Final Four families getting expense money to make the trip

HOUSTON - Thursday morning if all goes as planned, Larry and LeAnn Spangler will load up their Chevy Tahoe and hit the road for the final time.

It will be the final time watching their son, Ryan Spangler, play in college for his home-state school, the final road trip - they hope - for the car that has taken them from Ames, Iowa, to Lubbock, Texas; to Baton Rouge, La.; and Columbus, Ohio, and all kinds of places in between.

20160331_inq_oklahoma31-a
Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler . With help from the NCAA, his parents and others will be at the Final Four. Los Angeles Times

This time, though, the Spanglers will do so with financial assistance from the NCAA.

Ryan Spangler and Oklahoma will open the Final Four against Villanova on Saturday at NRG Stadium.

For the second straight season, the NCAA will pay expenses to the family of each player for the teams in the men's and women's Final Fours. The money is for travel, hotel and meal expenses for family members.

"We're pretty excited about it," Larry Spangler said. "LeAnn and I are blessed. I've got an occupation that I do fine with and we're able to make it to all these games, but there's a lot of parents that I can guarantee you if it wasn't for that help wouldn't be able to make it to the Final Four."

The money will be distributed to families once they arrive in Houston.

A year ago, Samantha Walker had it relatively easy getting to the Sweet 16.

The mother of Sooners guard Dinjiyl Walker had a six-hour drive from her home in the Toronto area to Columbus, Ohio, for OU's first two games in the tournament. The Sweet 16 trip was even shorter as Oklahoma played in Syracuse, N.Y.

But this year, OU started off the tournament in Oklahoma and then advanced to Anaheim, Calif., far away from Ontario.

"I told her to stay home until we made it to the Final Four," Walker said last week. "She can come then."

The NCAA started the program to provide families with funds for the Final Four as a trial last year before extending it to 2016. The College Football Playoff began making similar payments to families of Oregon and Ohio State players for the championship game after the 2014 season.

Last year, it was expanded to all four teams making the playoff field, giving the families of Oklahoma players extra help in getting to the Sooners' Orange Bowl game against Clemson in Miami.

About midway through the conference season, Buddy Hield's mother, Jackie Swann, came from the Bahamas to Norman to spend the final month of the regular season - and the NCAA tournament run - with her son.

The money will help not only Jackie but a large group of Hield's family make the trip to Houston to see his college finale.

"It means a lot," Hield said. "I'm happy they get to be there and share the moment. These moments don't come around every year. There's only so often we get to experience these moments. I'm just glad they're here and their expenses are going to be paid for."

That's why Oklahoma trainer Alex Brown, a veteran of two other Final Fours with the Sooners, told the Spanglers and other families making the trip to enjoy every second of it.

"This is something you'll remember for the rest of your lives," Brown told the Spanglers.

So they'll stay at the team hotel with the Sooners in Houston and spend as much time as possible around the team and their son, including going to Friday's open practice at NRG Stadium.

Then when they return to Oklahoma, the Tahoe will be traded in.

"We've put an awful lot of miles on it," Larry said. "We wouldn't have it any other way."