Tide foundation plane had gone undetected
By Michael Casagrande
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — What exactly does the code “N1UA” mean to an Alabama football observer?
It never has appeared on a scoreboard. There is no hidden meaning or cipher to encode.
N1UA is simply the tail number of the airplane owned by the Crimson Tide Foundation — the charitable arm of the University of Alabama athletics department — and there was a time when it was subject to exhaustive Internet searches and message board speculation. If there was a coach to hire or a top recruit to secure, the three letters and one numeral popped up everywhere.
Then, it suddenly disappeared from the online record.
The use of websites such as FlightAware.com to predict hires and signings came to an abrupt end when the university entered a little-known program with the National Business Aviation Association and the Federal Aviation Administration.
First uncovered following a 15-month investigation ending in April by ProRepublica.org, the N1UA tail number turned up on a list of 1,500 planes whose owners requested its flight information would not be made available to the tracking websites. High-profile politicians and Fortune 500 corporations made the Block Aircraft Registration Request, as did Alabama and Auburn.
According to the ProRepublica report, the program’s origins date back to 1995, but Internet searches don’t show N1UA disappearing from chatter until 2008.
Neither Alabama football coach Nick Saban nor athletics director Mal Moore chose to comment on Alabama’s involvement, but UA spokeswoman Deborah Lane responded by e-mail.
“ … There are any number of valid business reasons, such as security concerns, why organizations choose to block a plane’s registration number,” she stated.
Auburn drew major scrutiny in 2003, when university trustee Bobby Lowder’s plane was tracked to a Southern Indiana airport to speak with then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino while rumors surrounded Tommy Tuberville’s employment status. It too blocks its tail number from such sites now for several reasons, Auburn spokesman Charles Martin said.
“During football recruiting season, which is a very competitive time, a trackable airplane could allow other schools to see the destination,” Martin said via e-mail.
“We don’t want to disclose whom we are recruiting. Another reason we don’t have online tracking is to provide security for university personnel and guests flying on the aircraft. We provide flights for administrators, faculty and staff on official business and bring in a range of visitors for campus events.”
At Alabama, the department or office that used the 9-seat, 20-year-old Westwind Astra was responsible for the cost of each trip.
According to documents obtained by an open records request, N1UA was used 122 times from Jan. 1 through Aug. 10. The flight log also offered a glimpse into the world of Alabama athletics that was once published online for all to consume.
Football recruiting missions accounted for 25 trips — 15 of which came between Jan. 18 and Jan. 30, when prospects had to make final decisions before the Feb. 3 signing day.
Defensive lineman Brandon Ivory made a surprising commitment swap from his hometown the University of Memphis to Alabama a day after N1UA ferried Saban and receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti to Memphis and back.
All but two of the recruiting flights in those final weeks before signing day spanned less than an hour in the air.
Only one-day visits to Baltimore and Orlando required more than 60 minutes in the sky each way as offensive line coach Joe Pendry gave a final visit to eventual signee Arie Kouandjio in Maryland.
On several occasions, the plane made several stops across the South, including Jan. 18. Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt made it to Valdosta, Ga., and back by 10:53 a.m. in time for Saban and Bo Davis to depart at 11:32 a.m. for Brookhaven, Miss. By 2:47 p.m., Saban was departing for Columbus, only to jet off to Atlanta 93 minutes after landing. N1UA was back in Tuscaloosa by 8:56 p.m. with only Saban aboard, according to the flight log.
According to forms filed with the NCAA, the Crimson Tide football program spent $750,045 on recruiting expenses in 2009, including use of the plane.
Saban’s contract also allows him personal use of the plane for as many as 25 hours per year. As of mid-August, records show he has logged 12.9 total hours on 10 occasions, mostly to visit his Georgia lake house.
Other notable trips taken by N1UA from January through Aug. 13 include:
— A Feb. 11-12 visit to Indianapolis (home of NCAA headquarters) with a passenger list including UA president Robert Witt, athletics director Mal Moore, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, university counsel Sandy Gordon and athletics compliance director Mike Ward. A week later, reports of defensive back Robby Green’s suspension by the NCAA first surfaced.
— A March 3 visit to New Orleans for Saban, wife Terry and five assistants that is labeled “meeting w/ Saints.”
— A flight for Witt and Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox to the White House visit made by the BCS national champion football team March 8. N1UA stopped in Huntsville to pick up U.S. Senator Richard Shelby before heading toward Washington. The football team took a separate flight.
— Former NFL coach and Alabama coaching clinic guest instructor Marty Schottenheimer hitched a ride from Palm Springs, Calif., and back March 25-26.
— Saban made a May 10 visit to Long Beach, Calif., for an ESPN commercial shoot.
The plane also was used for student recruitment of a non-athletic nature five times and a handful of alumni meetings that did not involve football. The men’s basketball program made six recruiting flights, and the women’s basketball program logged two.
— Luke Brietzke contributed to this report.