Predicting The Unpredictable: A look at the logistical challenges of rescheduling a game when a hurricane looms
On Saturday evening at 5 ET, UCF will face Tulane in an American Athletic Conference game that you likely care very little about unless you are a fan of the Knights or the Green Wave.
You also might not know that this game was supposed to be played four weekends ago, on Friday, Oct. 7, an evening game that was set to be televised on ESPNU. Sounding familiar, maybe? That's the same weekend Florida insisted it would play LSU in Gainesville despite Hurricane Matthew churning toward the coast. Everyone yelled at Florida AD Jeremy Foley and his counterpart Joe Alleva for being stubborn, and then, at the last minute, they called the thing. But before we all got collectively outraged over playing or not playing a game that still might decide an SEC division champion (it's now being made up on Nov. 19), UCF athletics director Danny White and his counterpart at Tulane, Troy Dannen, decided they couldn't, in good conscience, play their football game.
A few factors went into the decision, which they made about 48 hours before scheduled kickoff. Chief among them was the teams' shared bye weekend and the fact that their Friday night game was scheduled for 16 hours closer to when Matthew was due to hit. Sure, neither UCF or Tulane is contending for anything this season—they sit at 4–4 and 3–5, respectively—but when I saw the news of the rescheduled game, I began to wonder: What, exactly, goes into such a decision for UCF, and what are the longer-term repercussions?
David Hansen is an executive associate athletics director at UCF, and his duties include serving as the administrator for the school's football and rowing programs as well as overseeing facilities and home events. He's also, admittedly, a "weather nerd," having worked his entire career in the southeast. As the deputy athletics director at Southern Miss in 2005, he oversaw the rescheduling of his team's game against Tulane, which was set for the weekend Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and also the Golden Eagles' relocation to Memphis after Hattiesburg was hammered by the storm. And so a full week before the two schools decided to reschedule their game, Hansen was likely the first UCF official to notice a weather pattern forming in the Atlantic. Models then put the storm that would eventually become Hurricane Matthew along the Florida coast the next Thursday or Friday—which, Hansen immediately realized, was gameday.
He continued to track the storm, conscious that he needed to start adjusting his thinking about the next week's game. "It's like navigating a large ship," he says of potentially rescheduling a game. "You just can't turn on a dime." Hansen also alerted his bosses about the potential threat, and over the weekend, he groaned when he saw the storm continued to follow that initial model. When he realized the two teams shared Nov. 5 as a bye date, though, he breathed a sigh of relief. "I can sleep tonight," he recalls thinking, "(because) I know there's a way out if we need to."
Still, it wasn't so easy as just calling the game as soon as the threat appeared. Rescheduling, both Hansen and White emphasize, is a headache. Hansen says the school relies on a support staff of more than 1,000 people among seven external agencies—including the Florida Highway Patrol, local police officers and EMTs—all of whom it can be a pain to reschedule. There are also officials, provided by the conference, and television deals to consider. (Both the officials and the TV crew said that week that they would be able to get to Orlando should the schools decide to play.) If the two teams were to reschedule, the conference would have to make sure a new crew was available to officiate, and the game would be thrown back into the general television pool, a consequence UCF hoped to avoid. In Orlando, White says, the school loves night games; with so many daytime tourist activities in the city, there is simply too much competition for UCF to enjoy hosting day games.
Still, all those factors were inconsequential by midday Tuesday, when storm models shifted and it looked like central Florida might be hammered. That's when the university police chief told Hansen his officers would no longer be able to support the team in a Friday night game; they'd have hurricane preparation and recovery duties to undertake. One by one, all the other agencies gave the school similar reasoning (thinking they'd need to either focus on the storm in Orlando or divert resources to the coast), and that, combined with the mounting worries about getting Tulane's team, coaches and support staff to Orlando only to have the city's power go out, forced the athletics directors' hands. The decision, still, was easy. Playing didn't make sense, even in a closed stadium without fans or support staff—an option UCF considered, which might have made bigger ripples in the national news than the rescheduled game will.
In the end, Matthew wasn't a major event in Orlando, and White says that knowing what he knows now, he'd have tried to play the game Saturday or Sunday. Now, it's a 5 p.m. game, better than an afternoon kickoff but also not ideal, and it'll be televised on ESPN3, a consequence the school somewhat anticipated. Attendance will likely be lower than it would have been back in October, as will viewership thanks to the online-only broadcast, but White and Hansen are still happy with how they and Dannen handled the week. There were simply too many PR crises that loomed; beyond how bad it would have looked to fly a team into a hurricane zone, it would have appeared just as bad locally to move the game elsewhere and give the appearance of abandoning the city as it bared down for a storm.
When Hansen was at Southern Miss, the school was set to play a Sept. 16, 2004 game against Cal. In the weeks leading up to the matchup, Hurricane Ivan formed in the Atlantic, and the Sunday before the scheduled Thursday game, Cal called Southern Miss and said its team would not be traveling and would need to reschedule. Hansen was baffled; the game was so far off, and hurricanes are so unpredictable; he wondered why they couldn't just wait a few days to make a decision. Cal stood firm on its choice, though, and when Ivan did hit, it was near Pensacola, Fla., more than 150 miles southeast of the site of the game, which was barely affected. Hansen laughs as he recalls that week 12 years ago, which certainly plays into his decision-making today. There's a fine line schools walk when it comes to weather, some happy medium between Florida in 2016 and Cal in 2004. In this case, UCF seemed to walk it perfectly, so maybe instead of going to Disney World on Saturday, spend a lot less money to watch two average teams play a football game they pulled off without angering anyone.