No matter how many plantain chips, lentil crackers and vegetable wraps Allison Kellaher arranged on the wraparound buffet table outside the Belasco Room at the Westin New York at Times Square hotel, the members of the Marquette men’s basketball team still stood around waiting.
“Where are they?” one asked.
After some tense moments, the steaming hot platter of medium-rare hamburgers finally arrived. The players, their sweaty practice uniforms in a pile down the hall, loaded up their plates, two patties at a time. Kellaher, Marquette’s coordinator of basketball administration, stood back and rolled her eyes.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Almost three years after Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier’s stunning admission at the Final Four that he often went to bed “starving,” the NCAA has lifted many of its most archaic restrictions on feeding scholarship athletes.
Teams can now supply unlimited meals and snacks, and many programs have hired full-time nutritionists and dietitians to steer athletes into better eating habits. On campus, that means training tables filled with fruits and yogurts, and smoothie bars instead of soda machines.
For people like Kellaher, though, the changes also mean that in addition to her hefty logistical load overseeing the day-to-day operations of a frequently traveling team headed to its first NCAA Tournament since 2013 (Marquette played South Carolina in the first round Friday night), she now has added another role: nutritionist.
The job includes late-night Whole Foods runs, smoothie tastings and a near-constant circulation of the pumpkin fig granola and gluten-free bites that fill four large black duffel bags on Marquette’s road trips. It also can involve attempts at subtle persuasion.
“I’m thinking of trying one of those veggie wraps,” freshman guard Markus Howard said last week as he waited for the hamburgers.
Kellaher’s face lit up. “Yes. Just try it.”
“What if I don’t like it?” Howard asked. He sniffed it and put it down.
Road trips — with their strange surroundings and unfamiliar food — are always a bigger challenge than the times the team is on campus, and the postseason creates perhaps the biggest one yet.
For an NCAA Tournament team about to spend several consecutive nights in a hotel, controlling what the players should — and should not — ingest is a calculus with newfound significance. Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski, a former guard at Duke, said that, in his playing days, he and his teammates subsisted mostly on cantina tacos and barbecued chicken. That is hardly the case anymore.
Surveying the two omelet stations set up for his players during last week’s Big East tournament — with options for additives like organic ham, mushrooms and spinach — Wojciechowski said, “If you want to be at your best, this is what it takes.”
Nutritionists say that the steady deregulation of restrictions on feeding college athletes has contributed to a transformation of the mindsets of many players about the link between healthy eating and performance, and its effect for both home and away games.
Lauren Link, the director of sports nutrition at Purdue, does not travel often with her school’s basketball team, but her presence is felt even when she is not there. The night before road trips, she packs the players 1-gallon snack bags with healthy goodies she wants them to nosh on throughout each day they are away. She also tosses in a tip sheet with advice on what to eat and when.
“During tournament time, I’m always trying to think of what I can put in there to help with inflammation and recovery,” Link said. The March snack bags consist of lots of nuts, chia seeds and cherry juice. Nut butter, she said, is another player favorite.
“It seems kind of excessive as you’re doing it,” Link said. “But when you think of fueling Isaac Haas” — Purdue’s 7-foot-2, 290-pound center — “the kid can eat a lot of food. I’m never worried about putting too much in there.”
Road trips typically were immune to some of the NCAA’s restrictions, as those meals were considered incidental to participation. But as dietary experts have proliferated on athletic staffs, the nutritional value of the food the players are getting has become just as critical a consideration as how much of it they consume. Meals are carefully planned to address concerns like immunity or recovery; some teams even create personalized menus for individual players, printed out and placed in their lockers.
“It’s hard to describe,” Virginia’s director of sports nutrition, Randy Bird, said of the deregulation’s effect on his job responsibilities. “I’ve always had to deal with inventory and purchasing, but that has significantly increased.”
Texas went from having two registered dietitians on staff in 2014 to six now. This, according to Amy Culp, the sports dietitian at Texas — where the women’s basketball team earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA women’s tournament — has inspired a department-wide re-education initiative to help athletes and coaches understand how to build and maintain better eating habits.
“If they understand the ‘why’ behind what we’re doing,” Culp wrote in an email, “it helps create more buy-in and decrease the mentality that we’re trying to be the ‘diet police.'”
To understand just how much the influence of nutrition has grown in college basketball recently, consider Marquette, the No. 10 seed in the East region.
For years, the team had relied upon a local greasy spoon, The Broken Yolk, to cater meals. But last spring, the mother of guard Katin Reinhardt mentioned to Kellaher that she had read that the Los Angeles Lakers and other NBA teams had started partnering with the grocer Whole Foods. Wojciechowski looked into it.
The Golden Eagles now have their own deal with Whole Foods for breakfasts and lunches, not to mention non-GMO gummies and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on sprouted grain bread for plane rides.
Kellaher is not an accredited dietitian (Marquette is considering adding a full-time nutritionist to its staff). But, emblematic of the foodie craze, she has enthusiastically adopted her unofficial role as the basketball team’s meal czar.
After the Golden Eagles arrived in New York on Tuesday, she was up early Wednesday scouting Times Square’s juice bars to procure drinks for the players to sample. Instead of Carmine’s, the family-style Italian restaurant where the team ate dinner one night last year, she sought to arrange for Hu Kitchen, a gluten-free haven for vegans and Paleo dieters, to cater Marquette’s flight home.
Some relics of a bygone eating era endure, though.
“I would one day aspire to never see those Fruity Pebbles out on my table,” Kellaher said at breakfast one morning, motioning toward a large bowl at the distant end of the buffet. “But you can’t just clear it all out or people will feel deprived.”
Despite the multitude of food options in the heart of New York City — Marquette’s hotel last week was, tantalizingly, across the street from a Shake Shack — the players seemed able to resist temptation. They even took to the grain-free tortilla chips and salsa.
“At first when you say you want to transition to healthy, it can be a little scary,” Kellaher said. “They’re like, ‘Don’t just be giving us quinoa and carrots.’ But we worked with the guys on the menu to try and think of stuff. It’s turned into its own thing.”
As the players waited for their burgers, a few staff members had already begun thinking about future meals.
“I was reading this thing on Villanova,” said video coordinator Jake Presutti. “They eat fish at every meal.”
He glanced at the buffet of grilled chicken, baked potatoes and Rice Krispies Treats and said, “We’ve got to get more fish.”