Cal staff must ace logistical test for game Down Under
Hours into his first day as Cal’s head equipment manager, Dan Matthiesen listened in on a conference call discussing a game he knew little about.
It was mid-March. Matthiesen hadn’t yet introduced himself to his entire staff, and the Bears were deep in the planning stages of the College Football Sydney Cup.
A voice on the other end of the call asked Matthiesen whether the team’s 16,000-plus
pounds of equipment would cross the Pacific Ocean on a cargo freighter or an airplane. It was a tricky question for someone who, at his last job at Northwestern State in rural Louisiana, had depended on trucks to transport gear between the three states that comprise the Southland Conference.
“My first game being in Australia, it was kind of daunting,” said Matthiesen, who at age 27 is the youngest equipment manager of a major college football program. “But at the same time, I look at things as a challenge and I accept it.”
Matthiesen is one of dozens of support staffers working behind the scenes to ensure Sydney’s first college football game runs smoothly. Cal and Hawaii kick off the season at noon Saturday — 7 p.m. PDT Friday — and the logistical challenges of getting the teams halfway across the world were plentiful.
How do you orchestrate an internationally televised football game in a country still learning the intricacies of the sport? How do you get regulation goal posts to a continent that has none? How do you keep 105 football players fresh on a 16-hour flight?
And perhaps most important, what do you do if something goes awry 7,432 miles from home?
“There’s a lot of little details,” said Andrew McGraw, Cal’s assistant athletic director for football administration. “There’s probably 1,000 concurrent tasks that happened to make this thing come together.”
The Sydney Cup is part of the New South Wales government’s efforts to bring an NFL game to Sydney — a dry run, if you will. Organizers hope to also make the College Cup an annual showcase, and Cal was among the schools approached early last year about the inaugural game — and the one most interested.
Chris Pezman, the Bears’ primary football administrator, was a sophomore linebacker for a Houston team that won the 1990 Coca-Cola Classic in Tokyo, and seldom does he see former Cougars teammates these days without mentioning that trip. He recognized that Australia offered a similar experience for Cal players, most of whom had never left the country.
There was also financial incentive: According to Pezman, the game in Sydney will generate more than $1 million profit for the Bears, which could help bridge an athletic-department deficit of $17 million to $20 million.
“It was a no-brainer,” Pezman said. “We just needed to figure out a way to make it work.”
Athletic director Mike Williams received approval from the campus before moving forward because the trip called for players to miss three days of class. Cal paid a buyout to break its contract with South Dakota, its previous seasonopening opponent.
To afford players enough time to catch up on classes and recover from jet lag, Bears officials were intent on scheduling a bye week after the Sydney Cup. They applied to the NCAA for a waiver to play a week before the official start of college football’s regular season. Waiting months for a response, Cal searched for a suitable opponent.
Baylor, a favorite of Sydney Cup sponsors, declined because the game kept players out of class for a week. Hawaii was a logical selection thanks to an NCAA rule that allows the geographically isolated program to play 13 regularseason games, one more than its peers.
In November, when the NCAA approved Cal’s waiver request, the Sydney Cup became the first international game in college football to land outside of the mandated regular season.
“This game felt like it could’ve died eight times during this process,” McGraw said. “We’re just glad it all worked out.”
While it still sits well below Australian rules football, basketball and even cricket in the Australian consciousness, American football is growing in popularity Down Under.
Rugby standout Jarryd Hayne’s stint with the 49ers last season earned plenty of media attention in the Sydney native’s home country. The eight-team professional National Gridiron League, which has the stated goal of competing with the NFL for draft prospects in five years, debuts in October. NFL games are such a staple on Australian television that Super Bowl parties are becoming an annual tradition.
Still, the infrastructure for the sport remains a work in progress. In February, while in Sydney to iron out logistics, Pezman and McGraw found themselves explaining to their hosts all that a college football game requires. They detailed how the grass must be cut, how much ice teams need and how NCAA goalposts are about 3 feet farther apart than in the NFL.
