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Lords Of Discipline From Maryland to Missouri, from Northwestern to Alabama, a new wave of hard-line coaches is laying down the law

Oct. 22, 2001
Oct. 22, 2001

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Oct. 22, 2001

Lords Of Discipline From Maryland to Missouri, from Northwestern to Alabama, a new wave of hard-line coaches is laying down the law

All his life, Jamonte Robinson had been waiting for this man. He
understands that now. Then, on the last day of November 2000,
Robinson only knew that he was late for the first team meeting
with a new coach, a coach he figured wouldn't be much different
from the others he'd played for, authority figures who'd talked
about toughness but had always let him slide. Wasn't he a
starting linebacker, a rising senior, a star? Robinson opened
the door to the meeting room, where all the Missouri football
players had gathered with new coach Gary Pinkel. Pinkel stopped
in mid-sentence, stared at Robinson and said, "Get out!"

This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2001 issue

Robinson blinked. Heads turned. Pinkel said it again, "Get out!"
Robinson tried to explain: He'd been in class, this meeting had
come together so quickly.... Pinkel tore into him. How could
Robinson be so disrespectful? How could he be so insulting to
his teammates? The more the 21-year-old Robinson tried to
explain, the more he realized how lame he sounded and the higher
his voice rose, and he began to feel as he hadn't felt for a
decade--lost, weak, exposed. He tried to regain some swagger.
Something in Pinkel's face wouldn't let him. "I sounded like an
11-year-old boy," Robinson says. "It was scary, but he sent a
signal."

Last season, with Missouri suffering from what athletic director
Mike Alden calls a massive "disconnect" between coach Larry
Smith and the players, the Tigers finished 3-8. "If you were a
star, you could get away with anything," Robinson says. Not
anymore. Armed with the same slate of old-school rules and
obsession for detail that powered his overachieving program at
Toledo, the 49-year-old Pinkel has plugged his players into a
coaching program long thought obsolete. No earrings, no hats on
indoors, no excuses. In August players had to sign a team
covenant, espousing such values as trust and commitment, and
every Friday during the school year they must sign a truth
statement regarding class attendance, upcoming papers and tests.
During football meetings players must have their feet on the
floor and make eye contact with whoever's speaking. On the field
no one is permitted to put his hands on his knees, lest he show
weakness to the opponent--not even during a game like the
three-overtime marathon in which the Tigers defeated Oklahoma
State 31-28 on Oct. 6.

"The structure is the same as it was when I played for Don James
in 1971," says Pinkel, who was a standout tight end for the
demanding James at Kent State and served 12 years on his staff
at Washington. "As tough as things get--and we're going through
some tough times here--that will never change. I won't deviate
from what I believe in."

He's not alone. At a time when basketball players can intimidate
college coaches with only three letters--NBA--and NFL coaches
frequently are one locker room revolt from unemployment, there
seems to be a trend in college football toward coaches entranced
by the unyielding voices of Vince Lombardi and Woody Hayes. In a
bid to transform the rudderless program left behind by Mike
DuBose, Alabama coach Dennis Franchione, 50, greeted each player
in August with a 182-page policy manual and nightly off-season
curfews for players not doing well academically. North
Carolina's new coach, 51-year-old John Bunting, whose Tar Heels
pulled off one of the season's biggest upsets, a 41-9 victory
over Florida State on Sept. 22, opened camp in August by
demanding his players' car keys. At Kentucky new coach Guy
Morriss, 50, has instituted 6 a.m. workouts and took away
players' cell phones and car keys during preseason workouts.

At Maryland 51-year-old Ralph Friedgen, who's 6-0 after waiting
31 years for a head coaching job, swept away any traces of Ron
Vanderlinden's listless tenure by instituting a 10:30 p.m.
curfew, banning in-season consumption of alcohol and barring
injured Terrapins from dressing for games. He is the son of Big
Ralph Friedgen, a teammate of Lombardi's at Fordham and a high
school coach for 30 years. In 1968, unhappy as a guard with the
Terps, Little Ralph called his dad to say he was transferring.
Big Ralph told him the locks on the house were going to be
changed, because "quitters don't live here." Little Ralph tore
the phone off the wall, but he stayed at Maryland. "My dad was a
hard-nosed coach," Friedgen says, "and every successful coach
I've been around has been that way."

