Sports

Behind the scenes of getting Stanford football 'Down Under'

 
"This is a great opportunity and we're really looking forward to it." -- Stanford offensive lineman David Bright. Photo by Karen Ambrose Hickey/isiphotos.com

When Stanford kicks off the 2017 football season against Rice at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Australia, few will know how much work behind the scenes went into making the game a reality.

In February of 2016, Matt Doyle, senior associate athletics director and director of football operations, was contacted by the president of a company in Sydney that specializes in bringing large sporting events to Australia.

Cal and Hawaii had just signed a deal to play a game in Sydney that August, and they were interested in having the Cardinal play "Down Under" in 2018.

Doyle did his due diligence, reaching out to Cal to get a feel for the process and thought it made sense for Stanford in 2017, not 2018.

He emailed Bernard Muir, the Jaquish & Kenninger Director of Athletics, and Patrick Dunkley, deputy athletics director, outlining reasons why the football program should consider playing in Australia. They included:

- Giving student-athletes the same chance many others get to experience on a cultural trip abroad

- Increased exposure playing on the first Saturday of the season

- By moving up the start of the season by one week, the ability to add in a bye week during a season in which the Cardinal did not have a natural bye

- Recruiting: every prospect they were recruiting in the 2017 class would have a chance to experience the trip

- Promoter would cover expenses for airfare, hotel and meals

- Promoter would provide a substantial appearance fee for the department

Muir and Dunkley agreed, and Doyle went to work. His first task was contacting two promoters -- one used by Cal -- to determine feasibility and best fit. The discussions took more than six months and the determining factor was creating the best overseas experience for Cardinal student-athletes, while also managing the logistics of moving halfway across the world.

Doyle returned to Sydney last August during training camp, arriving the day before the Cal team. He wanted to be on the ground to observe and evaluate all aspects of the operation, and received great cooperation from Cal while shadowing them.

During the next five days, along with members of the Pac-12 Conference staff, Doyle toured the entire city, visited with stadium officials, scoped out potential practice field and weight room options, and met with nine hotels. On the final day he attended the game between Cal and Hawaii as a guest of both potential game promoters. Doyle spent the first half with one group and the second with the other group.

"When I came back, I told Coach (David) Shaw, 'This is something we have to do,' " said Doyle.

In October, Stanford signed an agreement with Los Angeles-based TLA, but not before securing a plethora of approvals. The first approval was most important.

Stanford's opening game opponent was Rice, and Doyle knew he had to first discuss this plan with Rice athletics director Joe Karlgaard to gauge his interest in moving the contest from Houston to Sydney. It didn't hurt that Karlgaard competed on the track and field team at Stanford for four years before graduating in 1996, served as senior associate athletics director for development on The Farm, and had a good relationship with Doyle.

Karlgaard received the support from university administrators and signed off.

The next step was getting support from the Australian government, and approvals from Conference USA, the Pac-12, the American Football Coaches Association, the NCAA Football Oversight Committee, and the NCAA Legislative Relief Committee. All parties signed off before December, but since the NCAA Legislative Relief Committee was not planning to reconvene until Jan. 18, the announcement had to wait until then.

"It was very complicated," Doyle said. "There were a lot of hoops to jump through. We couldn't have done it without the help of a lot of people in our department, from Cal, from the NCAA, and of course, the folks Down Under."

Doyle, along with associate director of football operations Callie Seidman Dale, returned to Sydney this past February to meet with organizers and assemble a plan and schedule for the week. They were joined in Sydney by Karlgaard and other members of the Rice athletics staff. The itinerary, which they unveiled to the team at the start of the third week of preseason camp, includes a balanced combination of activities that focus on football while delivering a great cultural experience for the student-athletes.

"We are so excited," said fifth-year senior offensive lineman David Bright. "This is a great opportunity and we're really looking forward to it."

For many players, it will be their first trip overseas.

"I've never been out of the country," said junior quarterback Keller Chryst. "It will be a cool time."

Said Shaw, "People are bending over backwards to make this the best experience for our team."

While he wants his staff and student-athletes to embrace and enjoy the experience, the overall objective remains the same.

"We told the players it's like a bowl game," he said. "We talked about being ambassadors for the United States and leaving a good impression. Then we'll play one heckuva football game."

Players insist their focus level has increased, too.

"You have to," junior strong safety Justin Reid said. "Every rep we take now is that much more important because we don't have extra time to get prepared. We know it's crunch time, but I haven't even packed my bags."

There will also be a tour, lecture and dinner at the University of Sydney, the leading college institution in the country and ranked among the top 25 in the world. Former Stanford professor Simon Jackman, who taught political science and statistics (1996-2016) and is now CEO of the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, will speak. Also attending will be Cardinal alum Valerie Fowler, Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.

"This has been a very exciting process and I'm hopeful it's something the Pac-12 Conference will continue to do in the long term because it presents an amazing opportunity for the student-athletes and the growth of the conference," said Doyle.

Given the time of year and high occupancy rate at the hotels, one major challenge was finding a place that could accommodate Stanford's traveling party of 220, including 99 players, for one week and provide enough meeting space to emulate a normal game week operation.

There were many others. The only other international game played by a Stanford football team was in 1986, when the Cardinal defeated Arizona, 29-24, in the Coca-Cola Bowl in Tokyo, Japan.

"We are used to traveling a certain way," Doyle said. "Now you are throwing in international travel and everything that comes with it -- an overseas flight, and customs and restrictions on what you can bring into the country."

Normally, Stanford would pack more than 40 cases of Gatorade on the plane or in the equipment truck, but the team is only allowed to bring 35,000 pounds of cargo on the flight to Sydney. Some of the important items (besides all of the player's equipment and luggage) include: exercise bikes, goalposts, and enough paper to match up with the Australian printers and copiers.

"We have to operate like this is a normal game week," said Doyle.

To avoid traffic and long drives, the team hotel is located close to the central business district, three practice fields and the stadium. While Cal and Hawaii played in ANZ Stadium (83,500), Stanford and Rice will play at Allianz (45,500).

Stanford All-America defensive end Solomon Thomas, the third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, grew up in Australia and visited the country two months ago to promote the game. Although Australia is a great sports country and boasts enthusiastic fans, college athletics are on a much smaller scale than in the United States.

"We have a great alumni base there and everybody has heard of Stanford University," said Doyle. "But a lot of people I met didn't realize Stanford also had a top-flight football team."

Initially, the Stanford-Rice game was the first scheduled contest of the 2017 season. Now, five games will be played on Aug. 26. Kickoff is noon local time and 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.

"This is a great chance to travel the world, experience a new culture and build camaraderie, all while playing the game we love," said senior fullback Daniel Marx. "It will be a memory we all cherish."

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