Copyright 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Coaches will tell you there are no easy road trips in the Mountain West Conference in men's basketball.
And while they're usually talking about the competition on the court, the same easily can be said for the actual travel around the league, especially for the winter sports that often face delays due to inclement weather.
So, when a couple of the league's 11 head coaches - Boise State's Leon Rice and UNLV's Dave Rice - flirted with taking higher paying jobs out of the conference this offseason only to stay put thanks to better contracts and promises of more resources being thrown toward their programs, it was no surprise that talk of increasing the use of charter flights after road games was part of the equation.
"We've got some monster programs in this league," Leon Rice said in an interview to Boise-area media after his contract extension was announced. "As a coach, do we want to settle into the middle and be lower funded and have to overachieve every year to be able to compete with those monsters? Or do we want to keep trying to elevate this thing and get to where they are?"
Midweek games, especially since the league went to a Wednesday/Saturday format forcing teams to fly home between games rather than on to their next road game, are the ones that lead to lengthy periods of missed class time - sometimes the day before for travel, the day of the game and the day after to travel home, all on commercial flights.
Charter flights, which would leave and return at the team's convenience, could be a partial solution. But it would come with a hefty price tag - one University of New Mexico Athletic Director Paul Krebs says he's not ready to commit to just yet.
Of the league's 11 men's hoops teams, four did not charter a flight in the 2013-14 season while three chartered once. Two teams - Colorado State and Wyoming, both of which drive to Denver for commercial flights - chartered six flights.
UNM did so twice, one being a special circumstance after a December game against Kansas funded by a travel package available to Lobo Club members, whose money paid for the return charter.
Through an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the Journal found the men's basketball team spent $166,144 on commercial and one charter flight the past season (the Kansas trip funded through booster club funds is not included in that figure).
The team's commercial flight to Reno, Nev., on Feb. 28 through Southwest Airlines cost $7,615.50 for a Sunday afternoon game on March 2. The charter home after the game cost $43,900. The team's travel party is usually no more than 25.
UNM head coach Craig Neal said he is hopeful his team can keep pace with other teams in the Mountain West with more such charters in the future.
"I think we have to do whatever we can do to compete against other programs in our conference," Neal said. "It is important, especially for student-athletes during weekday games, to get back for school and rest. I know Paul will work to do whatever we can to protect the welfare of our student athletes and help with their performance in the classroom and on the court."
The Lobos haven't struggled with academics in recent years, achieving easily the league's best NCAA-issued Academic Progress Rate scores and program-high grade point averages in recent seasons.
But that doesn't mean missed class time isn't a concern.
Utah State coach Stew Morrill spelled out in January just what chartering a Feb. 1 trip to Wyoming meant for his team.
"The best thing I can tell you is that (if) we're going to get on the charter, it will be an hour and six minutes to Laramie from Logan International Airport," Mor-rill said. "If we went the normal way, it's three hours-plus to get to and through Salt Lake City Airport, fly to Denver, get on a bus for another two and a half hours, you're looking at about seven hours total. It's an hour and six minutes versus about seven hours."
So, if so much time is saved, and the men's basketball team is the only sport at UNM with a positive revenue stream according to budget figures reviewed by the Journal, why aren't the Lobos chartering more often?
"They don't eat what they kill," Krebs said. "Every dollar basketball gets isn't necessarily theirs to spend. That doesn't mean they're shortchanged. I think anybody associated with our basketball program would tell you they are not shortchanged. They have more tools in their toolbox, they have more resources available to them - as much or more than anybody in our league."
He went on to point out the school has strategically decided to invest in the program in other ways, such as facilities, renovations of the Pit, academic support, team-specific trainers and strength coaches, salaries and more, but also noted, "the goal is to provide a wonderful experience for all our programs at very high levels."
The UNM football team, while having reported a negative revenue stream for several years, charters for every road game, but also has much larger travel parties and more equipment to transport.
Football travel logistics aside, Krebs notes that if only men's basketball was allowed to charter trips it could become a Title IX issue if the women's team wasn't afforded the same luxury.
"We're making choices on how we're investing our money," Krebs said, "and the one piece of the puzzle we probably don't have, and some schools in our league may do a little better job of, is the charter piece." Flight fares
UNM men's basketball flight costs in 2013-14 season Total cost: $166,144* Commercial flight to Reno, Nev., on Feb. 28: $7,615.50 Charter flight from Reno, Nev., on March 2: $43,900.00 *Does not reflect charter from Kansas City, Mo., to Albuquerque on Dec. 14 which, as reported in December, was funded through a one-time travel package of Lobo Club members that covered cost of charter flight back for team and booster club members.
Mountain West travel
Miles from Albuquerque to cities of other 10 teams in the Mountain West Conference, per league's media guide, which credits the Rand McNally Mileage Calculator
Boise, Idaho (Boise State) 936 Colorado Springs (Air Force Academy) 378 Fort Collins, Colo. (Colorado State) 510 Fresno, Calif. (Fresno State) 912 Laramie, Wyo. (Wyoming) 575 Las Vegas, Nev. * (UNLV) 572 Logan, Utah (Utah State) 680 Reno, Nev. (Nevada) 1,020 San Diego * (San Diego State) 771 San Jose, Calif. (San Jose State) 10,45
*UNM primarily uses Southwest Airlines for commercial travel, leaving UNLV and San Diego State as only road trips with direct commercial flights out of Albuquerque.