Upstairs in the sleek new athletic building at Kansas State is the office of Vince Gibson, the head football coach. It is a luxurious room, commanded by an enormous walnut desk. From one window Gibson can, if he chooses, look out on Memorial Stadium and its AstroTurf carpet. A thick purple rug—the Wildcat colors are purple and white—makes Gibson's floor memorable. There is a large soft sofa and four deep, comfortable chairs, and in one corner is a walnut-grained soft-drink machine. Nearby are three conference rooms, offices for assistant coaches and a well-equipped kitchen. A huge reception room on the first floor is tastefully decorated with paintings and art objects.
On a late winter afternoon in a spartan basement beneath this display of athletic poshness, thin pads hang over the windowless concrete walls of a large room. There one football player backhands blood from his mouth, another wonders if his nose has been broken, a third throws up. At Kansas State they call it PE-103.
Sanctioned by the athletic code of the NCAA, Physical Education 103 and its equivalents can be found at colleges across the land, some in course catalogs, some as activities for which no credit is given. They are essentially nothing more than conditioning programs designed to get football players into shape for the 20 days of formal spring practice that will follow. As long as certain NCAA requirements are met, the colleges are free to conduct such drills—and even give credit for them. The NCAA stipulates that 1) advance notice of the drills must appear in the prescribed places, 2) they must be open to the male student body, 3) everybody in them must be there on a voluntary basis and 4) they have no direct connection with football at all.
Except for an occasional outsider, the "volunteers" in KSU's PE-103 are all football players. They gather five days a week for six weeks. The sessions used to be an hour, but after the team went 3-8 last year, Gibson instituted a get-tough campaign and some of the daily workouts were extended another 30 minutes. Typically, Monday is weight lifting and running; Tuesday is agility and conditioning drills; Wednesday is running and lifting weights; Thursday is first conditioning and then agility. Friday used to be left for basketball, but now it is more lifting and running. Everything is timed: how many push-ups, pull-ups, rope-climbs, etc. a player can do in 30 seconds. And the action never stops. Never. Two of the more grueling activities are wrestling and a contest in which two players kneeling on all fours are harnessed to each other back to back. The object is for one to drag the other 20 feet across the floor.
July 22, 1973
"I had heard from some of the older guys how rough it was," remembers Keith Best, a three-year letterman at Kansas State from 1969 to 1971 and now a reserve linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. "I had no idea, though. I'd been through conditioning drills before and I didn't think this could be much worse. It was only an hour. I'll never forget it. I ate a big lunch that first day: a salad with lots of Thousand Island dressing, and I drank lots of chocolate milk. Ten minutes into the first drill I lost it all."
"The worst part was if you were in the second section," says Bill Kennedy, a defensive end under Gibson in 1967-68. "There were wastepaper cans in the room and by then they were almost full.
"Actually, some of the activities are pretty brutal, but that's the way football is. There's nothing in there that doesn't happen on a football field. It's like Marine boot camp, only you can quit football, but in the Marines you're stuck."
In the coaching fraternity, Kansas State's program is known as being rugged, but it is hardly unique and certainly not under wraps. KSU has prepared a 20-minute film to show its drills to other coaches. No matter what they are called or what specific form they take, tough pre-spring-practice conditioning workouts are expected of players at almost every university in every major conference except the Ivy League, which permits no spring practice and therefore needs no pre-spring practice.
At Florida State they call it PE-117. Among the attractions of this course is a room in which a false ceiling of chicken wire is suspended four or five feet above wrestling mats. There the players wrestle. Each loser gets to wrestle some more. Recently a group of players charged that combat under chicken wire was not their idea of a way to earn an hour's credit, and half a dozen or so of them announced that they were quitting FSU. PE-117, they said, was dehumanizing and, besides, the only reason they volunteered for it was because they were ordered to do so. A few claimed that they had been left too exhausted from the conditioning drills to study, and as a result had flunked out of school. After the allegations were published in the St. Petersburg Times, the university requested an NCAA investigation, which is still going on.
"What is dehumanizing?" asks FSU's Larry Jones. "Chicken wire? We were just trying to teach them to keep their heads down. In football, you have to. It certainly didn't hurt anyone. In fact, if we had allowed them to stand up while wrestling they would have been bumping heads, and that's when they could have injured themselves. And I don't see how an hour of exercise a day could cause a boy to flunk out of school. Most of them would have flunked out even if they had never gone near the gym."
As long as three years ago, Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA, told an interviewer he was concerned over abuses in pre-spring conditioning programs. It has even been suggested that continued abuses could endanger the entire concept of spring practice. But so far only one school—California—has been flagged for this kind of violation.
