ORLANDO, Fla. -- Hurricane Irma cleared out of South Florida on Sept. 10. In Orlando, University of Miami officials gathered in a hotel room, pulled up a spreadsheet, got out their phones and went to work.
When they left campus to prepare for the storm, players, coaches and staff members went in different directions. They had no idea when they would return.
Or what they would return to.
Now that the worst had passed, the priority became checking on the safety of all 380 athletes and 150 staff members.
Men's basketball coach Jim Larranaga texted. His team was fine. Women's basketball coach Katie Meier texted. Her team was fine. Check marks started filling the spreadsheet.
But there was trouble tracking down a few football players and coaches in South Florida because of power outages and intermittent cellphone service.
"It was definitely a moment of jumping up and down and cheering."Miami deputy athletic director Jennifer Strawley, upon finding out all players and coaches were safe after Hurricane Irma
Running back Travis Homer's mother had to go to linebacker Zach McCloud's home in Lantana, Florida, to make sure McCloud was safe. He had no cell service and was out helping to clean up yards. Cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph also had no cell service or power, and it took hours to locate him, too.
By Tuesday morning, Miami had a check mark next to every coach and player. Deputy athletic director Jennifer Strawley called athletic director Blake James to deliver the news.
A raucous celebration ensued.
"It was definitely a moment of jumping up and down and cheering," Strawley said.
For the first time in over a week, everyone in the Miami athletic department felt joy. And relief.
They were not alone.
Inside athletic departments across the entire state, administrators grappled with the best way to respond to Hurricane Irma. In the end, they had to answer one basic question: What would best ensure the safety and well-being of their student-athletes, coaches and staff?
To get a sense for what they faced, athletic directors, coaches and players in the state of Florida shared their thoughts now that a return to normalcy has begun. The following is an inside look at how one storm impacted seven FBS schools and eight football games over a two-week span.
Shortly after 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6, James called Strawley. Had she seen the latest advisory on Irma?
It portended trouble for Florida, and South Florida in particular. The Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds barreled over the Caribbean without weakening, and threatened to become the most intense hurricane to ever hit the United States.
Miami had two options: travel to play Arkansas State and stay in that area indefinitely, or release players to their families and provide evacuation options for those with nowhere else to go.
It quickly became apparent that playing the game would not be a viable option. Frantic parents were calling coaches and administrators asking for their children to come home. Players asked to be released so they could help board up windows, buy supplies and take care of their families.
"There were these two options," Strawley said. "Do we get everybody safe in a place where we can mobilize and be together and know all our student-athletes are safe? And then there was this other side: We had student-athletes and staff who were emotional because they had siblings and mothers who couldn't board up their houses if we didn't release them."
Coaches had their own homes to shutter up and prepare. Portions of South Florida were already under a mandatory evacuation order, and that included areas where some coaches live.
"Could we have snuck out just in time to play that game? We could have, logistically, but in the meantime, if you're a coach and you're putting in the time that it takes to prepare for a game like that, then who's helping your wife get things done?" Miami coach Mark Richt said.
"The thing that was kind of the deciding factor for me was, I didn't want to have a team in Memphis or Arkansas while all heck is breaking loose with everybody's family. I didn't want my players to look at me like, 'Coach, why are we here? What are we doing here?' Or even my staff saying, 'What are we doing?' I said, 'That's it. We're out.'"
James called Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir to cancel the game and phoned ACC commissioner John Swofford to keep him in the loop. Swofford asked if there was anything he could do. James had already thought ahead to the aftermath, when it seemed an impossibility for the team to return to practice in short order.
"I said, 'John, I think we have to start thinking about the possibility of not playing the Florida State game the following week,'" James said.
Later that day, the university announced campus would be closed. Dorms had to be evacuated. Football players and coaches scattered: 33 players left the state, some as far as Puerto Rico; 25 stayed in South Florida; 24 went elsewhere in Florida; and 24 evacuated with other Miami staff, players and coaches to the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Orlando.
James stayed a 40-minute drive away in Deland, with family.
Miami booked three buses to leave its Coral Gables campus at 10 p.m. Thursday. "It was hard," Strawley said. "The bus pulls out, and you're leaving behind student-athletes, you're leaving behind coaches, you're leaving behind people you care about, and you didn't know if they were going to be OK. We gave everybody an opportunity to go someplace safe, and they had to make a decision that was best for them and their family in that moment."
