Cal staff must ace lo­gis­ti­cal test for game Down Un­der

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Con­nor Le­tourneau

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.”

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

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.

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