- If the Maryland allegations are true, then someone missed the point of the strength coach’s role on a football team. How many people will pay for it? Plus, what it means that Nick Saban is more open with the media than ever, and the rest of this week's mailbag.
Maryland has admitted fault in the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, but there are still questions that must be answered...
From Cory: What would be a good reason the AD hasn’t fired the people directly responsible for the players’ care at Maryland?
There are a few reasons. One is that athletic director Damon Evans may be waiting for the final report from athletic training consultant Rod Walters before making more personnel moves. It’s usually best to know exactly what happened and exactly who was at fault before firing people. It’s also best to be armed with evidence so that the fired person is less likely to file a lawsuit. Maryland will get the report from Walters in about a month, and then the school will have ample documentation regarding the mistakes made on the day offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed from heat stroke. The key mistakes made—not taking McNair’s temperature, not immersing him in cold water to attempt to lower his body temperature—ultimately killed McNair, but the real question is why did they happen? Were the trainers on the field improperly trained? These are basic protocols that most athletic trainers learn very early. Did someone freeze and forget their training? Did someone interfere so that trainers couldn’t adequately do their jobs? These are all questions that must be answered before firing people. For now, head football trainer Wes Robinson and director of athletic training Steve Nordwall are on paid administrative leave.
Strength coach Rick Court was forced out this week, but he was paid the balance of his contract. Following ESPN’s report on the “toxic culture” in College Park, Maryland officials may have decided the optics of keeping Court around even a day longer would be so bad that it was worth $315,000 to the school to get him out of the program. Court has no reason to sue if he’s paid every penny he’s owed.
Another potential reason for a delay is that Evans still isn’t completely safe in his job. He may not ultimately wind up being the person who does any of the firing. He’ll be heavily scrutinized over the next few months, as will president Wallace Loh. Those two handled Tuesday’s press conference as well as they possibly could, but what happened in the previous 62 days will be examined much more thoroughly as well.
From Dan: Barrett Jones said that Alabama ran 28 110s as conditioning. In light of what happened at Maryland, is it more likely that strength coaches change their programming or that teams add additional medical staff at workouts?
One thing people don’t get when stories about toxic culture come up: The issue isn’t usually how hard the players are being asked to work. It’s about how those players are treated and motivated while doing that work. Twenty-eight 110-yard sprints is a lot, but Alabama strength coaches build players up to the level that they can handle it while still being challenged. Coaches also can tweak drills from day to day depending on conditions. Those 28 sprints were probably run for time. That goal time can be adjusted to make the sprints easier or more difficult. Or, if someone is struggling and a coach wants to make sure they finish, maybe that coach lets the stopwatch go a few more ticks.
The human body can be trained to do extraordinary things. College football workouts are difficult. (After my first January workout as a walk-on my freshman year at Florida, I was so sore I could barely walk.) But the training routines for college wrestlers, Olympic gymnasts and elite endurance athletes make football workouts look tame. If the strength coaches are good, they can build a program that allows players to—after a while—handle a workload the average person wouldn’t believe possible.
The real question involves the tactics the coaches use. The best strength coaches never degrade the players. They don’t make their criticism personal. They don’t use counterproductive measures. In the ESPN story on Maryland, that staff was accused of making a player eat candy while watching others work out—presumably to shame the player into making better food choices.
When I was at Florida, the head strength coach was Jerry Schmidt, who would go on to spend 18 years at Oklahoma and who now runs Texas A&M’s strength program. His No. 2 was Rob Glass, who is currently the strength coach at Oklahoma State and one of the biggest reasons for that program’s success. They weren’t always nice. That wasn’t their job. They routinely challenged players to do things their bodies might have been protesting against at the time. Manhood got challenged, but not in a personal way. It wasn’t “You’re a blankety-blank.” It came more from a place of “You’re only cheating yourself and the team if you don’t give your best today,” or “I have a record of you doing this many reps at this weight with no problem three days ago, so why is it a problem today?” The workouts never felt unsafe, and the underlying theme of the interaction was that the coaches respected how hard the players worked. That’s how that relationship is supposed to work, and that’s probably why more than 20 years later, those particular guys are recognized as two of the best in the business.
That’s how it should be everywhere. If the Maryland allegations are true, then someone missed the point of the job.
Nearly everything Nick Saban does is with recruiting in mind. It’s funny. He’s viewed as being very restrictive in his dealings with the media, but he’s quite a bit less restrictive about what parts of his program the world sees than a lot of coaches. The current Rolling With The Tide series on ESPN2 is the most recent example, but remember, Saban was letting ESPN ride to work with him before his team’s biggest game of the season seven years ago.
He doesn’t let everyone in. It tends to usually be ESPN because he knows ESPN has the biggest platform, and he’s trying to mass communicate. He’s not doing that for fan service, though. He wants recruits to see what Alabama’s program is about.
The stuff at the lake that we saw in the first episode of Rolling With The Tide? He’s been doing that for years. But he probably wanted to get it out there so recruits don’t fully buy the simplistic image we’ve created of him as a soulless football robot. Is Saban the kind of guy who can crack a beer and watch a game at the bar with his buddies every night? No. That’s not him. But he does have a dry sense of humor that can be hysterical once you understand when he’s kidding.
He wants potential players to see all these aspects of himself and his program. In this way, he’s very similar to Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who also tends to open his program selectively to outlets with huge platforms so that every potential recruit—and every potential recruit’s parent—is intrigued even before the coaching staff decides which players to target.
And that probably will be the only time you’ll see a comparison of Saban and Calipari, but in this case, it’s quite apt.