When defensive coordinator Manny Diaz arrived in Tallahassee with his family, he came to a startling realization: "My wife and I, we drove two cars. We get to the house, and when we brought everything from the cars into the house, all of a sudden in the back in my mind it was like, 'This might be everything we have.'"
A short drive from Miami's Coral Gables campus, Florida International University officials decided the opposite: They would set up a temporary location in Birmingham, Alabama, and play FIU's scheduled home game against Alcorn State at UAB.
About an hour up the road in Boca Raton at Florida Atlantic, athletic director Pat Chun stayed in close contact with Wisconsin officials, who promised them full use of their football facilities, training table and weight room as long as they were needed. They also offered grief counselors and to cover the cost of the extended hotel stay.
FAU decided to play its scheduled game at Wisconsin and stay indefinitely.
"The year before, we had Hurricane Matthew, and what was successful for us was getting all our teams out of here," Chun said. "With the forecast for Irma, it was like, 'All right, our teams have already booked travel, let's tell them to stay on the road.'"
Rather than take the usual 70 players who travel for road games, FAU brought 87 players to Wisconsin, along with the families of the coaches and staff. They left Friday. "It was an eerie feeling taking off," Chun said.
Nobody on that plane knew whether they would have a home to return to, either.
Waiting out the storm
As Hurricane Irma slowly made its way toward Florida, projections showed a possible catastrophic impact on the entire state. Especially as images from the Caribbean showed unimaginable destruction to homes, beaches and infrastructure.
On Thursday night, Sept. 7, Gov. Rick Scott ordered all public schools and universities closed indefinitely.
Mandatory evacuations in Florida reached into the millions, clogging roadways, emptying grocery store shelves and leading to gas shortages. It took the Miami contingent 10 hours to drive 235 miles to Orlando as red taillights dotted the landscape.
Once Miami arrived to check in, Strawley went to a meeting with hotel personnel and was given the rundown for emergency procedures and evacuation plans. Though Orlando is inland, the hurricane still threatened Central Florida with 80 mph winds and the possibility of tornadoes and flooding.
The NCAA had given Miami permission to do what needed to be done to keep everyone safe, allowing decisions to be fast-tracked. Miami officials offered players food vouchers for breakfast and dinner at restaurants inside the hotel. They also made a run to the local supermarket to stock up on snacks, bread, peanut butter and jelly. Strawley had cases of water and snacks in her room, available to anyone who wanted to eat.
Players worked out in the hotel gym or ran outside. They tossed a football around too. But for the most part, it became a way of life to stare at The Weather Channel for the latest updates; it was impossible to focus on much else.
By Friday, the Memphis-UCF, Northern Colorado-Florida and ULM-Florida State games had been canceled. Memphis had actually arrived in Orlando on Thursday night to play the game Friday but turned around and went back shortly after landing.
UCF, based in Orlando, then decided to release its players, and allowed Spectrum Stadium to become a staging area for the National Guard. Those who opted to stay on campus were provided with enough food and water to last through the storm.
USF, based in Tampa, had its game at UConn postponed over concerns that the airline would not be able to get the team back before the storm hit. As Friday turned into Saturday, forecasters grew increasingly concerned that the Tampa area would bear the brunt of the storm. USF coach Charlie Strong bolted awake at 4 a.m. Saturday, called strength and conditioning coach Pat Moorer and told him he needed to get all the players to the football facility.
"Coach, it's 4 o'clock in the morning," Moorer told him.
Strong shrugged it off. When he met with his team later that morning, he gave his players two options: everyone had to stay in on-campus dorms or inside the football facility. A handful stayed in the facility with Strong, athletic director Mark Harlan, coaches, their families and pets ranging from dogs to cats to hamsters. "It looked like Noah's Ark," Strong said.
Strong handed out hot dogs and hamburgers, along with care packages filed with Powerade, Oreos and other snacks. The Weather Channel stayed on in his office. Players played pool or pingpong to pass the time.
In Tallahassee, 250 miles northwest of Orlando, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher decided to have all his coaches and their families, along with his players, stay overnight in the football facility inside Doak Campbell Stadium. The university also utilized a waiver from the NCAA to allow players' families from impacted areas to travel to Tallahassee and also stay in the facility.
