Happy Landing in Tucson

FOS was along for the ride when a band of Nittany Lions showed up in Arizona for the NCAA Tournament. Check out Mark Brennan's story and video.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- OK, so it wasn't exactly a bandwagon. But it was close.

The Penn State basketball team is now officially on its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in a decade. Judging by the size of the jet the Nittany Lions used to get here, it is easy to see how interest in and enthusiasm for PSU hoops is taking off.

Ed DeChellis's squad usually flies to road games in 40-seat charter jets. But for this trip, PSU chartered a 160-seat Boeing 737 from Delta.

FOS was one of four media outlets invited along on the trip (all paid for their flights and such), which offered a unique look into the way the team travels.

The flight was scheduled to leave University Park Airport at 2 p.m. Eastern. At 1 p.m., security check-in began at a private hanger about a half a mile down the road from the airport's main terminal. Larger bags were dropped off at a pickup truck outside the hanger. Without saying a word, the gentlemen grabbed my bag and threw it in the truck. Having never gone through this routine -- and with the team nowhere in sight -- one could say I was taking a bit of a gamble.

It was 42 degrees outside when folks began arriving, so the range of outerwear on the passengers went from winter coats and hats to light windbreakers.

The building was a large relatively empty space, save for some folding chairs, two long sets of tables and a metal detector. They were arranged in a sort of "U" with the detector at the base.

Long before the team arrived, the rest of the traveling party went through security, which involved a carry-on search at the first long set of tables, a pass through the metal detectors, and then picking up your stuff at the second set of tables.

It was incredibly efficient, much more so than conventional TSA searches.

From there, groups of people exited the back of the hanger to board a bus, which shuttled everyone to the jet on the tarmac.

The media, including this member, rode to the plane with the PSU pep band and cheerleaders. We had, in fact, jumped on the bandwagon. OK, we actually just walked up the steps. And it was a bus. But you get the point.

Our bus run was the first. The band, which was very peppy, headed to the rear of the plane.

A second bus run brought families and support personnel. The third run, which arrived just before takeoff, brought the players, who were all decked out in PSU warmup gear.

The media types set up shop in the middle of the plane, along with members of PSU's sports information staff. Toward the front of coach class were other support personnel, families and finally -- and fittingly -- the coaches.

First class was reserved for the players. Even head coach Ed DeChellis sat back in coach class. He was wearing warmup gear, too, along with white Nike running shoes.

Not that sitting in coach class was bad. Each row had six seats, or three to a side. And all of the middle seats were empty, save for those where parents sat with their small kids. So there was plenty of room to spread out.

There was Gatorade and water in the pocket in front of each occupied seat. No dehydration on this trip.

The flight took about four and a half hours. It included snacks, as well as a meal of barbecued chicken breast with potato wedges, corn, a side salad and roll. The other scribes all ate with gusto. Having downed a C.C. Pepper's Philly cheesesteak an hour before takeoff, I passed.

In-flight entertainment was available via personal viewing screens on the back of each seat. There was also wireless Internet access available, albeit for a fee.

The players -- fresh off playing four games in four days at the Big Ten Tournament -- appeared to use the flight as a chance to get some much-needed rest. Even before takeoff, all window shades in first class were drawn, leaving the entire section dark. Most of the players wore headphones and there was very little movement in first class during the trip.

The first four seats in first class were occupied by scholarship seniors Jeff Brooks, D.J. Jackson, Andrew Jones and Talor Battle.

After cruising in past some towering mountains, the jet touched down in Tucson at 3:36 p.m. local time. It was 84 degrees and breezy. Few bothered to pull on their jackets and coats before exiting.

Three buses awaited the traveling party -- two large ones (one for players and coaches, one for the band, etc.), and a smaller one for families and the media. Everyone came straight down the steps and walked to the buses.

As the PSU buses were pulling off the tarmac, another big jet was parking. It turned out to be the team plane for Wisconsin, which is also playing in Tucson.

I suggested a quick pickup game could be set up on the tarmac, with the first team to 37 winning. Nobody laughed.

It was a 15-minute ride to the hotel, the Doubletree at Reid Park.

Amazingly, the small bus arrived a good 10 minutes before the larger buses, which had to carry most of the gear (including band instruments). And that made me wonder if there had ever been an instance when PSU football coach Joe Paterno was NOT on the first bus to arrive at the hotel.

Things were on the crazy side when everyone finally arrived at the hotel, as band members, cheerleaders, coaches, players and families all had to find their luggage, which was unloaded a bit haphazardly in front of the hotel.

The media types wisely set up shop at the bar and waited for the hubbub to die down before getting their stuff.

OK, I made that up. We hung out on the side of the fray, BSing.

My trip wasn't over yet. I made my way to my room at the far back of the hotel, behind a band member wheeling a huge bass drum. It was in a case that actually said, “AWAY DRUM,” and the poor bastard had to angle it around any number of tight corners and narrow hallways.

I suppose I could have helped. But I am facing a tricky balancing act of my own on this trip. Sure, I traveled with the team, and am thankful the PSU folks made my planning significantly easier by allowing me to do so (even though I'm on my own dime).

At the same time, I have to be careful not to step over any lines.

In other words, I may be on the bandwagon.

But I'm not a member of the band.


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