A day ago, Hal Morrell never expected to be in a race against time.
But here he is.
It’s 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday and he’s seated in the passenger seat of BYU’s giant equipment truck as it hums across Nebraska. To his left, behind the wheel, is Fili Taufa, steering a big rig that is toting precious cargo: the unbeaten Cougars’ game helmets, pads, jerseys, cleats and footballs.
The two men are on the second leg of…
“Wait! Can you hold on for a sec,” Morrell politely says. “I’ve got to get a picture of the Missouri River!”
The phone falls silent except for the low rustling of a big rig motoring down I-80.
“O.K., I’m back.”
Anyway, the two men are on the second leg of a cross-country, 40-hour, 2,200-mile journey.
The mission: deliver these prized goods to Conway, S.C., for the impromptu game Saturday between BYU and Coastal Carolina.
The deadline: 3 p.m. ET Friday.
The consequences for failing to meet the deadline: the BYU team, expected to land Friday afternoon in South Carolina, will not have supplies.
The anxiety level: High.
“There is no room for error,” says 31-year-old Billy Nixon, BYU’s equipment manager, who on Tuesday afternoon was back in Provo, Utah, getting regular updates from his two drivers. “It’s the tightest window I’ve ever been a part of. They’re professional drivers, but this.... this is pushing them.”
Among the bizarre events in a memorable—or not so memorable—2020 college football season, this one—BYU and Coastal Carolina’s hurried marriage—moves to the front of the line.
In a span of just a few hours, and three days out from the game, the two programs agreed to play Saturday after Liberty, Coastal’s previous opponent, experienced a rash of COVID issues.
Instead of Liberty vs. Coastal, it will be the No. 13 Cougars (9-0) against the No. 18 Chanticleers (9-0). The agreement was made around 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, but it was tentative in nature. In fact, Liberty officials were hopeful they could still play as of Wednesday evening. However, test results that returned Thursday morning left them no choice—they had to cancel.
In a heady move, BYU began preparing for Coastal on Wednesday afternoon, even sending out that equipment truck of theirs on Wednesday night. Off went Hal and Fili, bumbling down the road and, to keep the negotiations secret, having only been told one thing: head toward the Carolinas (and oh, hope there’s a game when you get there).
They didn’t raise a stink. They’re two happy-go-lucky, married fathers of three.
“We need to be there before the team plane arrives because we have to meet them at the airport to load player bags on the truck and before that, we’ve got to get to the hotel first to set up the hotel!” says Hal, 64.
In the background, Fili, 56, is heard saying something. After all, he’s driving and there’s no interviewing while driving.
“Yeah,” says Hal, “we’re pushing it kind of close.”
But before we get on with Hal and Fili’s road trip, you should know how and why this wild-affair Saturday was hurriedly arranged in the first place.
With ESPN College GameDay expected to originate from Conway, Liberty and Coastal Carolina were all set for their showdown. And then COVID intervened. Results from Sunday testing produced some positive cases with the Flames. As is protocol, they retested Wednesday and notified Coastal Carolina, which on Wednesday morning began furiously pursuing another opponent.
At the same time, ESPN College GameDay pursued other site options, too, including heading up the road to Virginia Tech for the Hokies' game against Clemson, says Drew Gallagher, GameDay coordinating producer.
Meanwhile in Provo, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe had struck out on scheduling an opponent to fill this off weekend (that includes a potential unreported game with undefeated Cincinnati that was nixed because of the Bearcats’ COVID problems). But then, on Wednesday morning, Holmoe got a tip that Coastal could be available.
Later, an ESPN executive called him with two questions.
“Would you want to do this? Can you do this?”
Anxious to play and without a true marquee victory on their schedule, the Cougars were in. They agreed to play if Liberty’s final round of testing disqualified the Flames. The BYU team heard the news at a 3 p.m. MT team meeting Wednesday. BYU coaches began preparing for the Chanticleers, studying film, crafting a game plan and working almost completely through the night.
“I jokingly said earlier in the week, ‘They could call us on Friday and we’d be ready to play,’” a BYU administrator told SI.
It almost happened. Final word came down Thursday morning: Liberty was off, BYU was on. Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw even phoned Holmoe to congratulate him. If the Flames couldn’t be in the game, he said, there’s no one else better.
In Conway, Coastal coach Jamey Chadwell and staff had been actually preparing for the two opponents simultaneously starting Wednesday evening before learning the official news around 8 a.m. Thursday.
For some quick recon, Chadwell and his assistants called staff members from the two other Sun Belt schools that had played the Cougars already this season: Texas State and Troy, teams BYU beat by a combined 100-21 score.
“They’re like, ‘Hey, good luck,’” Chadwell says in an interview Thursday.
“One said, ‘You know what you’re getting into to?’ The other one said, ‘Everything we did, do the opposite.’”
The Cougars opened as a 10-point favorite. Despite that spread, the matchup is shaping up to be the most significant of a weak weekend of games. BYU is attempting to crack the College Football Playoff Committee’s Top 12 for a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl. The Chanticleers are gunning for an undefeated mark. College GameDay will originate from Brooks Stadium. The weather is expected to be splendid. And the 5:30 p.m. ET kickoff is set for an ESPNU broadcast.
The only thing missing, for now: the BYU equipment truck.
Don’t worry, it’s moving at a good pace. Hal and Fili are pros. By Thursday night, they are expected to have already passed through Kansas City and St. Louis. They left Provo at 9:11 p.m. local time Wednesday, which is about 24 hours later than they’d usually depart for an East Coast trip (they’ve done this plenty of times before; in fact, they’ve been doing this together for nine years).
The cab in which they’re riding is actually a rental from Bailey’s Moving and Storage in Provo. Hal used to own part of the company (he’s now mostly retired) and Fili still serves as a driver for the company. These two have been driving BYU’s equipment truck since 2011. BYU annually logs the most miles of nearly any college football team, Hal says, only second to Hawaii. He and Fili have driven to some 70 road games and logged more than 150,000 miles in the truck, its trailer painted in BYU’s blue and white logos.
“It’s the closest thing I’ll ever see to being a rock star,” Hal says. “We’ll drive down the interstate and people will honk and wave or they flip us off.”
This trip is the most unusual yet.
At liftoff, their GPS projected them to arrive in 34 hours at around 8 a.m. ET Friday morning. But it’s not that simple, says Hal.
The truck will stop at least three times to fuel. This baby isn’t your Toyota Camry. The big rig’s tank holds about 200 gallons of fuel. It takes nearly an hour to fill.
They change drivers about every 9-11 hours. Transportation regulations allow one single driver 11 hours of driving in a 24-hour period with a 30-minute break. Factoring in everything, it’s a 40-hour trip. That puts them in Conway with no more than three hours to spare of their deadline.
But before they got this rig on the road Wednesday night, Nixon and a staff of about 15 equipment volunteers had to pack the equipment trailer in record time. They only learned of the agreement with Coastal at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday. And even though it was only tentative, they wanted to get the truck on the road.
“We weren’t going to miss a game because our equipment wasn’t there,” Holmoe said.
And so they packed. While the Cougars' players and staff met to pore over a game plan, they packed. While the Cougars practiced Wednesday night, they packed.
Hal and Fili couldn’t leave before BYU’s nighttime practice ended. Why?
“They practiced in their game helmets!” Hal says laughing.
Finally, after practice ended and everything was loaded into the trailer, Hal and Fili set off. He cranked her up and was just about to pull away when an equipment manager came yelling toward him.
What the heck does he want? We’ve got to get on the road!
“Wait! Wait!” said the manager. “You can’t leave yet! We don’t have the game balls on there!”