The NCAA recognized the existence of the problem eight years ago by issuing a set of regulations governing off-season football activities. The intent of the rules was to keep football clearly out of conditioning classes—no footballs allowed, no pads, no cleats, no coaching and, especially, no forced participation by football players. This last is the soft spot. All but a handful of big-time coaches let their players know that they expect them to sign up. "They tell us it's voluntary," says a senior at Tennessee, "but you have to learn to please your boss, and in this case it's the football coach. So almost all of us take part."
Prior to 1965 the activity was less clearly defined. Tommy Pannell, now an assistant coach at Central Oklahoma State, and a quarterback and halfback under Bud Wilkinson and Gomer Jones at Oklahoma from 1963 to 1965, recalls, "Every system I've ever known had some sort of pre-spring drills. At Oklahoma we met for 1½ hours a day five days a week and enrollment was required. It was demanding physically, but nothing to get excited about. It is true that coaches who have tough pre-spring programs today are trying to run off some players they don't want, and there aren't many legal ways you can do that."
Now a tight end with the New England Patriots, Bob Windsor played under Charlie Bradshaw at Kentucky in the mid-'60s. He would like to forget all about it. "They told the players that they had better be there," Windsor says, "although it wasn't mandatory. But we wanted to play and we knew we had to be there. One of the drills made absolutely no sense. We'd line up in single file and run into a cinder-block wall that had a light pad on it. We were supposed to hit it with a forearm shiver, then bounce off the other three walls. Then we had one-on-one wrestling. I stepped in and the guy punched me in the mouth.
"If it was just conditioning, that would be one thing. But there was a lot that wasn't necessary. Like punching each other. Guys had broken bones, bruises, pulled muscles. It was jungle warfare training. I've never experienced anything like it in pro ball. There they treat you like human beings. Not in college. I wouldn't go through that again."
Most coaches today shun such combat drills as tools from the Dark Ages. Some would like to do away with all pre-spring programs, but fear that if they did they would be giving an edge to a rival. "It's like artificial turf," says Fred Pancoast, the head coach at Memphis State, sounding a recurring theme. "You've got to do what your neighbor does. Conditioning has a value in football, but it has to be limited and controlled."
A proponent of the hard-labor theory of football is Billy Kinard, a former defensive back and now head coach at the University of Mississippi. Kinard played football with abandon. He expects no less from his players. "The worst thing that can happen to an athlete is for him to be inactive," Kinard says. "He gets out of shape and his muscles go soft. We have pre-spring conditioning here, but we don't wrestle. We tried that when I was an assistant at Auburn but a kid had his jaw crushed and we had to stop."
Around the country, the way pre-spring-practice drills are handled varies—but within relatively narrow limits. At Minnesota members of the football squad not engaged in a winter sport are expected to take part in drills that start at a frequency of three or four a week and work up to five a week as spring practice nears. At Arizona State weight training is stressed more than anything—and football players had better be there. Nebraska's version includes a drill in which two players fight for possession of a stick (the contests can become quite rough), and enrollment is expected although, as one former player puts it, "If somebody doesn't enroll, they don't come over and drag you there." Down in Austin, Texas Coach Darrell Royal explains the option play as it applies to the drills: "We've always thought these things should be optional—but you encourage them to get in shape. Our drills are not mandatory but we know who's there and who's not and we know who's in shape and who isn't."
Players at both Georgia and Georgia Tech may receive an hour's credit in physical education for a pre-spring course, which consists mainly of weight lifting and running. Enrollment is not mandatory, but all players understand that if they don't go they will be looked upon as problem cases.
"Coaches strongly advise taking the pre-spring course," says Georgia Center Chris Hammond. "If you want to play, you do it." For the player who does not show up for a conditioning class at Georgia, punishment can take the form of extra work. "If you didn't go you'd be in a lot of trouble," remembers Brad Johnson, a senior fullback in 1968. "I don't think there was any question but that it was mandatory. Somebody always took roll. If you missed, you had to go out on the dawn patrol at 5:30 a.m. They'd run us up and down the steps of the Coliseum."
At North Carolina and North Carolina State pre-spring drills aim at conditioning rather than combat, but there is no mistaking that attendance is virtually mandatory. At State, for instance, the program is advertised in the student newspaper as the North Carolina State Physical Education Club, which holds meetings five times a week for four weeks from four to 5:30 p.m. Missed sessions are made up on Saturday.
"The coaches stress the fact that you have to get in there to do well in the spring practice," says Defensive Back Mike Stultz. "They don't tell you that you have to go, but if you want to play you know you have to." And Tackle Allen Sitterle says he would have volunteered anyway, a fairly common reaction on the part of many players. "The pre-spring drills aren't all that punishing. And every drill helps you. I think the end justifies the means."
