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Dan Wolken, @DanWolken, USA TODAY Sports

Every day this week from 9a.m. to 5 p.m., Marshall University has set aside space in its football office for something that might not even matter by the end of the season.

But Mark Gale, the assistant athletics director for football operations, would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to getting passports for a possible trip to December's Bahamas Bowl.

Because the first-year bowl will be in a foreign country, schools in Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference already are working on securing passports for their players, coaches and support staff.

It's a significant undertaking, but it's one Gale said is necessary given the hassle involved in getting more than 100 passports at the last minute.

"I'd much rather do it in June than have to be worrying about it in October and November," Gale said.

"As an athletic department, as a football office, it'll be a big burden off of our shoulders. To get the entire team done, this is an entire week process.

"Once school starts and with football, meetings and weight lifting ... goodness."

Besides the time involved in collecting all the documents needed to apply for a passport, it's also an issue that comes at a significant cost -- not to the school or players, however, but rather the NCAA.

Marshall, through Conference USA, is using the NCAA Student-Athlete Assistance Fund to pay the $135 a person passport fee -- a tab in excess of $11,000 just for players on scholarship.

The NCAA's Emily James said the organization's bylaws permit schools to pay for the passports as well, but conferences can choose to designate money from the Student-Athlete Assistance Fund for that purpose.

Conference USA's Courtney Morrison-Archer said the league communicated to its schools that they needed to be prepared for the possibility of selection to the Bahamas Bowl and that the assistance fund could be used to cover the costs.

Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said he recently addressed the issue in meetings with football operations directors, drawing from experience as part of the now-defunct International Bowl played in Toronto from 2007 to 2010.

"Our schools were proactive in trying to jump on this issue early, and that really means getting with your student-athletes now, collecting the information you need and getting the various applications in so we're not scrambling around in December," Steinbrecher said.

College football and basketball teams making foreign trips is nothing new.

Central Florida and Penn State will open this football season in Ireland, as Notre Dame and Navy did in 2012.

Several basketball teams take foreign tours in the summer, and the Bahamas hosts one of the most prestigious holiday basketball tournaments.

But those trips are scheduled years in advance and schools know passports are part of the deal.

This situation is a bit trickier, because schools won't know their bowl fate for sure until early December and will have to be in the Bahamas several days before the game kicks off Dec. 24. According to the State Department, typical turnaround time for passports is four to six weeks, though an expedited service is available -- for an extra fee -- that can process a passport eight days from the time the application is received.

Still, that option is a big risk and a huge headache because first-time applicants (which means most college football players) have to apply in-person with a passport agent, get a photo and provide appropriate documentation, such as a birth certificate.

Middle Tennessee spokesman Mark Owens said the school told players in May to bring original birth certificates with them when they reported for summer school in June but several players didn't have them. That meant contacting the state of birth to acquire new ones.

Besides players and staff, Middle Tennessee also is getting passports for anyone who might be on the charter, including wives and children of coaches.

Ohio University director of football operations Chris Rodgers said the school was setting aside a day during preseason camp for a passport agent to process applications. "I'm sending e-mails to all the players and their parents making sure I get all the documents needed," Rodgers said. "It's a situation that may not come up, but I'd rather be prepared."

Texas-San Antonio, North Texas, Florida Atlantic and Central Michigan are among other schools working on passports now.

Others, however, aren't taking nearly as proactive an approach. Louisiana Tech spokesman Patrick Walsh said the school probably would wait until after its Oct.18 game to see where it stands in the bowl picture and evaluate whether it needs to start the process.

It's all about personal preference and partly whether schools think they'll be bowl-eligible.

Gale, the Marshall operations director, said he couldn't envision dealing with it during the season and has sent players daily reminders -- via text or notes in their lockers -- about their appointments this week. And even if Marshall doesn't go to the Bahamas Bowl, he said, it'll give him peace of mind.

"Next year all we'll have to do is just the freshmen, so it'll be a lot easier," Gale said. "It's just a comfort level, and we won't have to be reactive during the season."


June 24, 2014




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