wind down and rest is accomplished.”
He was right. Thirty minutes in and you could hear a guy or two snoring. I didn’t notice it earlier because I too was actually nodding off the first 10-15 minutes of the movie. I think waking up at 4:30am that morning had caught up with me. I’ve clearly lost my movie-going touch. 18yr-old me, who liked going to 10pm showings, would laugh at present-day me. I rallied though and watched the rest of what I thought was a great movie and new addition to the Star Wars story. But this isn’t a movie review story.
On the way back to the hotel I had a chance to get Coach Anderson’s thoughts on the game.
“Honestly, I like where our guys’ focus seems to be. I like their body language. We’re the underdogs and UCF has a really good defense. Walt Bell told me they were one of the best defenses they played all season, and based on how the Big 10 was this season, that’s saying something. Plus it’s a home game for them. The team that wins the turnover battle will win this game. I also think whoever comes out faster early in the game will have the best chance of winning the game.”
I asked him what winning this game would mean to the program. He answered, “Well, first and foremost, I want to win the game for these seniors. I know every coach says that but similar to our seniors last season, this group has meant more to where this program is today than any other seniors in the country in my opinion. Second, I want it for these coaches. Show me how many teams in recent memory have taken a 0-4 start and turned it around to finish 7-1 down the stretch. And then I want it for our fans and the program. UCF is in the American Conference, which is considered by some to up there with the big boys. They’re not that far removed from a BCS bowl appearance. It’s a known brand and it would be big for our program to beat a program like theirs on a national stage.”
That conversation brought our day to a close. The Cure Bowl experience couldn’t have been better up until this point for Red Wolves’ nation. Fun times were had by all. On Saturday though, the lights of the amusement parks would be replaced by the bright lights of the Camping World Stadium. On Saturday it was time to play some football.
Click here for Part 2 of The Cure Bowl story.