When you pick up the Gainesville Sun on Friday, or click on Gatorsports.com late tonight, you will notice my byline won’t be on the story.
For 10 years, I’ve chased connecting planes, driven through ice storms and re-booked flights to cover Gator road basketball games. But despite my best efforts over a two-day period, I was unable to secure a flight that would get me to Starkville, Miss., in time for tonight’s 7 p.m. ET (6 p.m. CT) tip between Florida and Mississippi State.
It’s disappointing for sure, but all good streaks come to an end. It’s the first road game I can recall missing in 10 years due to travel reasons. In January of 2011, I nearly missed a Florida-Tennessee game due to an ice storm in Atlanta. But with my flight from Gainesville to Knoxville, Tenn., canceled, I was able to secure a flight from Orlando to Atlanta early on a Tuesday morning, then drive from Atlanta to Knoxville in time for the 7 p.m. tipoff. Slip-sliding up icy I-75, it took me about two hours to get from Atlanta and Kennesaw, Ga., but the roads cleared up as I reached the Tennessee border.
This time, the ice storms and subsequent flight cancellations over a three-day period at Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport were too big of an obstacle to overcome. More than 7,100 flights have been canceled since Monday due to the Southeast winter storms, the majority of which were Delta flights.
When the weather is bad in Atlanta, and you fly Delta, you prepare for the worst. I checked weather.com earlier in the week and felt assured that the storm would pass by Tuesday and flying conditions would be OK by Wednesday and Thursday to reach my destination. What I didn’t account for was Atlanta’s terrible urban planning which resulted in gridlocked roads due to highways not being adequately sanded. Countless Delta employees were stranded, which resulted in flight cancellations.
Still, I thought I had a shot because I was flying out of a major metropolitan airport (Jacksonville). But on Wednesday, I was told there were no flights available to Birmingham, Ala. (a two-and-a-half hour drive from Starkville) and Memphis (a three-hour drive to Starkville) on Delta.
I stayed in Jacksonville on Wednesday night and was re-booked on an early Thursday morning Delta flight, in hopes of still making it to the game on time. But there were more cancellations. The earliest Delta flight would have gotten me to the Atlanta-Hartsfield at noon. The earliest connection from Atlanta to Columbus, Miss., would have landed at 7:45 p.m., well past the 6 p.m. CT tip.
I tried other carriers, but Southwest, U.S. Airways, American and United had no cost-effective routes that would have gotten me to Columbus, Miss., Memphis or Birmingham, Ala., in a timely enough fashion to make tonight’s tip.
To give readers a perspective on travel, we don’t fly with the team charter, because it would create a conflict of interest with the team that we cover. I book my flights commercially well in advance and try to shop for fares under $400 (which the paper reimburses, my travel expenses are covered). It’s trickier to get good fares for mid-week games. Delta provides the most efficient routes throughout the Southeast, provided there are no Atlanta weather issues. I also fly U.S. Airways on occasion. There were no cheap fares from Gainesville to Columbus, Miss., both regional airports, which is why I booked out of Jacksonville. But I tend to book out of Gainesville first, then Jacksonville, then Orlando and then Tampa as a last resort.
So please accept a personal apology for not being able to provide the road coverage that you are accustomed to tonight. I’ll be at home watching the game on ESPN2 like the rest of you, live-tweeting during the game. I’ll provide a beyond the arc analysis postgame. Thankfully, there’s a three-game homestand coming up, which will include freshman forward Chris Walker’s long-anticipated debut Tuesday night against Missouri. Then, I’ll be back on the road again Feb. 11 at Tennessee. And hopefully, it will be another 10 years or longer before the Sun is unable to cover a road game due to travel reasons.