When he took over the Terrapins last November, Friedgen was
stunned by the number of players who'd blown off class, so he
began an attendance tracking list, updated daily by 4 p.m.
Anyone who missed class ran stadium steps the next morning at
five. "The first day it looked like a track meet out here,"
Friedgen says. "One kid hadn't gone to class for two weeks.
Finally, one cold winter morning he was wringing wet, steam was
just rising off him. I said, 'You're going to be in great shape
when you flunk out of here.' And he was."

Friedgen's reputation as an offensive guru at Georgia Tech
caught the Terrapins' attention, but nothing got them in line
faster than his crackdown. "Everyone's going to class. They
don't want to deal with the wrath of Coach Friedgen," says
senior center Melvin Fowler. "In the past four years combined we
didn't have the discipline we have now, but a lot of guys on
this team, me included, we're happy. We may not show it, but we
know this is exactly what we need."

College football's new lords of discipline hold no illusions
about bringing back the my-way-or-the-highway days. Players will
endure plenty, the coaches say, but only if they know you care
about them and you hear them out. Like Pinkel and Franchione,
Friedgen has instituted a players' council--Maryland's has 10
members--selected by a vote of the team. The council constantly
pushes him to scale back curfews, which he's resisting. However,
after a tornado touched down just beyond Byrd Stadium on Sept.
24, killing two students, the council persuaded Friedgen to
cancel practice. Still, Friedgen says, he was startled recently
when a Terp went so far as to describe him as a player's coach.
"That's the kiss of death," Friedgen says. "Most of those guys
get fired."

No one would call Northwestern's Randy Walker a player's
coach--not on the field, anyway. His drills are famous for their
toughness and precision, and he once described practice as
something akin to Pavlovian training. "You give them positives
when they run that maze the right way and find the cheese," he
said. "You shock their asses when they don't."

Walker coached at Miami of Ohio for nine years and left with the
winningest record in the history of that famed Cradle of
Coaches, beating out Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, Weeb Ewbank, Ara
Parseghian, Bo Schembechler and the most notorious ass-chewer of
all, Woody Hayes. Walker makes no apologies for admiring Hayes;
growing up in Ohio in the 1960s, who didn't? "I'm not running a
democracy," says Walker, whose team is 4-1 after Saturday's
23-17 win over Minnesota. "We're not going to take votes. I'm
going to give you a real clear picture of where this ship is
going. What I expect from you is to get on board, put your oars
in the water and start rowing."

Walker, who led the Wildcats to a share of the 2000 Big Ten
title in his second season in Evanston, tolerates no jewelry and
no backward baseball caps. His star system operates in reverse:
During preseason conditioning drills, a starter had to win every
sprint or that group would run again. "He has a higher standard
for the stars," says quarterback Zak Kustok, who transferred
from Notre Dame to play for Walker. "I don't think any other
football program in the country has as much discipline as ours
does. As far as following the details and being precise, I know
at Notre Dame it wasn't the same."

On Aug. 3, Walker's system received a horrible shock when senior
strong safety Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died from what was
ruled a severe asthma attack during a grueling conditioning
test--a series of consecutive sprints, starting with 10 100-yard
sprints, followed by eight 80s, six 60s and four 40s--that
Walker brought with him from Miami. The Wheeler family has filed
a wrongful-death lawsuit against the school and Walker,
claiming, among other things, that the defendants "carelessly
and negligently" failed to treat Rashidi, an asthmatic, after he
collapsed. Northwestern president Henry Bienen defended the
actions of the school's medical staff. He claimed that Wheeler
"did not die of bronchial asthma" and asked the court to allow
the school to further test Wheeler's blood and urine samples,
which were found to contain the banned stimulant ephedrine.
Still, the university has suspended use of the drill, and until
the NCAA finishes its review into the circumstances of Wheeler's
death, further use of the drill remains uncertain.

