With the detached air of a man reading a menu, Victor "Bubba" Cates, head coach of the University of Tennessee-Martin baseball team, describes the crash that should have ended his life a year ago.
"Uh, starting from the top," he begins. "I took a lick on the side of my face -- I've still got small scars -- knocked a tooth out on that side, too. Let's see, going down, I broke 17 ribs -- 11 on my left side, with some multiple breaks thrown in -- and, what, six on the other side. Broke my sternum and had two collapsed lungs; I'm not sure how I was breathing. There was a lacerated diaphragm and they had to remove my spleen. Oh, and I broke my left hip. Yeah. That was about it."
It was just after midnight on March 28, 2000 when a tractor-trailer crashed into the 15-seat van Cates was driving about 45 miles east of Memphis. He and nine members of his team were returning from a game at Ole Miss. Cates apparently pulled out in front of the truck at the intersection of two Mississippi highways. Apparently, because the accident remains part of a two-week black hole in his memory.
Cates and two players were listed in critical condition when his wife arrived at the hospital. Doctors told her if Cates managed to live, he'd be there for three months. He had coached college baseball for 15 years and spent more than a thousand hours behind the wheel of those ubiquitous vans.
"There's not a day that we had a ballgame that it never crossed my mind, that it could happen," Cates said. "But I always thought it would happen to somebody else. Let me tell you something, it was always a concern."
Today, that concern is shared by the college athletic community. There have been 10 van accidents involving college athletes in the past 15 months, prompting questions about the way schools transport their athletes to and from events.
|The accident in which four members of Prairie View A&M track team were killed and five others injured prompted the NTSB to issue a comsumer advisory on 15-seat vans.|
The van crashes have several notable similarities:
Student drivers were involved in five of the nine accidents. Fatigued coaches and other staff members also were cited.
The majority of the athletes involved, often sleeping during long, late-night drives, were not wearing seat belts.
Fifteen-person passenger vans have a dubious safety history. Their side-impact protection and structural integrity in roll-overs has been questioned and they are said to handle poorly when fully loaded.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has been criticized for its myriad rules, has no regulations or even guidelines regarding travel. Individual schools are left to make their own policy.
Every tragedy invites contemplation, but few on the inside of college athletics were taken by surprise. Coaches at small colleges in the United States have been quietly aware of the perils of late-night driving, the practical necessity of using student drivers and the questionable safety of the vehicles themselves.
More than two years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the 15-seat vans in a report. Today, NTSB officials insist that improvements need to be made in the vans' ability to protect its occupants. ESPN's "Outside the Lines," which will air a one-hour athletic travel special on April 9, has learned that the Department of Transportation will soon go one step further.
"We're putting out a consumer advisory to let people know about the risk of using these vehicles," Bob Shelton, the executive director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told ESPN. "People need to understand that they need experienced drivers for these vehicles, that their handling characteristics deteriorate when the vehicles are loaded and that the individuals need to be belted in at all times."
Dawn Harmon is the sports information director for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for the athletic programs of many small schools across the country.
"The big schools have big budgets," Harmon said. "But unfortunately for smaller schools, flying or chartering a bus isn't always an option. The budget is the budget. It's a matter of economics."
Is there any way around that?
"No," Harmon said. "I don't think there is."
A slippery slope
Fifteen-seat vans long have been a staple of college travel. Over the past 15 months, however, there have been 10 accidents involving those vans:
April 11, 2001: Six members of the Utah State University men's volleyball club were injured, one critically, when their van crashed in Wyoming during a snowstorm. The two students in the front seats, including the driver, were wearing seat belts and were slightly injured, while the other four were lying in back and were not wearing seat belts.
Feb. 1, 2001: Eight people were injured when one of two vans carrying the Lindenwood University men's basketball team overturned on the way to a game against Missouri Valley College.
Jan. 31, 2001: Ten members of the Wisconsin-Oshkosh men's club volleyball team were injured when their 15-seat van flipped over in Indiana. Two were hospitalized with injuries, while the other eight were treated and released. A student-athlete was behind the wheel.