Florida State arranged for more than 200 cots to be placed everywhere from meeting rooms to offices to lounges to the locker room. Fisher woke up every hour to check the weather reports just to make sure everything would be fine.
"You knew everyone was safe, and we felt comfortable being there," Fisher said. "It was sad the reason we had to be there because their homes and other people were going through a very treacherous time, and our thoughts and prayers were with them and other family members that weren't there. But we controlled as much as we could control and got as many people safe as we could possibly get safe. We were happy about that, and that was the role we had to play."
South Florida did not take a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, which made landfall first in the Florida Keys early Sunday and then in Marco Island, on the state's west side. Still, there was significant damage in the area, including downed trees and power lines. Over 6 million homes across the state were left without power.
USF, Florida State and Florida (in Gainesville, 110 miles north of Orlando) suffered no extensive damage and were able to resume practice on a normal basis. USF and Florida decided to go ahead with their games this past weekend after consulting with campus officials and emergency management crews. For the Tennessee-Florida game, Tennessee campus police offered 24 officers to help with security.
FAU stayed in Wisconsin until Wednesday, and took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper to thank the football program for all the support.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) September 15, 2017
The storm was over, but the struggle was not -- especially for Miami and UCF, the two teams that allowed players to leave the state. It became obvious that neither team could play its scheduled Sept. 16 game. Miami-Florida State was pushed back to Oct. 7. UCF canceled its game against Georgia Tech.
Those decisions involved more than an inability to practice. In his usual Tuesday operations meeting, UCF athletic director Danny White learned there might not be enough available security or police to work the game. And they would have no access to ice, in short supply across the area.
When practice resumed Thursday for UCF, National Guard trucks ringed the outside of Spectrum Stadium. Inside the football facility, guardsmen and women slept in a line of cots that stretched the length of the football field. One told coach Scott Frost they had rescued 50 people stranded from flooded homes.
The University of Miami campus suffered extensive damage in the storm. Downed trees, damaged buildings and a lack of power have forced the university to keep campus closed until at least Monday, Sept. 25. So Miami has nowhere on campus to practice for its game against Toledo on Saturday.
Still in Orlando, Miami's Richt toured several sites with Florida Citrus Sports officials, who are well-connected in the city because they put on both bowl games at Camping World Stadium. Miami settled on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex as a practice site and secured another hotel that had space for the entire team.
Equipment managers were allowed on campus to pack up everything needed for practice, working without air-conditioning and mostly in the dark to find helmets, shoulder pads and cleats. UCF agreed to allow Miami to use its laundry facilities to clean all their practice uniforms.
The Miami players who had ridden out the storm in Orlando stayed in town. The others reconvened in Miami and took a bus up on Friday. The entire team was finally reunited Friday night, after nine days apart.
"Once you know that everyone is OK, to come back as a team and enjoy each other's company like we did on Friday night was unbelievable," offensive lineman KC McDermott said. "I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it."
Later Friday, USF played the first game in the state since the Hurricane Irma came through. Strong invited first responders and high school players and coaches to attend the game for free. Coaches wore a Florida Strong decal on their hats and gave out 4,000 shirts to students with the same logo. A group of 20 first responders gathered in the tunnel pregame to lead the team out onto the field, and the gesture did not go unnoticed.
"Once you know that everyone is OK, to come back as a team and enjoy each other's company like we did on Friday night was unbelievable. I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it."Miami OL KC McDermott
"People forget we're human and we have families," said Maj. Lee Bercaw of the Tampa Police Department. "When we leave the house to report for duty, we're leaving behind crying family members because they don't know when we're going to get back."
On Saturday, Miami practiced for the first time in 10 days -- the Saturday it was originally scheduled to be in Tallahassee to play rival Florida State. On Sunday, McDermott reflected on the decision to cancel the Arkansas State game and prepare for the hurricane. He went home to be with family in Wellington, Florida, and then worked to clear trees and debris with his dad. They had no power for four days.
"Coach made the right call in letting us go home and spend time with our families," McDermott said. "It would have been really hard to wake up and get ready for a game knowing a hurricane was hitting the hometown and our families would be there."
The focus has finally shifted back to football. But as players across the state take the field for another practice, administrators have weather maps and projections back on their screens.
Hurricane Maria looms in the distance.