I could feel the excitement in the air whenever the UIC team got to fly to a big meet - ones like the Kansas Relays or Raleigh Relays, or out to one of the big invitationals in California. Because it didn't happen often. Coaching at a mid-level DI program, I had to raise the money so we were able to take even 8-12 athletes, trips like these never in our meager budget.
With travel bags so big that I wondered what was inside, it wasn't unusual that we needed two vehicles to get shuttled to the airport; work-study students begrudgingly driving us there. At least it was convenient, UIC only one block off the I-94/I-55 interchanges - Midway airport a fifteen minute drive, O'Hare a little bit further, closer to twenty minutes.
On a 1999 trip to the Raleigh Relays we got an impulsive work-study student who was chomping at the bit while the vans were being loaded, asking me twice when we were leaving, a collegiate chauffer that looked on this as a competition to get to the airport and back the fastest.
I made sure he was driving the second van.
When we were ready to go I rode in the passenger seat of the front one, telling our student driver to stay in the right lane as we neared the entrance ramp towards I-94 South for a Southwest flight out of Midway. The next thing I remember was a cry from the back seat.
"Coach, I think the other guy just turned left for northbound I-94!"
Shit. He was going to O'Hare!
I shouted at our driver. "Quick, take Union and go around the block. We need to catch them!"
One of my favorite holiday movies features Steve Martin and John Candy, the pair traveling home to Chicago for the Thanksgiving Holiday. There were a million great lines between the two ("that's not a pillow") but the one that came to me as we speed towards the AWOL van was one shouted at them from another driver.
"You're going the wrong way."
We chased after the van with my five hijacked athletes, trying to remember who was in it so I could reach them on my flip phone. I went through number after number, but no one was answering. Shit! Exactly what I feared. Finally I got through, shouting into the phone to turn around - that they were going to the wrong airport.
Our van reversed direction at North Avenue, theirs a mile further north at Fullerton, me fuming all the way as we hustled to the south side airport. I swear to God that smoke was coming out my ears!
We had some great performances in North Carolina, but to this day all I remember of the trip was waiting at the Midway drop-off for the second van to arrive, standing in an open spot as I waved him to the curb, glaring at him through the windshield. If looks could kill he would be dead.
He never drove for us again, and I doubt he ever graduated from UIC, but if he did I'll bet money he showed up at graduation on the wrong day...or maybe even at the wrong school.