LOS ANGELES — The preparation for LSU’s week-long relocation started last Thursday afternoon.

As meteorologists updated the potential severity and path of Hurricane Ida, the equipment staff tracked the storm. They decided to pack the team’s 18-wheeler two days later, just in case.

Loading the truck would take hours, so director of athletic equipment Louis Bourgeois and the rest of the staff told their 13 student managers they had to start one of the weekly pregame rituals — polishing helmets and applying stickers — that night. They suspected an evacuation. They couldn’t wait.

Bourgeois woke up at 6 a.m. the next day. As he walked through the football operations building about four hours later, he received a call. LSU decided to leave Baton Rouge, initiating a rush to move the team a week before its season opener against UCLA as the storm intensified and approached the coast.

“Basically,” Bourgeois said, “we set up a mobile football ops.”

Over the next 24 hours, LSU filled two trucks with equipment, arranged a hotel for the team, found an NFL stadium to practice in and left for its first stop, Houston, where it arrived after an overnight drive through evacuation traffic.

LSU had changed plans before because of hurricanes, but never quite like this. In the past, the school moved games and altered kickoff times. This time, as its state began to recover from another devastating hurricane, LSU spent a week on the road before the opening of a pivotal season.

Saturday night's game inside the Rose Bowl can help No. 16 LSU return to championship contention after a disastrous 5-5 campaign last year. The team has talent and depth, but it sits at a crossroads, only two years removed from a title. Coach Ed Orgeron has called this “probably the most important starting game that I've had since I was a head coach.” And LSU approached the final week of practice in a different city.

When LSU began preparing to leave, Hurricane Ida was still forecasted as a Category 2 storm at landfall. But with Baton Rouge possibly in the middle of its path, the administration looked for other options last Friday morning.

The team needed somewhere to stay and practice that ensured the players’ safety. LSU spoke to the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. It first considered Dallas because “they can say a hurricane's coming for Louisiana and it can turn to Houston,” Orgeron said, but the forecast projected landfall in southeast Louisiana with near certainty.

“Houston was quicker,” Orgeron said. “So we decided to come to Houston.” 

The school coordinated through David Fletcher, executive director of the Texas Bowl and general manager of Lone Star Sports and Entertainment, a company affiliated with the Texans.

LSU had a relationship with Fletcher, having played bowl games and season openers at NRG Stadium. In 2017, LSU helped move the Texas Kickoff Classic from Houston to New Orleans in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, a storm that devastated the Houston area.

“Given the circumstances, we immediately wanted to try to help,” Fletcher said. “We understand the situation.” 

Fletcher spoke to Texans staff, county representatives, the mayor’s office and others to facilitate the move. He evaluated schedules around the Texans and the Texas Kickoff Classic. He also checked with the NFL about COVID-19 protocols for another team using the stadium. Everything fell into place.

“As the result shows, everybody wanted to be accommodating,” Fletcher said. “I think the fact there are a lot of key relationships in place, we understand the situation and we're a football organization as well, so we know the needs, it was able to turn around pretty quickly.”

At LSU’s football operations building, Bourgeois opened his phone. He keeps a picture in his favorites of the packing plan from the 2016 Citrus Bowl, which has helped him prepare for road trips since then. 

Bourgeois looked at the photo again as he sat in his office with equipment staff leaders Greg Stringfellow and Eric Cookmeyer and associate athletic trainer Derek Calvert. Director of video Doug Aucoin arranged his gear upstairs.

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“We're going to do this kind of like a bowl game,” Bourgeois said. “The problem is, you have two stops on this bowl game. That's not normal for us.”

Using whiteboards and dry-erase markers, the group arranged equipment for practices in Houston and the game in Los Angeles. They needed a second truck to haul everything, but there was a shortage of rentals. LSU eventually found one through the trucking company it uses. Game equipment went in the 18-wheeler, practice gear in a 26-foot Penske. 

LSU needed some pieces in both locations, such as headsets. The staff placed new versions in the 18-wheeler to reserve for the game. They brought an old set that hadn’t been used in four years for practice. 

“Hope it works when it gets there,” Bourgeois said. It did. 

As the equipment staff worked, Hurricane Ida quickly strengthened into a Category 4 storm Friday afternoon, moving closer to shore by the minute. Bourgeois’ wife and two children went to Destin, Florida. One of the student managers is from Mandeville, another from Golden Meadow. After the storm hit, the latter didn’t talk to his parents until Tuesday. 

The student managers balanced school and their responsibilities to the football team in the midst of hurricane preparations. Once the directors finished determining where everything needed to go, the students handled packing equipment and loading the trucks as they checked on their families. 

“We couldn't have done it without them,” Bourgeois said.

LSU loaded the trucks Saturday, and after the team completed a mock game on campus, it left around 9:30 p.m. from the football operations building, not completely sure when it could return. The trip to Houston took 11 hours. 

Bourgeois drove the rental truck. He hadn’t slept the night before, his mind occupied by everything that had to be done. He finally went to sleep again 51 hours after he woke up Friday morning.

“That's part of it,” Bourgeois said.

Once LSU arrived in Houston, the week resembled a bowl, with meetings in hotel ballrooms, practices at NRG Stadium, study halls, team meals and designated curfews. The 18-wheeler parked outside the stadium and left Tuesday afternoon. The Tigers flew directly to Los Angeles two days later as the rental returned to Baton Rouge with the practice equipment.

The conditions weren’t ideal before this first game, but everyone understood the situation paled in comparison to what so many others faced back home. People throughout the program watched coverage Sunday as Hurricane Ida swept through south Louisiana, leaving destruction in its wake and reminding them of Hurricane Katrina 16 years earlier.

More than a dozen players came from areas in the direct path of the storm. LSU offered to help their families, some of whom needed to stay in hotels after the hurricane damaged their homes.

“Our families are safe,” Orgeron said. “So thank God for all that.”

Throughout the week, Orgeron thanked the Houston Texans, the hotel and everyone who helped LSU relocate on such short notice. They helped keep the team on track, and perhaps that team can provide a welcome distraction Saturday night for the people suffering in Louisiana who care so much about the Tigers.

A native of Larose, Orgeron understands the devastation caused by a hurricane, especially this one. His hometown was hit hard. His mother evacuated to Beaumont, Texas. So whenever Orgeron spoke this week, he began by sympathizing with his battered state as he tried to lead one of its beloved teams from hundreds of miles away.

“Our thoughts and our prayers go out to our friends that are struggling,” Orgeron said as he called into his weekly radio show. “We know they're going to make it through.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com