Feb. 18, 2001: Eight passengers traveling with the Emporia State (Kansas)
baseball team were injured when the driver's-side rear tire blew out and
their 15-seat van flipped once before coming to rest in the median of I-40
in Oklahoma. All eight were treated and released. Head coach Brian Embery
March 28, 2000: Seven student-athletes and one coach were hospitalized, three in critical condition, when one of the vans carrying members of the Tennessee-Martin baseball team was hit by a tractor-trailer.
Feb. 10, 2000: Four student-athletes died and the coach and five other student-athletes were seriously injured when a van carrying the Prairie View A&M men's track team swerved off the two-lane road and rolled several times.
Jan. 30, 2000: Twelve members of the swim team at Wisconsin-Oshkosh were injured - two of them hospitalized - when their van overturned on an icy interstate in Indiana. The 22-year-old driver was a student.
Jan. 22, 2000: Three members of the DePaul women's track team were injured, one seriously, when their van skidded on an icy road and overturned.
Jan. 13, 2000: One swimmer was killed and 10 were seriously injured when one of the vans carrying the Kenyon College (Ohio) men's and women's swim teams crashed and rolled several times after veering out of control on an icy road. The driver was a 21-year-old swimmer.
Dec. 29, 1999: Five men's basketball players from Urbana (Ohio) University, an NAIA school, were injured when their van crashed into a tree after the driver, a graduate assistant, lost control of the van.
On Jan. 13, 2000, Kenyon College swimmer Molly Hatcher died when a college-owned Ford Custom Wagon XLT van slid off an icy section of Route 36 in Ohio and flipped several times.
The van was driven by Sarah Steen, 21, a member of Kenyon's swim team and the daughter of head coach Jim Steen. Kenyon, a small liberal arts school in rural Knox County, had allowed students with valid Ohio driver's licenses to operate its vehicles.
Only three of the 11 people in the van were wearing safety restraints, according to reports. Two of the three were uninjured and the third was among those who walked away from the crash.
Nearly 15 months later, Kenyon athletic director Jennie Bruening said she is reminded of the tragedy every single day.
"It's daily, it really is," Bruening said. "I'd already had my reminder before you called. Earlier in the day, I had a conversation about the younger sister of the woman who was killed. She's coming to Kenyon next year."
Bruening is no stranger to vans. She coached volleyball before arriving at Kenyon 6 1/2 years ago. Student drivers and unused seat belts, she acknowledged, were the rule as often as the exception.
Immediately after the tragedy, a university committee was formed to study the school's travel policies. In July, the school enacted the group's sweeping recommendations. Student drivers were completely eliminated in athletics; in other departments they had to be at least 21 years old. And while a training program for all potential van drivers was instituted, the athletic department completely ended the use of 15-seat vans in transporting its 22 teams.
"It's a non-issue," Bruening said. "Now it's all chartered buses and professional drivers. Obviously there is [a financial impact], but it's minimal when you put it in the scope of what's taken place."
Previously, the NCAA Division III program paid 52 cents a mile to rent a 15-seat passenger van. Now, a 36-seat bus and professional driver costs $500 a day, regardless of mileage. The 2000 athletic travel budget was $45,000. Thanks to a contribution from the university, the 2001 athletic travel budget has more than tripled, to $150,000.
"As tragic as the accident was, it means something if events like this lead people in that direction," Bruening said. "I've had many calls from schools asking us to send the studies we've used and our new policies.
"I hope we're not going to see more accidents before other schools start to make these changes."
Feeling the pressure
||It's a non-issue. Now it's all chartered buses and professional drivers. Obviously there is [a financial impact], but it's minimal when you put it in the scope of what's taken place. ”
||— Kenyon athletic director Jennie Bruening on changes made since a van accident cost swimmer Molly Hatcher her life
It was mid-morning back on Nov. 9 when a caravan of three vehicles carrying the Park University women's soccer team left from Kansas City for a NAIA regional playoff game. Head coach Jamie Hemingway, driving a rented Ford Explorer, had four athletes with him and was followed by his wife, Stacey, in another rented Explorer and a 15-passenger van.