Soon enough, Pezman and McGraw realized that Cal needed to provide many of the operational personnel for the event: clock operators, groundskeepers, chain crews, stat keepers. Their Sydney Cup travel party swelled to 167 people, not including players. The cargo began to pile up as well. Video and radio equipment, for example, was more than 2,300 pounds.
The Bears initially had planned to fly commercial. After reviewing the numbers,
“There’s probably 1,000 concurrent tasks that happened to make this thing come together.” Andrew McGraw, Cal’s assistant athletic director for football administration
McGraw found that chartering a plane made more sense. Having complete access to the cargo space eliminated the need for a pricey freighter to ferry equipment.
McGraw chartered the largest twin-jet Virgin Australia offers. Billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, gave Cal a special deal in hopes of promoting American football in Australia.
“We were floored,” McGraw said. “What we normally truck to a game, we can throw it all underneath and have it with us so we’re not worried about getting the stuff there. It just made our jobs infinitely easier.”
Transportation secured, Cal zeroed in on the details. Passports were procured for the 75 players who didn’t already own one. Matthiesen sifted through Google searches until he figured out how to obtain a carnet, a passport for goods that expedites international customs.
Of the seven possible practice locations the promoter offered, McGraw picked the University of New South Wales. It was near the team hotel, and it had basic football equipment and a FieldTurf field. The problem? There were no goalposts.
So Matthiesen and his team of interns recorded themselves assembling goalposts, which they then broke apart and put on a freighter. Three weeks later, after the package arrived in Sydney Harbour in midJune, New South Wales’ American football club had the first goalposts in its 15-year history.
To give players a break from workouts and video study, McGraw booked a Wednesday evening climb of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Caterers were instructed that traditional American cuisines — turkey, chicken and steak, not the Aussies’ favored lamb medallions — were the preferred meats for lunch and dinner.
A 12-page itinerary handed to each player accounts for every waking minute of the team’s seven days in Sydney. At the end is a helpful list of tips, covering everything from WhatsApp to the exchange rate to power adapters.
Nothing was more meticulously planned than Cal’s marathon flight to Sydney. To tire out their players, coaches pushed them through two practices Saturday. Support staffers handed each athlete specialized compression pants, the same worn by Navy SEALs recovering from missions, to stimulate blood flow on the plane.
The linemen were sitting in first class when the flight took off at 11:20 p.m. Saturday from San Francisco International Airport. While each big man sprawled out over two empty seats, every skill-position player had one extra spot. Athletes stood for calisthenics at designated times between meals.
“If we were dealing with turbulence, obviously we’d have to put that on hold,” McGraw said. “Everything was briefed with the flight crew. The pilots are all on board.”
In many ways, the Sydney Cup is poised for success. Win or lose, Cal is in line for a major payday. Officials expect a crowd of more than 75,000 at the 83,500-seat ANZ Stadium. ESPN picked up the broadcast rights, guaranteeing maximum international exposure.
Still, Matthiesen woke up many days in the lead-up at 3 or 4 a.m., his mind racing with what-ifs. If he forgets a key piece of equipment for a Pac-12 game, he can overnight the item without anyone noticing. Overnighting equipment to Australia, though technically feasible, runs in the high five figures.
“Something’s going to happen, so you have to be prepared,” Matthiesen said. “There’s Plan B, C and D. I’ve got the whole alphabet ready to go.”
He left Wednesday for Australia to prepare the practice facility and scout ANZ Stadium’s playing conditions. Before heading out, Matthiesen labeled all the boxes, helped load 90 percent of the equipment and checked everything twice. All his two assistants and 10 interns had to do was some last-minute laundry and packing.
“If it all goes well, I’m going to be the happiest equipment manager in the country,” Matthiesen said last week at Memorial Stadium, equipment list in hand. “To be able to sit back during our bye week and watch my fellow equipment managers knowing that I’ve already successfully gone to a place that has never had a college football game … well, that’s pretty cool.”
Mover LaVaughn Ellis loads trunks full of equipment into a semi trailer at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on Friday, the day before the Cal football team, and all of its gear, took off on a charter jet to Sydney for a game against Hawaii.