Bus life: The other side of college sports

It is 11 hours of red dirt, flat land and two-lane highways from Texas A&M-Kingsville to Eastern New Mexico, and the best way to do it is by night. This is where they separate the shoe deals from the Hardee's meals, on a crowded bus with 40 college athletes, a driver named Pete and snoring giants.

This is life on the road in small-college athletics.

"You learn a little more about the guy sitting across from you or next to you," said D.R. Coleman, a fullback at Kingsville. "It makes you appreciate them more."

The bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team that crashed early Friday morning in Atlanta could have come from almost any school, any sport, anywhere -- Kingsville, Texas, or Hanover, Ind., or Bellevue, Neb. A bus is the mode of transportation for the majority of money-strapped small-college programs that don't fall under the letters BCS. Eight wheels, one bathroom, a couple-dozen Ipods … for some teams, a charter bus is a steel bonding tour. They play cards, watch movies and fight over "Gladiator" or "Any Given Sunday." For others, it's considered a near-romantic trip through space and time, a luxury ride, an alternative to bleary-eyed coaches behind the wheel of a noisy 15-passenger van.

When Bluffton's bus plunged off a bridge just before rush hour on Friday, the baseball team was nine hours removed from the frozen climes of Ohio and heading to a tournament in Florida.

It was spring break, it was about 5 in the morning and most of the players were asleep.

This is the kind of road many teams have traveled.

Lynn Hall answered her own phone Friday afternoon at Hanover College -- Division III athletic directors do that. She'd spent much of the past few hours talking and worrying.

"We're always worried," she said. "I feel like a mom. I'm always concerned about how people travel and [doing it] the safest way possible. And you never know."

Her tennis and baseball teams were on different coasts. Her golf team was in Alabama on Thursday. And one of Hanover's alumni, Todd Miller, was an assistant baseball coach at Bluffton, a rival school in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. He was on the bus.

Hall's golf coach had heard about the impending poor weather in Alabama [a tornado later hit Enterprise, Ala.] and packed up the team at 3:30 a.m. and drove the van from Huntingdon, Ala., back to Hanover. The Hanover golfers do not exactly travel like Tiger -- they had stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, four of them to a room, sharing two queen beds. Their coach, Peter Preocanin, split another room with a golfer. Like most Division III coaches, Preocanin wears a lot of hats in Hanover -- he coaches the golf team, the women's volleyball team, and is a physical therapist in town.

"I feel like a mom. I'm always concerned about how people travel and [doing it] the safest way possible. And you never know."
-- Hanover College athletics director Lynn Hall

At Bluffton, Hall said, the athletics director is also the head trainer.

Preocanin had his golf team packed and ready in 15 minutes Thursday morning, telling them to brush their teeth, wash their faces and get in the van. They stopped at Cracker Barrel later in the morning to stretch their legs. By Thursday night, he was home to help his little girl with her homework.

His volleyball team lives a little larger than his golfers, taking a charter bus on some trips. When they travel in vans, Preocanin separates the loud players from the upperclassmen who want to study. He calls one vehicle the rowdy van and the other the quiet van. Preocanin usually steers the quiet van.

"They don't complain much," Preocanin said. "They sleep a lot. In the van, I had a guy up in front with me to keep me up. I call him my co-pilot."

When Mike Evans was younger and bolder, he'd get behind the wheel of a van and drive anywhere. One time, they did a 25-hour trip to Brownsville, Texas.

A little caffeine and a few loud baseball players were a big enough jolt for Evans, the baseball coach at Bellevue University near Omaha, Neb. But last year, a near disaster changed his travel habits.

A team van carrying a trailer was clipped in icy weather and did a 360-degree spin. Nobody was hurt, but Evans decided to raise money in the off-season to help pay for chartered buses for the longer trips.

Each charter trip costs the team about $10,000. Evans says it's worth it.

"I feel immensely safe in the bus compared to vans," Evans says. "You don't get the best sleep in the world, but you do sleep a lot better knowing somebody else is doing the driving."

Evans has several road rules, including no dirty movies. The coaching staff pushes the old-school flicks such as "Young Guns" and "The Mighty Ducks." First baseman Dion Parks says "Talladega Nights" won out in one recent disagreement.

Parks grew up on a farm in Beatrice, Neb., so he sees the bus rides as a chance to experience America. He saw the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Atlantic Ocean for the first time outside a bus window.

He calls postgame trips to Golden Corral and late-night cribbage sessions crucial team bonding rituals.

"Flying would be great, but riding the bus is a positive experience," he said. "You've got a lot of time to catch up on homework. And if you fly, you don't get to see the things you do when you travel around the country in a bus or a van."

The bus loses its romanticism when the team steps off and deals with sore legs and backs.

Some baseball players combat this with yoga. The Kingsville football team is a little more cramped.

"For 19 years, at the beginning of every trip, I say a prayer that we get everybody there safely."
-- Bellevue University baseball coach Mike Evans

They drive two separate busses, separating the offense and defense. The linemen typically sit in the back, blocking the bathroom as they lean and sleep. Coleman tries to avoid waking them up, especially the 300-pounders.

"You have to sometimes," he said, "but it's not wise."

There is an uncommon courtesy among the football players. If a guy pushes his seat back, he asks the person behind him if it's OK. Coleman has a travel kit of must-have equipment that's almost as important as his pads and helmet. He can't leave without his Ipod, his Commodores music, his laptop and his blanket.

He can't sleep for much more than an hour at a time with all the bumps, jolts and snores. He's lucky.

The coaches seated up front don't sleep much at all.

When Evans heard the news Friday morning in Bellevue, it made him pause. It could have been them. They leave Sunday for a trip to Kentucky, then Tennessee, then Florida. All of it will be by bus.

"For 19 years, at the beginning of every trip, I say a prayer that we get everybody there safely," Evans said, "and thank God when it happens."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.