There were snowflakes in the air when a truck began to drift out of the right lane of Interstate 70 and into the fast lane that was occupied by the coach and his van. Hemingway steered to the left to avoid the truck and apparently caught some slush on the side of the road. His van spun and flipped over before coming to rest on the westbound side of I-70, where the van was hit by a pickup truck. Hemingway, 29, and two 18-year-old athletes died. Stacey Hemingway was one of the first people on the scene of the wreck.
Understandably, the tragedy cast a pall over Park University. The athletic department wrestled with its limited options. Previously, there was an unwritten rule that students were not to drive school vehicles. Now, the rule is written. A defensive driving course was recently implemented on campus and it is mandatory for all Park coaches. Still, the coaches are said to be feeling the pressure because they are now solely responsible for driving.
One suggestion that has come out of the disaster: transfer scholarship dollars to the travel budget so the school can afford larger, safer vehicles and professional drivers. This, however, has yet to happen.
In a gruesome irony, the Park women's soccer team was traveling across the state to play Lindenwood. Nearly three months later, on Feb. 1, the Lindenwood men's basketball team had a similar accident, also on I-70.
The team was headed for Missouri Valley College in two 15-seat vans when the vehicle driven by trainer Brian Zolner spun out of control and overturned. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, Zolner had fallen asleep. Zolner, 26, an assistant coach and six players were injured in the crash.
Prohibitive cost factor
The most catastrophic van accident in recent years occurred on Feb. 10, 2000. The Prairie View A&M track team was in the midst of an eight-hour drive to a meet in Arkansas when its 15-seat passenger van flipped three times in East Texas.
Four athletes died in the crash. One of them was 21-year-old senior Houston Watson -- the driver of the van.
Prairie View, a modest public school near Houston, can't afford to charter airplanes or buses for its athletic teams, according to the college's president, Charles Hines.
"We just simply don't have the money," Hines said. "We do the best we can with what we have."
On the morning of the accident, the school had rented the van at $80 per day for the two-day. The cost to charter a bus would have been 10 times that amount.
"I believe that all schools travel in these vans, depending on the circumstances," Hines said. "No one wakes up at 2 o'clock in the morning and says, 'Let me go do something so my students can die.' "
Since the accident, Prairie View has replaced student drivers with faculty and staff and has allocated more money for athletic travel. Chartered buses are now used more than half the time, but that means vans are used the rest of the time.
The Tennessee-Martin baseball team was far luckier.
Cates and his two players survived their accident. Cates, who teaches math at the university, surprised doctors and walked out of the hospital after 30 days. He and seven players missed the rest of the season that degenerated into a 10-40 disaster. Still, even a 3-23 record this season heading into April seemed to be something of a blessing.
||I'll tell you this, I think God protected me. I could deal with the physical part of it, but from an emotional standpoint, I don't know how I would have dealt with it if one of my kids had been killed. ”
||— Tennessee-Martin baseball coach Victor "Bubba" Cates reflecting on the van crash that nearly cost him his life
With the passing of the accident's first anniversary, Cates has been reflective.
"I'll tell you this," he said, "I think God protected me. I could deal with the physical part of it, but from an emotional standpoint, I don't know how I would have dealt with it if one of my kids had been killed."
The Tennessee-Martin athletic department has made some adjustments with safety in mind. Students (a student trainer was driving the other baseball van back from Ole Miss) are no longer allowed behind the wheel of school vehicles. If an away trip is going to bring a team back after 10 p.m., a second driver in addition to the coach goes along.
The baseball team has chartered a bus with a professional driver for every road game this season. Cates said the additional $8,000 it will cost is a significant portion of the team's budget.
"It's worth it," Cates said. "But you have to say it's a shame that it takes an accident like that for these things to be instituted."
Greg Garber is a senior staff writer for ESPN.com Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
|Tennessee-Martin baseball coach Victor 'Bubba' Cates said he is lucky to be alive after being involved in a van accident a year ago.||
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