While 11 players are required to make an American football team, many more are needed to set the stage for a successful football season, especially at the University of South Carolina. Athletic directors to groundskeepers to facilities’ managers to videographers and food service professionals are rushing, passing, and punting toward the end zone of the first game’s kickoff. Their goal: to make sure all the behind-the-scenes roles progress effortlessly so that players and coaches can do their jobs and fans can enjoy the experience.
With close to 100,000 people in the stadium area on a given game day, top priority is given to making sure that fans understand locations of first aid, lost and found items (and people), disabled parking services, shuttles to and from, guest services, security stations, restrooms, and much more. And sundry employees must be in place to manage, run, operate, and clean multiple areas in and around the stadium.
According to USC Athletics, football game expenses — game day expenses other than travel that are necessary for intercollegiate athletics competition, including officials, security, event staff, ambulance, and more — were $3,944,787 in 2018.
A huge piece of the budget pie goes toward parking management. Jim Petrus, who has worked for 40 years with USC Athletics, says, “I’ve done everything from assistant business manager to budget director.” Originally from Ohio, Jim entered USC on a football scholarship, suffered injuries, and had to quit playing, but then continued on, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree to receive his master’s in public administration.
“I just never wanted to leave the university,” he says. “I’m a Gamecocks fan by choice. In fact, if you’re not a fan of the school, you really shouldn’t be working here.”
Jim says planning for the August football season’s kickoff, Aug. 31 this year, begins in May. He is responsible for overseeing and coordinating with grounds’ crews, the highway patrol, a 100-plus-member parking crew, and more. “It is all about logistics,” he says.
Jim also juggles seating assignments for VIPs, suite holders, and members of the Gamecock Club, as well as for those who choose parking for specific games. He and others in his department regularly inspect spaces to determine needed maintenance on lines, curb stops, signage and other areas. They also have to make sure that first responders can easily and efficiently enter and exit parking areas.
“Overall, I’m responsible for 6,500 parking spaces; some are reserved ahead of time, some just for game day,” says Jim. Only about one third of those spaces are located in Gamecock Park. Additional parking is located in the South Carolina State Fairgrounds for Club members. The goal is to get everyone in and out of the parking areas safely.
Grass needs to be cut regularly, new gravel added, and fire ants killed. “It’s an ongoing process up until the season starts and then through the season,” Jim says.
On a game day, 95,000 people may be at Williams-Brice Stadium. “That’s including everyone — fans, concession workers, television crews. The area essentially turns into a big city. People, including me, might work 10 to 14 hour days on game days,” Jim says.
A few common problems he anticipates annually are fans showing up too early, people parking in the wrong reserved spaces, too many people congregating at a parking space, and excessive alcohol consumption and noise. “We usually start opening the parking spaces about six hours before the games start,” says Jim, “so it’s important that fans know that and don’t come too early. We don’t want to have to untangle the traffic before the parking lots even open.”
He says it helps for fans to know where they should park ahead of time. A map of the parking areas is available on the gamecocksonline.com site. Regular planning meetings, until the football season opens and during the season, address issues and give Jim and others a chance to tweak and make improvements.
Shawn Burke, assistant athletics’ director, begins concentrating during the summer months on the upcoming autumn football season. “The bulk of our planning will hit hard during the summer,” he says. He, like Jim, learns annually what needs to continue or change based on weekly communication with all involved. “I meet with recruiting, parking, security, ticketing, sports medicine, media relations, and concessions to go over an agenda and address each area. Each representative gives a report so we know where we are and so we are all on the same page. We also have a time of brainstorming; all benefit from this.”
Shawn is always impressed with the dedication of the people involved in making the football experience enjoyable and safe. “We have a great group of folks,” he says. “The common goal is to put forth the very best effort to make the game a quality experience for all. Each is a big event, and it’s important to many.”
Logistical changes in the way the football season machine works are based on time of game, who is playing, television stations involved, along with other factors. “Each game is a different animal, and we have to address each one differently. And each crowd is different; the weather is different. An early September game might be different than a November game on many different levels,” says Shawn.
Over the past few years, in fact, hurricanes have caused planning entities to alter course. “We have to dodge bullets,” Shawn says, indicating that flexibility and backup plans are important to have in place. “And if there is a heat advisory, we have to warn fans ahead of time to bring and drink plenty of water, and we make sure people know where the first-aid stations are.”
Shawn said that, overall, he enjoys all the details involved in realizing a successful football season. “I got into this because I have enjoyed sports since I was a little kid. Sports are just a natural thing in our family,” he says. His father was a college football coach, and he received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sports administration and facilities management from Ohio University. He became involved in USC Athletics in 1985. “Every year it’s exciting, different, fun,” says Shawn. “There is a new batch of student athletes and a chance to start over if the previous year was not as successful.”
Planning for the coming football season also obviously involves intensive conditioning on the part of the players. Athletes and coaches are enjoying the 110,000-square-foot, $50 million Long Family Football Operations Center, which opened in January. It provides in one location a recruiting center, locker room, weight room, athletic training room, coaches’ offices, meeting rooms, dining room, equipment room, and player lounges. It is adjacent to the new Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility and outdoor practice fields.
“The Long Center puts us at the forefront of facilities in college football,” says Head Coach Will Muschamp. “It shows a commitment from the university to future student athletes, as well as to the student athletes we currently have on campus.”
With his family’s consistent devotion to the University of South Carolina, it makes sense that Kenneth Long’s naming sponsorship is the Cyndi and Kenneth Long Family Football Operations Center. It’s also appropriate because the recently opened state-of-the-art facility is a place where today’s student-athletes and coaches can efficiently work in order to be a nationally elite program and where tomorrow’s student-athletes can experience the commitment and vision for overall success, while also honoring the past generations of Gamecocks.
“We didn’t consider putting our name on anything at first,” Kenneth Long says. “We had the chance to speak to Coach Muschamp about how important the Ops Building is and the role it will play for the university. We just felt like it was time to step up one more time, and big time! It wasn’t so much about having the name on the building, but we realized it was something the program was really going to need.”
“Everything flows in the right direction,” adds Jeff Dillman, director of football strength and conditioning. “You come out of the locker room and the nutrition hub is right there. Down the hall the athletic training room is right there if they need to stop in before they get to the weight room. Right when you come into the weight room, you have 10 Armor Camp House Racks from Sorinex on the left and 10 on the right. You can do anything you can imagine, all at that rack. They did a phenomenal job of customizing these racks. I asked them to build something special that hasn’t been built. You have 20 Olympic drop zones that are built right into the floor. The whole room is considered a drop zone, and the surface is known to help with your knees and your back so that when you’re standing on it all day long, it doesn’t put pressure on your back like other floors.”
Importantly, adds Jeff, “We no longer have to fill in all that transition time like we used to in going from the practice fields to the weight room in the stadium.”
As the 2019-2020 USC Gamecocks football season gets underway, look around and consider just how many lives participate to bring it to fruition. Jim says the intention of months of planning is to “make it a great day, a festive day, especially for the fans.”
Shawn echoes, “Football is king around here. And we all do our best to put the best product forward.”