Training Camp doesn’t have the same ring as Spring Training. Spring Training is a fresh start on life. Training Camp is back to work.
And the concept of strapping young men donning way-too-much gear on sweltering-hot days seems impractical as well as unwise.
Baseball smartly goes to Florida and Arizona for appropriate weather. If football did that, it would be a boon to the economies of the Upper Peninsula and the Yukon.
But we love our football.
And as the start of training camp approaches, I can’t help but think about how much it has changed, from a media standpoint, since I started watching football practice in earnest.
That would have been Platteville, 1984, with the Chicago Bears.
My best football-practice memories are of the Bears and their NFL rivals. There’s nothing like August in Mankato, Minn., watching the Purple People Eaters in Green Giant Country. (But if you’re going to Tampa, be sure to bring a little hotel towel to hold the sizzling Hertz steering wheel.)
I never did spend a lot of time at college training camps—or even regular-season practices.
At first, when I covered Notre Dame, there was no need. On Media Day, I would gobble up a bunch of interviews with lads like Rocket Ismail, Chris Zorich and Michael Stonebreaker—Notre Dame had the best football names—and parcel them out while doing the important work (to a Chicago newspaper) of covering the Bears and visiting their division opponents.
At Notre Dame, we were given a list of all the players’ phone numbers. We were honorable; we didn’t abuse that privilege. And you’d be surprised how well the interviews went when the kids weren’t sweaty and exhausted.
For example, I once called a linebacker, Ned Bolcar, right after we did our one-hour conference call with Lou Holtz. It was a couple of days after Notre Dame’s opening game in 1988, a 19-17 win over Michigan. Bolcar, a senior captain, was a good player. But he had gotten fewer snaps than Stonebreaker and Wes Pritchett because the Irish used three good linebackers for their two inside slots.
I just expected him to say, “That’s OK. We won. Yada yada.’’
Imagine my surprise when he started bemoaning the decision of Holtz and his defensive coordinator, Barry Alvarez, not to give him the number of snaps he had been promised.
“It’s hard to say you’re a captain, flip the coin and sit on the bench,’’ he told me.
Whoa! I could see the headline guys jumping on the Captain Without a Ship angle.
I called Barry. He didn’t want to go there. I called Lou. After saying, “Didn’t I just talk to you?’’ he asked if we could go off the record, which we did. At which point, he asked my appraisal of his many talented linebackers, and which ones I would play.
Lou was great.
Back on the record, he gave me some Yada Yada about how Bolcar would have plenty of opportunity.
The point is, you could stand around football practice all day and not get that story.
Which is why you would be shipped to the Galapagos if you called football players in their dorm rooms today.
And then there was Illinois.
There were no phone lists by the time I got there. By then, even ND had abandoned that. But since I often was covering the PGA championship in August by then, and since the Sun-Times wasn’t clamoring for reams of Fighting Illini training-camp copy, I learned to be efficient.
Ron Turner, God bless him, moved training camp to the old Chanute Air Force base in Rantoul, which was half an hour closer to Chicago. Armed with a tape recorder or two and a thorough list of questions, I could hit training camp late in the morning, and work the dining hall—catch six or eight players and three or four assistant coaches—by the time lunch had ended.
I will defend the right of any sportswriter who wants to watch practice to do so. Although I believe that ship has sailed. I always thought watching practice was over-rated. Occasionally, fun. But in general, not worth the risk of being accused of spying.
And then there was Tim Beckman. One year, when I got back from the PGA, the boss actually was asking about Illini football, so I said I’d go right down to Rantoul. It must have been Beckman’s first year, before—well, before. . .
When I checked in, I was told that Beckman was closing camp to the media for a few days, to help his team bond or something.
I wanted to mention Bill Murray’s old line to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, where he says: “Don’t play hard to get.’’
After all, this was Illinois football. But good for him. I kept it to myself.
Imagine my surprise when I turned on the Big Ten Network to find out my BTN friends were all over Illini training camp during the “no-media’’ Kumbayah period.
Draw your own conclusions about that. Just don’t get me started on Beckman.
The point is, I know many of my sportswriter brethren who like to spend hours watching training camp—who moan about closed practices. I feel their pain, but it is not my pain. Football practice is fine in small doses, but it really isn’t all that germane to good coverage of a team.
For one thing, if practice is open, you’re responsible for knowing about every little ankle sprain. Some guys even breathlessly write about the battle for third-string tackle.
There were times when I was glad I worked for a pithy tabloid.
Watching Bears practice, I must say, was a different animal.
There was a Tribune writer, for example, who brought girls to training-camp practices in Platteville. Sometimes he even brought their sisters and/or girlfriends.
Clearly, the Bears were a big deal in Platteville, Wisconsin.
My favorite practice memories, though, are from in-season Bears workouts in Lake Forest, a leafy Chicago suburb.
The offense-oriented moments were OK. Nobody was going to mess with Walter Payton or Jim McMahon. But when Buddy Ryan was showing his all-galaxy defense the moves of the week, that was entertainment.
One afternoon, backup QB Steve Fuller dropped back and threw a pass that was deflected. Seriously.
“Pull! Bam! Pull! Bam! Pull! Bam!’’ the D-line guys would yell, pantomiming a skeet-shooting rifle while the ball fluttered to the ground.
Because they were short on practice personnel, all kinds of people lined up at wide receiver on the scout team, including kicker Kevin “Butthead” Butler. Once, when Jeff “Guppy’’ Fisher, a reserve DB, ran a receiver route, over the middle, he got roughed up, even though this was more of a walk-through than an actual contact deal.
“Forget it, Guppy,’’ Steve McMichael said with a chuckle. “You’re just a little fish.’’
Fisher fared better as a head coach.
Once, when I did go to a Notre Dame practice before the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu, I didn’t even know which way to turn. There were so many shiny gold helmets on the field, compared to those sparsely-populated Bears workouts, They had a defensive scrimmage, an offensive scrimmage, and kickers everywhere.
At the end of practice, I found the coach, Gerry Faust, and went over to ask a few questions. He greeted me enthusiastically.
“Hey, Herb. Wow, your paper sent you all the way to Hawaii to cover a football game,’’ he said. “That’s great.’’
“Well, Gerry, you’re here,’’ I said. “And it looks like you brought the whole athletic department.’’
Sadly, all those Irish were not enough. They fell to SMU 27-20.
I was really impressed with the way they practiced, though.