On his long hauls across the country, Mike Chisholm has grown accustomed to other drivers honking, waving or flashing him a thumbs up. He especially loves the calls that come through his CB radio.
Nice truck, the admirers say. “They think it’s a fan’s truck,” Chisholm said.
It’s easy to see why. Chisholm spends each fall traveling the country in an 18-wheeled LoneStar that is customized — from its grille to its taillights — as a diesel-fueled homage to the spirit and legacy of Army football.
There is a mural with two of Army’s Heisman Trophy winners on one side of the cab and another with images of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the other. A grenade launcher for footballs is painted on the fender. The hood reads, “Beat Navy.”
And then there is the tiny gray button next to the steering wheel, which, when pressed, emits a sound loud enough to shake a stadium. It was taken off a locomotive.
All this just to carry the Army football team’s equipment.
“I want everything we do at Army football to be the biggest and baddest out there,” Army coach Jeff Monken said. “We ought to have a truck that has the same expectations.”
As with most things in college athletics, those expectations are expanding. First it was facilities, then amenities and uniforms. Now the latest, biggest arms race among football programs doing whatever they can to stand out includes the big rigs that haul everything from their helmets to their Gatorade.
Consider Alabama’s football equipment truck, which seems relatively modest — until someone blows the horn that mimics an elephant’s call. Penn State’s truck has neon blue underbody lights and a football-style “face mask” on its front bumper, and Utah wrapped even the top of its equipment truck so television blimps could glimpse, and broadcast, the university’s branding.
Notre Dame is so proud of its truck that it drove it to Savannah, Georgia, in January 2016 and parked it in front of a five-star prospect’s home on the eve of national signing day as part of the Irish’s last-minute recruiting pitch.
“It does serve as a drivable billboard in a sense,” Chip Robertson, the assistant athletic director for equipment operations at the University of Texas, said of his university’s newly redesigned truck, which bears the image of the landmark UT Tower. “Fans enjoy seeing it on the road and also love to take pictures in front of it wherever it stops.”
The customization craze is hardly reserved for the bigger programs, though. East Carolina, of the American Athletic Conference, has used a truck fully adorned in its distinctive purple, and replete with purple LED running lights, since 2014.
“Why are we doing it?” said Greg Herring, East Carolina’s associate athletic director for marketing and fan engagement. “Because everybody does it.”
There is incentive beyond just keeping up with the competition. Thanks in part to conference realignment, teams are traveling more than ever, and their equipment has to meet them at every stop. Herring said East Carolina’s truck would visit 15 states this season, on trips covering more than 7,600 miles.
That creates invaluable opportunity for brand reach. East Carolina only pays for new vinyl on its truck — the truck itself is lent by a local company, ELS Freight, which voluntarily painted the cab purple — at a cost of about $10,000.
“I can’t think of anything that gives you more exposure,” Herring said. “Other than being on television for those games.”
But a certain one-upmanship was also inevitable. Fans have taken notice. In 2013, two friends from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jason Pinder and Jason Burt, started posting photos to Twitter of the various equipment trucks they would see parked outside Michigan Stadium on game day. Today, their feed, @NCAAFBALLTRUCKS, has more than 3,200 followers.
“Now every time we go to Michigan, there are five, six, seven different groups of fans taking pictures of the trucks,” Pinder said.
Harmon Hodge, 60, a Southern Mississippi football fan from Lilburn, Georgia, runs what some might call a football equipment truck fan site. He posts pictures of trucks — some of them years old — from the Southeastern Conference to the Southland Conference.
“All the schools are starting to get them,” Hodge said. “Even the smaller schools are getting involved in this.”
Hodge said he thought that Ohio State might have been the first to fully decorate its truck, sometime in the mid-2000s, but he could not be sure. But it was Army’s truck, born in 2010, that took things to a new level.
Donated to the program by Navistar Defense, which designs and manufactures military vehicles, and with detailing by Central Auto Body in Chicago, the truck weighs 35 tons empty. The hand-painted murals on the cab (including a muscular arm hanging out Chisholm’s driver’s side window) cost more than $80,000, according to Nick Determan, an assistant athletic director at Army.
Seven years later, fans still gawk at the behemoth, which lives outside Gate 1 of Michie Stadium when it’s not on the road.
“Just this morning when I pulled into work, there were people taking pictures with it,” Determan said. Monken, the Army coach, calls it “a work of art.”
There is some practical need for the biggest rigs available. Army’s truck, for instance, carries not only the football equipment but also gear for the band, the cheerleaders, the training staff and the Black Knights’ radio broadcasters — a load that can add up to 30,000 pounds.
Trucks are occasionally lent out for fan events, food drives and other needs. Texas universities, for example, sent their trucks to Houston as part of the relief effort after Hurricane Harvey, and Kansas State’s ferried hay bales across the state last spring to help farmers recover from wildfires.
Not everyone is happy to see one roll up, however; when the former Syracuse athletic director Mark Coyle left to take the same post at Minnesota, the Gophers sent their football equipment truck to upstate New York to serve as his moving van, adding salt to the wound.
But more often than not, the trucks that hit the road every fall might be used to drive home another message: intimidation.
“We try to be first-class in everything we do,” Army’s Determan said. “There’s not a better example than that truck leading the way.
“Like: ‘Look at these guys. These guys are coming in here, and they’re looking good. They’re not joking around.’”