9:30 AM: Good morning. It's hot and humid in Nashville with temperatures set to hit 90 degrees Friday as Vanderbilt begins to load the buses to the airport, less than 34 hours before the Northwestern game. Every traveler receives a lanyard with the team schedule for Friday and Saturday. Tip of the day: do everything 30 minutes in advance of the itinerary, because you don't want to be the one that gets left behind (cue the Kriss Kross song "I missed the bus").
10:00 AM: Vanderbilt staff and cheerleaders depart McGugin Center first on Bus 4 (of 4) and head to Nashville International Airport for security checks. Everyone looks snazzy; males suit up in coats and ties, females wear dresses and heels.
10:20 AM: The other three buses, loaded with Commodore coaches and players, leave for the airport. The team sports their new travel gear--all-black warmups with white popped collars and cuffs, with the Star V stitched on the left side of the chest. A police escort guides the Commodores from West End to BNA.
11:05 AM: Time to board the Delta jet, which is even bigger than last year. Staff and cheerleaders take up the back third of the plane, and players and coaches fill the rest of the seats, three wide on each side. The select few get to enjoy the perks of first class. If it's anything like "The Airport" episode of Seinfeld, I image these lucky guests are treated to warm towels, comfy slippers and ice cream sundaes with fudge on the bottom. "More everything!" like Jerry says.
11:15 AM: This is my 10th season on the road with the Commodores. You can always count on an abundance of food on these trips. Channeling my inner James Earl Jones, "the one constant through all the years, Ray, has been" .... double cheeseburgers and Quesadillas. Another staple is a satisfying Snickers bar at the bottom of the goodie bag. Life is good. Don't want to load up too much, though, with my sights set on deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs upon arrival in the Windy City.
11:35 AM: Wheels up. Delta's infamous in-flight safety video starts playing to the audience. I've seen this four-minute instructional video hundreds of times. The best part? Easy. "Smoking is not allowed on any Delta flight," says the perky red-haired flight attendant as she wags her index finger to the camera. Gets me every time.
11:55 AM: The team spends the one hour and 30-minute flight catching up on sleep, listening to music, watching television shows, or playing interactive games on the video monitors on the back of the seats. Over 30 of the 150 passengers join in on in-flight trivia. Some of the questions are tough, and with no wireless signal, looking on Wikipedia isn't an option for me. "What is the name of the Italian river which runs through Turin?" "How many outfield players are there on a handball team?" "On which island would you find the Beaumaris Castle?" Ouch. When in doubt, pretend it's a Scantron test and fill in the letter B. Or is it C?
12:58 PM: Our flight lands safely at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. It's cool and crisp, much different than the weather 400 miles south in Nashville. The high today is 75 with temperatures dropping to 55 overnight. Sounds like football weather to me.
1:15 PM: The Commodores board the buses once again and go to the team hotel. I can't disclose our location though. Top secret. All I can say is that we're staying in a building somewhere in the state of Illinois in the Central Time Zone. Just know that we have plenty of rations, so no need to worry.
1:16 PM: Gas prices have spiked to $4.38 per gallon in Chicago.
1:45 PM: The Commodores arrive at the hotel with a number of supporters greeting the team at the entrance. "Dynamite" can be heard in the background of the lobby. Players grab their keys and head to their rooms to enjoy a little bit of down time before team meetings take up the rest of the night.
3:05 PM: One note: the day before a road game, head coach James Franklin prefers to hold his walk-thru on campus in the morning, rather than at the opponent's stadium. To him, the dimensions of the field are the same at every facility. I like that philosophy. It saves an extra 30 minutes each way on an already packed day for student-athletes. Plus, why go into a stadium when you never know who's viewing your practice? Thanks, Bill Belichick.
5:00 PM: The Commodores reconvene in the meeting rooms on the main level of the hotel to go over the game plan first in individual units and then as a team. Franklin and his staff spend an extra amount of time on special teams, referring to that unit as the WEfense.
What's WEfense? "It's the time when everyone comes together and plays as one," explains Franklin.
Vanderbilt's coaches consider special teams to be just as important as offense and defense, which is evident in the key contributors that play in that phase of the game.
Franklin tells the team if they need a break, don't do it special teams. "If you need a blow, do it on offense or defense."
Special teams coordinator Charles Bankins leads the film review session and prepares the Commodores for the variety of formations or plays they might see Saturday. Bankins caps the meeting by challenging the squad to give their best effort against the Wildcats. "We have a great opportunity. Let's get after it," Bankins says.
Players that compete on at least three units of special teams are known as the "Dog Soldiers," and get the special privilege of eating first at dinner later that night.
In addition to the meetings, Franklin holds activities to strengthen the bond between his coaches and players.
The night before every game, Franklin asks one player to participate in a "Senior Share." Safety Eric Samuels has the task tonight of addressing his teammates.
The versatile defensive back, who's played a variety of positions in his career, focuses on how he became a Commodore, and the lessons he's learned in his four years at Vanderbilt. Samuels' speech is an example of the change that happens to a player during their collegiate career. Some of it's light-hearted, some serious.
Samuels offers words of wisdom to the freshman class, encouraging them to "stay in the books." He reflects on how he's matured and taken a team-first mentality going into his senior campaign.
"The things I've done in life, it wouldn't be possible without Vanderbilt football and you boys," Samuels tells the team. "You work hard, and it's going to pay off for you."
Linebackers coach Brent Pry also participates in the group sharing session.
Pry tells a story of how his wrestling career shaped who he is today, and relates his one-on-one competition on the mat to football.
Pry's prep wrestling rival beat him on every level. Looking back, Pry said that challenge made him realize that there was more to those battles. He grew as a person and a competitor when he focused on his own battles, rather than just the result.
"Either you're better than him, or he's better than you," Pry states. "That pride and perseverance is what allows you to be successful. If you win your personal battles first, you can win whatever you do."
Next up, the the team gets to view a motivational video prepared by Vanderbilt's video staff (props to Wes Whaley). The clip starts with footage of Franklin speaking to the team in the locker room after the South Carolina loss. "You're going to come in and watch tape. The guys that really want to get this fixed are going to come and watch the tape, so we don't feel this way any more," he told the squad following the 17-13 loss. The reel then shows some of the best plays from the game with a rap track playing over the highlights.
Franklin closes the session by giving the keys to the game, and offers motivational words heading in to Game 2.
"The most important thing is how I feel about you guys, and how you feel about your coaches," says Franklin. "And I love every person in this room. That''s what makes us special. It's the relationships we have with one another. That's why we're going to have each other's back."
The Commodores walk to the room next door for dinner. After the "Dog Soldiers" get their food, the priority on the buffet line is based on grade point average.
We also have a special guest. Chicago Bears wide receiver and former Commodore Earl Bennett joins the team at the meal.
Bennett poses for photos with the wide receiver corps and trades stories with the FlyBoyz. Chris Boyd jokes with the SEC's all-time leader in career receptions, "We're trying to break your records, but it's kind of hard."
Bennett and the Bears open their season Sunday at home against Indianapolis.
After dinner, the Commodores get treatment from athletic trainers, and have free time before their 10:30 curfew.
The team will resume meetings in the morning before departing for Ryan Field at 4 p.m. Kickoff is 7 p.m. in Evanston.