North Carolina players this year were allowed to choose either of two 45-minute sessions that met every other day for a total of five workouts and were required to take part in a weight-lifting program on all other days. Absence was inexcusable. Two players were late getting back to school after the 1971 Gator Bowl and missed a few pre-spring drills. As punishment they had to attend all of the remaining drills, both sessions each day.
"The activity is so concentrated in those 45 minutes," says Linebacker Tom Jones, "it's hard to believe that a player could endure an extra 15 minutes, let alone another session."
"If you vomit," says lineman Ken Huff, "the coaches tell you to vomit on your own time, not theirs, and to keep on running. The idea is to get a little projection in your vomiting so you don't get it all over yourself."
At Wake Forest, another Atlantic Coast Conference school, the "voluntary" pre-spring program is a course listed in the catalog. It meets for approximately 45 minutes a day four times a week. It covers running, exercising, man-on-man isometrics, wrestling and weight lifting. Players here wrestle for 30 seconds and then are done, win or lose.
"We're not going to penalize a kid for not being good," says Head Coach Chuck Mills, who is concerned about player abuse in practice sessions. "I don't want my dignity attacked, so why should I do that to players? When my kids leave I want them to say they wouldn't mind doing the same thing again."
The list of pre-spring violations might be endless, and yet where is the real violation? NCAA rules permit pads, and thus hitting, from the opening day of spring practice. As a consequence, many coaches feel forced to move beyond the line of legality in order to avoid injuries to their players, hence the conditioning programs. Many players resent the imposition on what should be free time, and dread the additional physical demands, especially the aspects designed to test and promote personal aggressiveness. But the same ones often see some benefit in it for themselves.
"It's a drag and a lot of guys talk against it," says Jack Carter, a 235-pound defensive lineman at the University of the Pacific. "But most of us agree it's good for us. It's like a payroll savings plan: you wouldn't do it unless you were forced. If we had the choice, we'd probably pick a recreation like lying on the grass under a tree."
Frank Navarro, the head coach at Columbia and a member of the American Football Coaches Association's ethics committee, views the problem with some detachment, since Columbia has neither spring practice nor conditioning programs. "The problem isn't pre-spring drills, but spring practice itself," he says. "Once somebody starts conditioning players to get ready for spring practice, everybody has to do it to keep up. And the season is already too long now."
Joe Paterno of Penn State is one coach of a major football power who does not attach much importance to winter programs. Penn State has a pre-spring session, and Paterno says he encourages freshmen to attend because he thinks it helps prepare them for the rigors of their first spring practice. But very few upper-classmen attend, and there is no penalty for failing to do so.
"With the 11-game season we now play and the fact that we usually go to a bowl, plus the 20 days of spring practice, the season is long enough," Paterno says. "There is no good reason to have a winter program any more. I don't think college football players should have to prove themselves all year round."
A somewhat different view is held by Coach John McKay of Southern California. He feels that he has a moral responsibility to see that the young players under his charge are physically ready for the demands of spring training. He says he would be negligent if there was not some type of organized conditioning to get them ready. USC players are "invited" to enroll in a January-to-June physical education class—including weight lifting, running and agility—open to all students. Players out for spring sports, about 25% of the football team, normally do not take the class.
"If you don't have this type of winter program," McKay says, "and you leave it up to the players, they will show up on the first day of spring practice in terrible shape. It would be a bad health practice on my part to allow players to begin with pads on the first day of spring practice without proper conditioning."
At Georgia Tech both Head Coach Bill Fulcher and Athletic Director Bobby Dodd strongly advocate abolishing spring practice altogether. They would like simply to bring the players back to school a little earlier in the fall.
"You really don't get any continuity from spring practice," Fulcher says. "By the time you have it and get it over with and then send the guys home for the summer, they've lost whatever conditioning advantages they had gained."
Georgia Head Coach Vince Dooley and his athletic director, Joel Eaves, see a value in spring practice, but they would like to have it modified.
"I'm probably classified as a nut," says Eaves, "but I think this: Pre-spring conditioning is necessary to get an athlete in shape for spring practice, so we should combine the two activities. Vince and I think that 10 days of pads in the spring would be enough, if you were given, say, three weeks to get everybody in shape. In those three weeks let your coaches teach your players fundamentals without pads. If everybody would do this, and we were forbidden to go out and scrimmage in that period, it would work.
"The problem now," Eaves concludes, "is that everybody has to keep up with the other guy. Let's put it on the table. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing anyway."