Walker's players remain united behind him, insisting the purpose
of such a test is to build character and confidence. Friends,
former players, even opposing coaches called in the days after,
imploring Walker not to lay off. They need not have bothered. He
never had a moment of doubt. "I have a real good feeling about
what we do," Walker says. "I've never asked a kid to do
something that's wrong or to embrace the wrong things. We do the
right things here. Our program is predicated on it. I look at
what's good, what's right, on doing things the right way--and
not just in football."

This, of course, is the big justification for football's
hard-liners: They make demands, and in turn, they make men. "We
didn't invent this stuff," Walker says. "Vince Lombardi talked
about man's innate need and desire for discipline. It gives
people ease, because life is puzzling."

Jamonte Robinson knows. When he was eight, his father died in a
gas-station explosion in St. Petersburg; when he was 13, his
mother fell into the swamp of drugs and lost custody. A strong
aunt and football diverted Robinson as he was drifting toward
the wrong crowd, but he never quite shook some of his punk
impulses. In 1999 he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment
after being accused of hitting a girl in the face at a Missouri
dorm, and Smith suspended him for one game as a result of the
incident. Meanwhile, though he'd been a key player since his
freshman year and had embraced the laissez-faire atmosphere,
Robinson knew something had been missing. "I'd been the same
size, the same weight for three years," he says. "That's good
enough to be good but not good enough to be great. Coach Pinkel
demands greatness."

In his 10 years at Toledo, Pinkel went 73-37-3, and his final
team, in 2000, epitomized his style: The Rockets finished 10-1,
led the nation in turnover margin and had the fewest penalties
in the Mid-American Conference. Pinkel describes himself as a
control freak. He dictates everything from huddle breaks to the
uniformity of the M's on Missouri's helmets. Team members had
been complaining about cold showers for years. When Pinkel
heard, the hot water flowed the next day. No Tigers coach is
allowed to curse at or lay a hand on a player.

Pinkel's affection for rules goes back to his Akron upbringing
and his parents' code of behavior, but his intolerance for
whining stems from other forces. When Gary was a teenager, his
older sister, Kathy, began to have trouble walking. Then came a
cane. Then a wheelchair. She was stricken with a disease called
hereditary spastic paraplegia, a genetic disorder characterized
by progressive weakness and stiffness of the legs. When Gary was
at Kent State, his younger brother, Greg, got the disease. Gary
was spared, but his siblings' fate has had a profound effect on
him. "It's like I'm carrying a torch for them," he says.

"I never, ever, ever, heard my sister or brother complain about
how tough life is," adds Pinkel. "So a guy comes in and tells me
he didn't go to class because his car broke down? Don't even go
there. That's the first thing I told my team in January. I don't
want to hear an excuse for anything."

No Missouri player has been more affected by Pinkel's attitude
than Robinson. Four players told the coaches that they couldn't
believe the change in Robinson. He is working harder than
ever--he blocked a field goal attempt in the third overtime of
that win over Oklahoma State--yet he continually chastises
himself for dogging it. He was elected captain, but he's sure
he's running behind, and out of time. "I'm trying to fit into
the scheme, get [coach's philosophy] to work on me, before it's
too late," Robinson says.

He and Pinkel sat down last summer, months after Pinkel had
first chewed him out, and talked about everything but football.
"He's the type of guy I wish I'd had in my life growing up,"
Robinson says. "Not a day goes by I don't wish I were a freshman
in this system. I told Coach Pinkel that."

Just as he finished telling him, Robinson began to cry.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FOSTER A show-me kind of guy Pinkel, who has a pair of siblings confined to wheelchairs, doesn't tolerate excuses.COLOR PHOTO Butt-kicking time Owing largely to Friedgen's old-time ways, the Terps are a surprising 6-0 after going 5-6 a year ago.COLOR PHOTO New sheriff in town Franchione's 182-page player policy manual leaves very little room for interpretation.
"We may not show it," says Maryland center Melvin Fowler, "but
this [discipline] is exactly what we need."

"Lombardi talked about man's innate need for discipline," says
Walker. "It gives people ease, because life is puzzling."
Pinkel admits he's a control freak. He dictates everything from
huddle breaks to the uniformity of M's on Missouri's helmets.