The University of Oregon athletic department's operations crew works behind the scenes to make the school's most visible sporting events happen.
By Eric Florip
A crowd of 8,866 people watched the Oregon men's basketball team beat the Washington Huskies 71-58 on a February Thursday night in McArthur Court. That morning, however, a crowd of exactly zero people watched three University of Oregon employees begin getting the arena ready for that night's game. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"They show up, and it's already done," said Steve Green, a member of the university's operations crew. "If they don't know we're around, I think we did a good job."
Just before 8 a.m. that Thursday, Green joined fellow operations staff member Brad Harrold and custodian Dan Barnes to start the lengthy process that prepares Mac Court for the week's basketball games. The three are part of the staff that gets facilities ready for any University of Oregon sporting event -- any game, any sport, any season -- then cleans it all up when it's over. Their jobs range from the large -- the day-long Herculean effort that goes into cleaning Autzen Stadium the day after a home football game -- to the mundane -- setting up barricades to direct lines for student tickets on Monday mornings.
For Green, Harrold and Barnes, the initial setup at Mac Court typically takes about two hours. The process normally begins well before 8 a.m., but an unannounced women's basketball practice delayed the process the day of the Washington game.
"Yeah, that happens sometimes," Harrold said. "We just try to work around it."
As the practice finished, Green and Harrold began by taking down the court's four extra practice hoops. Barnes removed stationary bikes. In a span of about an hour and a half, the small crew pulled out bleachers, set up dozens of chairs, tied cords around the rows of chairs to keep them from being stolen or knocked over (though this happened after a big win last year), set up and hooked up scorers' tables and assembled rails between the bleachers. By 9:30, their part of the job was done, and they left the arena for the afternoon and evening crews to take over during and after the game.
On the operations staff, the man in charge is Operations Manager Gordon Burke. He oversees a staff of about 20 people who work in the background year-round to keep the university's athletic department running. Dedicated to his job, Burke often works 10-hour days in addition to some of the work that goes on during evening or weekend sporting events. Though the group is responsible for periodic maintenance work around the university's athletic facilities, any given season's sports tend to dominate their time. And the busiest time of year comes each fall, Burke said, when football is king.
"On any given football game there's a million emergencies," Burke said. "On any given basketball game day it's not quite as intense, but there's different number and different level."
Even with the incredible workload the season typically brings for Burke and his staff, Oregon's 2007 season saw unprecedented success and hype that only intensified things. The Ducks climbed as high as no. 2 in the national rankings during the season, and twice played in front of a national audience with ESPN broadcasting its weekly College GameDay show in front of Autzen Stadium.
"It increased everything exponentially," Burke said, adding that the media attention was worth it for Oregon. "It was huge for the U of O and athletics. It was fantastic exposure. It was a big deal, and our workload increased."
Much of the football season's workload involves cleaning, Burke said. But those jobs are too big for even the operations staff to tackle alone. Several volunteer groups, including high school football teams, Boy Scouts and other groups, pitch in on Sundays after home games to clean thousands of pounds of garbage and recycling from the stadium and surrounding parking lots.
ESPN's GameDay visits only added to that. Burke said his staff worked with the City of Eugene (which owns the small field the show broadcast from) to clean up after the morning pregame show. And the results paid off -- crews had the grassy area spotless before the cameras came back on for taped segments later in the day, Burke said.
"You couldn't even tell that GameDay had happened," he said. "Even the people across the way that put GameDay on were amazed because it was so clean."
Basketball: business as usual
In the winter, the men's and women's basketball season brings a different, though less daunting, set of challenges for the operations crew. Workers arrive early each Thursday morning to set up for a men's or women's game, as Barnes, Green and Harrold did before the Washington game. During each game, crew members are on hand to take care of any in-game jobs such as fixing concession stand windows or backed up toilets, or cleaning what Burke calls a "human waste spill." But as with football, the real work begins after the fans leave the arena -- the cleanup.
Watch maintenance worker Lynn Chase describe the Mac Court setup.
"It's much like the stadium on a smaller scale," Burke said. "You're not cleaning up for 60,000. You're cleaning up after 9,000 for a men's game and smaller depending on the event -- much smaller for women's and wrestling and volleyball."
Green, who filled in for another employee during last week's morning setup, normally coordinates the cleanup effort for football and basketball games, he said. Volunteers from the university's club sports teams help on weeknights, when a typical four-hour cleanup can make for a late night, Green said.
"We're sometimes there until 1:30 in the morning," he said.
Weekend games are typically earlier. That's when other groups such as high school teams pitch in to help the regulars pick up anything the fans left behind.
For Burke and his operations crew, the work revolves around more than just the sporting events themselves. In between, there are plenty of "periodic maintenance" jobs that demand attention, Burke said.
An extreme example of one of the those jobs occurred during the 2007 football season. But it started much sooner than that, shortly after the expansion of Autzen Stadium was completed in 2002. The project began just two days after the last home game of 2001. That night, crews worked in a rush until 2 a.m. preparing the stadium for the $90 million renovation. But the next season, crews began to notice a pool of water forming in the building under the student section in the stadium's north side, Burke said.
"It was fast-tracked because it had to be done that year," Burke said. "And when they do stuff like that, sometimes little things get missed."
The operations staff brushed it off, Burke said. They thought it was probably a spring. But as the water leak grew larger each season after that, they realized they had a bigger problem -- a punctured water line that poured out as much as 200,000 gallons of water every year.
"It's the kind of thing that as it progressed, looking back on it, now I realize there probably was a pool of water under that concourse area probably the size of Willamalane Pool," Burke said.
When the problem got to be too much, Burke and other crew members were forced to excavate the area and fix the leak midseason last year. With a four-week gap between the last two home games of the 2007 season, they decided to tackle the undertaking head on, and had the stadium ready for the Civil War game against Oregon State University last December.
"It went really well," Burke said. "That was huge job that went really well."
More than likely, most fans never knew about the massive leak, or the effort that went into fixing it before the season's last home game. But it's a feeling Burke and his crew are used too, going unnoticed as they quietly help the university's athletic department function on a daily basis. They're perfectly happy working in the background, he said.
"That never has really bothered me that the fans aren't aware," Burke said of his job, adding that he still finds plenty of satisfaction just doing it. "It's not the most glamorous, but it's one of the most important "