In all college basketball games, there are timeouts. During every timeout, there’s a coach. And in that coach’s hand, there’s often a dry-erase marker.
You might not remember Maryland’s loss last season at Penn State — let alone a specific timeout that night. But for Alex D’Alessio, the Terrapins’ head manager at the time, those few minutes serve as a lesson to all future inhabitants of the bench’s second row.
With a few minutes left in a close game, Mark Turgeon’s marker broke during a timeout. Jordan Sligh, another manager, quickly handed Maryland’s coach a replacement. Even though Turgeon didn’t draw up anything else during the timeout, the others praised Sligh for his preparedness.
Then D’Alessio asked if Sligh had tested the marker to ensure it worked. He hadn’t. The marker was dry. But because they checked, albeit a tad late, Turgeon had a working marker for the final timeout.
When a team’s entire focus is on basketball, someone has to keep track of everything else. That’s the essence of the job for several staff members behind the scenes — checking and double-checking, planning ahead and calling with reminders, imagining possible hiccups and dealing with them if they arise.
“If Turgeon would have had a dry marker, that littlest thing would have completely affected his whole mind-set,” said D’Alessio, who is now a graduate assistant. “That’s the epitome of us being prepared. That little five seconds he doesn’t have a marker completely clouds his mind. And that’s not what we want.”
No. 24 Maryland’s trips this season have been smooth, even during a stretch of seven road games out of nine that will conclude Tuesday at No. 21 Iowa, thanks to routines rooted in efficiency and superstition.
“Our players are very smart,” said Mark Bialkoski, director of operations for men’s basketball. “If they see there’s any disorganization between the staff, whether that’s communication on a trip or what to wear or where to be, I think that’s a direct reflection on the program itself.”
Chris Robinson, this season’s head manager, packs about 20 markers for each road game and tests them all beforehand. During games, he keeps an extra in his pocket, and so does Bialkoski.
“They make fun of me,” Robinson said. “I'm so paranoid.”
'It all centers around sour cream’
The afternoon before a road game, Robinson works through a laminated checklist that includes bags with players’ uniforms, a projector, clipboards, tape and so forth. Each bullet point receives a check mark on the right when it’s next to the bus and one on the left when it’s on the bus.
The players stroll out of their Xfinity Center locker room to the bus. Before boarding, they pick up their meal, which the managers and D’Alessio organize on a nearby table.
Usually, the concern is the food that arrives during practice will get cold. Before the trip for Saturday’s game at Michigan, though, the manager picking up food at Chipotle was delayed by a glitching system that declined Maryland’s credit cards. A second manager who wasn’t traveling drove over so the first could leave with the food while he sorted out the payment. Turgeon never knew there was an issue.
Sometimes, team politics arise. When D’Alessio became a manager during the 2014-15 season, the players had Potbelly sandwiches for this meal. The next year it changed to Chipotle, which remained the choice until last month.
“So we had this big debacle,” said D’Alessio, who handles most meal arrangements.
“It was World War III,” Robinson joked.
Before the Ohio State trip, D’Alessio asked the players if they’d rather have Chipotle or Noodles & Company. Senior Andrew Terrell championed the latter, which won by one vote.
“It basically all centers around sour cream,” Robinson said. “That's the root of this dilemma.”
Kyle Tarp, the director of basketball performance, won’t let the players have sour cream with their Chipotle. Extra cheese and guacamole are both fine, but not sour cream. So partially in spite, the players picked Noodles & Company.
Maryland then won its seventh straight game, and D’Alessio asked Turgeon, the ultra-superstitious coach, if the team should stick with Noodles & Company for that reason. But D’Alessio told him the players wanted to alternate, and Turgeon was fine with that plan.
Once the players and staff arrive at their destination, they check into the hotel, drop off their bags and reload onto the bus for dinner, which D’Alessio arranges earlier in the week. He tells the staff up front about the group’s specific needs.
The players like crab cakes and chicken flatbread to be included among the appetizers, which are asked to be on the table upon arrival. Fifteen minutes later, sides (Turgeon loves Brussels sprouts) and entrees (usually fish, roasted chicken or steak) should be brought out. Players always receive their food first, and the whole dinner should take no more than 45 minutes.
Everyone chooses his meal ahead of time, and nobody can order anything during dinner unless approved by D’Alessio or Tarp. Only water and lemonade are allowed to drink. The fourth request on the instructions sent to restaurants is the simplest: “No dessert.”
The Terps prefer to find a restaurant they haven’t been to if their previous trip to that school ended with a loss. Same with choosing a hotel. Turgeon’s superstitious nature “dictates our whole road trip,” Robinson said.
“It can be difficult,” D’Alessio said. “But anything we can do to clear Turgeon’s mind or make him feel at ease, that’s all that matters.”
That was the goal the night before Maryland’s game at Michigan State last month. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing in the AFC championship game, so Bialkoski told D’Alessio to find a restaurant where Turgeon, who’s from Topeka, Kan., could watch the game. D’Alessio had already signed a contract with a restaurant that had TVs only at the bar. He asked about using a projector. Bialkoski suggested bringing a TV from the hotel. Finally, D’Alessio asked Turgeon, who said he’d prefer being with his team anyway.
Hearing that, D’Alessio said, was the best news.
'You become who your head coach is’
At night, the team meets and stretches. The room Robinson shares with the other managers doubles as the snack room, where players can find giant bins of food. The next morning, the players eat, watch film and have a walk-through in the ballroom. Managers use athletic tape to turn the floor into a court, so finding a hotel with a large meeting space is a priority.
During the game, Robinson has his extra markers, and D’Alessio sometimes retreats to the tunnel to answer calls from the restaurant delivering the postgame meal — usually sandwiches, Italian or barbecue, though lately the players have resisted barbecue, D’Alessio said.
A few days before the trip, D’Alessio prints the menu and highlights options he thinks Tarp will approve. The choices need to be healthy but appealing enough that the players will eat them. The Buffalo chicken wrap from after the Nebraska game got great reviews; D’Alessio knew they’d love flatbread pizza after Michigan, but Tarp rejected it.
After games, the staff hurries the group onto the bus and then to the airport, trying to get everyone back to College Park at a reasonable hour. While guard Anthony Cowan Jr. talked to reporters following the win at Minnesota, Turgeon walked by and said, “Let’s go, Ant. Short answers.”
After the game in Minneapolis, cold temperatures caused a mechanical issue on the plane, delaying the trip home. Any time a problem arises, Bialkoski adds it to a mental list of what to plan for and prevent. Maryland hasn’t had major issues this year, according to Bialkoski, who then leaned over to knock on the Xfinity Center floor, just as Turgeon might have done.
“You become who your head coach is,” Bialkoski said.
The arcane process all comes back to basketball. Any snag in the plan could derail the team’s focus. Ricky Lindo Jr., an 18-year-old freshman, said he loves the road trips: free travel, nice hotels, great food. That’s all the players and coaches should notice. Then they can play basketball, while Bialkoski and his crew quietly carry out their roles of master planners and crisis managers.
“If there’s smoke, there’s probably fire,” Bialkoski said. “So before Coach even gets a whiff of that smoke, I want to make sure the fire’s out.”