Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Northern New Mexico coaches, ADs shudder at close calls while driving to athletic events | Sports

Ryan Cordova understands traveling on the road for small-college athletic teams is fraught with danger.

As the head men’s basketball coach and athletic director of Northern New Mexico College, Cordova has spent the past 12 years watching from the inside of his school’s activities bus or vans as they get cut off in traffic, swerve to miss oncoming vehicles or have drivers turn onto a street right in front of them.

When he heard about the Tuesday night tragic head-on collision in Texas that took the lives of nine people, including six University of the Southwest golfers and its head coach, Cordova said his heart sank. And it reminded him of almost every near collision his teams avoided in the name of getting athletes to a venue to compete for their school.

“On every single trip, there is a situation that you are lucky you avoided or it could have gone the other way,” Cordova said. “And you’re staying at a safe speed to avoid things like that.”

Such is life for student-athletes and coaches at the nation’s small colleges and universities, as well as smaller teams at some NCAA Division I programs. Unlike the football and basketball programs in the nation’s highest division, where planes are the mode of travel — many of the largest universities send teams on charter flights — smaller schools like Hobbs-based University of the Southwest are at the mercy of small athletic budgets.

Luxuries like a chartered bus and a paid driver are at a minimum. Sometimes, they don’t exist.

Northern New Mexico College, which competes in basketball, cross-country and golf in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, has regularly used its activities bus or 12-person vans to transport its teams for games and events. Cordova said there was one time the school used a charter bus — in 2014, when the men’s basketball team made it to the NAIA national tournament in North Carolina.

At New Mexico Highlands University, teams often travel to games or events by chartered bus, especially during Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference play. However, there are occasions when some programs use vans or SUVs for travel. Highlands track and field head coach Bob DeVries said he or his assistant coaches have brought athletes to an event by those means, but the university has limited those instances over the past few years.

Usually, teams have a paid driver operate school vehicles for road trips.

“The department made a decision that, unless it was an extreme circumstance, [coaches] weren’t going to drive,” DeVries said.

Schools allow coaches to operate vehicles after they take a defensive driving course. Cordova said coaches at Northern New Mexico also must take a first-aid course in order to use vehicles.

Even at the University of New Mexico, some programs still use what associate athletic director Ed Manzanares called “sprinter vans” — similar to the one used by the University of the Southwest. He said only a handful of programs — golf, tennis, beach volleyball and soccer — use them.

They are primarily used, Manzanares said, when teams travel to Las Cruces, Tucson or Phoenix.

Otherwise, the university uses charter buses.

It’s a far cry from Manzanares’ days as the head men’s basketball coach at Highlands from 2000-05, when he and his coaching staff usually drove the team bus through mountain passes to Grand Junction, Colo., or traveled overnight through the flat lands of western Nebraska.

Manzanares remembered a trip through a snowstorm from Alamosa, Colo., to Durango — about a three-hour trip — taking eight hours for games on consecutive days.

“We had to get [commercial driver’s licenses] to drive,” Manzanares said. “There was many a night when I was coaching [8 p.m.] game in [Chadron, Neb.] and you got to travel 12, 13 hours back to Las Vegas. It’s a miracle that more of these accidents do not happen.”

Cordova said the athletic budget covered the cost of a driver and his lodging for road trips until a couple of years ago. He added he often shared driving duties with the driver to give him a break. Now, he handles the driving duties alone, and that sometimes means being on the road for up to 14 hours at a time.

While he has not experienced a crash at Northern New Mexico, he did have to deal with a tire blowout in February just outside of Wagon Mound in the early stages of his team’s trip to the Continental Athletic Conference Tournament in Iowa. Cordova said it was a jarring feeling trying to hold on to the steering wheel while navigating the bus to the shoulder. Fortunately, it was close to an exit and he limped the bus into a gas station and waited for a tow truck to offer assistance.

“Being on the road at any hour, much less 12 to 14 hours, it increases your risk for accidents like that,” Cordova said.

DeVries understands that, having driven vans and Chevy Suburbans into the early morning hours. He recalls once stopping for coffee at a convenience store in Fort Sumner to give him a boost of energy, only to leave empty-handed and drive the rest of the way to Las Vegas.

When he heard about the crash involving the University of the Southwest golf team, he made an ominous comment to his wife.

“My heart bleeds for the parents of those kids,” DeVries said. “After I saw the story, I told my wife, ‘That could have been any of us [teams]. It could be any of us.’ ”

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