To say Michael Hazel, Kevin Threlkel and Jay Takach have been busy the last few weeks would be an understatement.
Penn State’s director of football operations, director of football administration and equipment manager, respectively, continued to answer phones and make calls Wednesday morning, trying to dial in final plans for the team’s upcoming trip to Dublin, Ireland. All three men stepped in and out of their offices taking turns briefing the media and arranging final travel plans and logistics for Penn State’s season opener against Central Florida at Croke Park on Aug. 30.
Their task? Get Penn State’s estimated traveling party of 310 people — including all 118 players — and the hundreds of pounds of equipment necessary to prepare for and play a college football game over nearly 4,000 miles of ocean, through customs and onto football fields on the Emerald Isle.
“It’s an ongoing, fluid process,” Hazel said. “It’s a challenge. There’s just a lot of moving parts that exist when you are going overseas.”
And although the Croke Park Classic was announced more than a year ago and some of the planning already taken care of by previous staffers — players had been equipped with passports and hotel arrangements were made — the primary point people have changed late in the process.
The challenge has been made tougher as Penn State’s football front office underwent an overhaul over the winter.
Hazel took over for former Director of Football Operations Kirk Diehl, while Threlkel also joined coach James Franklin’s staff just seven months ago. Takach, hired to replaced longtime equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell, has been on the job for just two weeks.
“Not only is this a new experience for us, but it’s our first experience with Penn State football as well,” Hazel said. “So trying to learn Penn State and learn how to carry a team internationally is a challenge.”
And they’re working on all of it together with some additional help from the outside.
Hazel, Threlkel and Penn State’s Chief of Staff Jemal Griffin have reached out to their counterparts at the Naval Academy and at Notre Dame. Navy and Notre Dame are the most recent teams to undertake the tall task of relocating their operations to Dublin for a weekend as they played in the Emerald Isle Classic at Aviva Stadium in 2012.
But Navy and Notre Dame officials had a luxury that Hazel and his Penn State co-workers have not.
When Notre Dame and Navy renewed their series in 2005, one stipulation was that the 2012 game be played in Ireland. It provided both programs with plenty of advanced notice and planning for the Emerald Isle Classic started in 2009, Navy Associate Athletic Director Robb Dunn told the Centre Daily Times.
“We opened (the 2009 season) at Ohio State and we stayed in Dublin, Ohio,” Dunn said. “So within a matter of days I went from Dublin, Ohio to Dublin, Ireland.”
It was one of nine site visits Dunn and officials from both schools made in preparation for the game.
Meanwhile, Hazel and his co-workers visited Dublin earlier this summer. They toured Croke Park, the campus of University College in Dublin where Penn State will practice and Powerscourt Hotel where the team will stay.
“The site visit was really good because we were able to see where we would be living, see where we would be existing, see where we would be working and practicing,” Hazel said. “We were able to really narrow our focus on what we needed and what we didn’t need as it related to those things.”
As for what Penn State will need, that includes trunks and trunks full of football equipment and accompanying tools and gadgets.
This is where the new guy, Takach, comes in.
Takach has had arguably the toughest task. He has to prepare the Nittany Lions’ gridiron armory for transatlantic flight, having started at Penn State after coming from the University of Houston’s equipment room at the start of training camp.
On Wednesday morning, Takach took turns swapping phones with Hazel and Threlkel with United Airlines on one line, Penn State football beat reporters on the other. He outlined his plan of attack and strategy, that’s included reaching out to Notre Dame’s Head Football Equipment Manager Ryan Grooms.
“Some of the challenges that we’ve been facing right now trying to get our equipment over there and our cargo, some of the advice he gave me and just how he handled the preparation of that, how he packed his trunks and things like that have been very helpful in getting things done on our end,” Takach said.
Usually, Penn State uses a 53-foot tractor trailer to transport its equipment to road games. Now, the Nittany Lions will be using a chartered United Airlines flight and they’ll have to account for everything.
Grooms speaks from experience. With a grueling inspection awaiting at customs, Grooms and his staff of 15 reached out to U.S. and Irish officials to get an idea for how to streamline the process.
“We had to create a carnet list for every piece of equipment we took to present to customs and we itemized it all the way down to helmet screws and helmet hardware and the amount of screwdrivers,” Grooms told the Centre Daily Times. “We had it on the outside of the trunks, laminated sheets, so that they could see clearly just to kind of try to avoid any of the speed bumps that could possibly happen when you’re traveling internationally.”
Takach said he’d use a similar approach for Penn State’s gear.
Navy Assistant Athletic Director for Equipment Operations Greg Morgenthaler had a tougher set of circumstances to deal with.
He had to work with Dunn and the U.S. Embassy in Ireland to get a waiver so the Midshipmen could bring their ceremonial rifles, flag staffs and even their military uniforms into the country. Meanwhile, Navy officials also worked with the Irish government through the U.S. Embassy to get permission for the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Fort McHenry to make a port call for sailors to take in the festivities.
“We didn’t want to create an international incident,” Dunn said. “So we laid all the groundwork out, we worked with our attaché and the embassy and they endorsed having our midshipmen in uniform.
Additionally, service personnel are mandated by the Department of Defense to undergo specific training in order to travel to foreign countries. Dunn said Navy players were put through eight hours of training during preseason practice in order to ready for the trip to Dublin.
Meanwhile, Penn State players will be going through training of their own later Wednesday to help them prepare for the cultural differences in Ireland. The session will be run by personnel from Penn State’s Global Studies office.
“The players are going to have a session today for about 45 minutes to an hour just talking about all the different things, the differences they’ll experience there in Dublin,” Threlkel said.
There are differences between the itineraries followed by Navy and Notre Dame and the one that will be used by Penn State, however.
Both Notre Dame and Navy left on Wednesday and arrived in Dublin on Thursday morning. As a result, both equipment staffs were faced with short turnaround times — about four hours after touchdown — to get ready for their first practices on Thursday afternoon. To quicken the process, Morgenthaler left before Navy players and coaches so he would be on the ground in Dublin when the plane — carrying players and the team’s equipment — landed.
Priority equipment, including helmets and shoulder pads, was marked with blue labels on the team’s equipment trunks. Those trunks were offloaded from the plane first and onto a truck rented from a local Irish transport company so it could get to the team’s practice facility in time.
“We organized all of that stuff on a pallet so that when it came off the plane I was able to tell the customs agents which ones were the most important ones to get off the truck and that was the advantage of me being on the ground ahead of time,” Morgenthaler said.
Penn State has an extra day in Ireland to prepare for the Saturday game, however. Hazel said the team will leave on Tuesday evening and will arrive Wednesday morning.
Once the Nittany Lions are through customs, the hard parts will be over.
“We’re allotting an hour and 45 (minutes) to two hours going through customs and after customs we’re headed directly to Croke Park for lunch and meetings,” Hazel said. “And then we’re going to then go to the practice site and go through a practice. By that time, our guys, coupling the practice (in State College) the day before and the trip sandwiched in between, our guys should be pretty exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel, eat supper and get to bed.”