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A guide to college football lightning delays

A refresher on the newest Florida State football tradition

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 12 South Florida at Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This article was originally published by SB Nation in August 2018.

The college football season starts during hurricane season, with games all across the country. That makes for lots of run-ins with weather, at the start of the season and into the late fall. We spoke with folks from television, game operations, and coaching to see what it’s really like to go through a weather delay.

Staffers are monitoring weather throughout.

Former Florida associate AD Chip Howard was involved with the Gators’ lengthy Idaho game delay in 2014, due to lightning in the Gainesville area.

“The lightning when it’s 15 miles [away], we let the coaches know and the referee,” Howard said. “And then when it hits at eight miles, you’re starting to doubt. That’s the easy part of it. The hard part is trying to figure out and forecast, because you’ve got television, you’ve got two coaches that are intense and highly competitive, and you’ve got the fans to worry about, first and foremost. We have pretty precise protocols that we institute as soon as that happens. So, all that stuff just kind of happens by plan, what doesn’t happen is ‘OK how long is it going to be?’ Immediately when you have a lightning strike, it’s 30 minutes before you can resume play,” per NCAA rules.

Most teams have a centralized way to monitor weather. Sometimes campuses have their own, and sometimes they use common services like AccuWeather. Florida has a volunteer lightning researcher who sits in with operations staff during games. Marshall uses third-party software specifically to track lightning.

“The biggest factor after all that rain was our field was not good,” Howard said. “I’m walking the field with the referee, and the referee’s saying, ‘You know, this is not safe.’ You know our field drains great, but there’s only so much water you can put on the field.”

After one play and then a three-hour delay, the Gators called the Idaho game.

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During a delay, coaches suddenly have a lot of new stuff to manage.

A Marshall-West Virginia game in 2011 lasted nearly eight hours and cut short in the fourth quarter, thanks to lightning around Morgantown.

“I think the biggest thing, our concerns, were the safety of the kids,” Marshall head coach Doc Holliday told SB Nation. “Because, you know, that game started at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I think, and at 11 o’clock at night, or whatever it was, we’re still there. Those kids eat their pregame meal four hours prior to the game, so they hadn’t eaten since 11 o’clock that day, and we weren’t prepared for that.”

A lengthy delay means more time for coaching, but only so much.

“You just stay positive as coaches,” Holliday said. “You get around the kids as soon as you get in there, and make corrections and those things, and then other than that, there’s [only] so much talking you can do.”

Being the road team usually means more of a challenge.

“You always expect to win the game regardless,” Holliday said of trailing on the scoreboard during the delay. “That game was not totally out of hand at any point, so it was no question a real challenge for us as coaches, and like I said, I think when you’re on the road, it’s even more difficult challenge, because the locker rooms are so cramped and so small and so crowded, you just don’t have the room where kids can relax like they need to.”

Marshall players had to have their postgame meal, turkey subs from Firehouse, delivered during one of the delays.

Marshall now travels with an emergency kit, which also sits in storage for home games. It has granola bars, Slim Jims, peanuts, “just anything that has caloric content and a little bit of salt to it,” Thundering Herd game manager Mark Gayle said.

“It could feed probably the east side of about any stadium in the U.S.”

Feeding 100 players on short notice often literally means fast food.

During the Florida-Idaho delay, the Vandals ordered from across the street.

“Our players hadn’t eaten for a long period of time, so we had to get ahold of Jimmy John’s,” Idaho AD Rob Spear said.

During a Penn State-Michigan delay in 2017, teams had everything from sandwiches to pizza. Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman reported:

“Some guys took naps, other players just stretched out. There was about 120 Chick-fil-A sandwiches that were brought in for Penn State; for Michigan State, it was about the same amount from Potbelly’s. Penn State went out and bought about $500 worth of protein bars and produce just to keep energized and hydrated.”

Staffers have to keep players ready on uncertain notice.

“That was the hard part of just, ‘OK, we’re getting ready to go,’“ former Florida special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler said. “So you get them warmed up, you get them sweating again, and then boom, you’re back down to, ‘OK relax guys, we got another 30.”

For broadcasters, it’s about killing time and staying on your toes.

“The producer or the director will tell the camera people, ‘Hey guys, we have a weather issue. We need you guys to hop off the cameras and get out,’” ESPN play-by-play announcer Adam Amin said. “And the producer will let me know if there’s weather in the area, and he’ll say, ‘Be aware, we might have to shut down for a little bit, so be prepared to go to studio, be prepared to go to break, be prepared to fill some time because studio may be doing something else.

Sometimes broadcasters have to fill time before coming on the air, called “tap dancing.” It’s not always the easiest thing to do.

“As a broadcaster, you have to understand that any time you do anything, you may have to tap dance in some way, shape, or form,” Amin said. “But when you’re in the middle of a game especially, and you’re focused and your attention is all dedicated to the game itself, or to whatever you’re doing in the broadcast booth, it’s such a 180 that you have to just be able to adjust fast, and it’s not always easy. We spend so much time preparing for games — when there is weather, yeah, we’re aware of it, we’re thinking about a couple things — but my main focus 99.5 percent of the time is the game itself.”

Because of college football’s intricate role in the national broadcast schedule, TV itself can cause a roundabout weather delay.

In 2016, an MLB weather delay elsewhere changed the Toledo-BYU kickoff time, because both games were on ESPN2, meaning analyst Mack Brown had to leave the booth mid-game to catch a flight.

“It was like a 1:20 a.m. flight out of Salt Lake City to Atlanta, and then Atlanta to Connecticut, so he could get back to the studio,” Amin said. “I think that the hope was, ‘Well, we’re going to be close, but you know, if it’s a game that’s decided, a blowout, maybe Mack can leave with a couple minutes to go and we can ride this thing out.’”

While there’s no clear-cut way to navigate delays, having a plan and modern technology helps.

In 10 years, maybe we’ll have devised a whole new way to approach them — lightning-resistant stadiums? Automatic draining fields? We’ll have to wait and see!