Maisel readers conditioned to respond

3/13/2006 - College Football

The four-part series on winter conditioning drew a lot of e-mail from current and former college athletes and coaches, some with fond memories and some with a chip on their shoulder about my not recognizing how hard athletes in other sports work. I was so sure that it would be plain to the readers that I wrote about college football. I will have to get on editor Duff. Maybe he posted it on our college swimming page.

No, we don't have a college swimming page. I am employing my two longtime friends, Sarcasm and Irony.

The responses to the series reminded me there's a whole athletic subculture alive and kicking on college campuses that we don't cover. I have walked through plenty of weight rooms in my day when non-football athletes, male and female, were grunting and sweating. But judging by the e-mail I received, I clearly haven't paid enough attention to how they interact with each other. It's a story that I would like to do, but I don't know how to do it without moving onto campus for a semester and hanging out. That's not something I could sell my editors, much less my wife.

Bet my kids would be into it, though.

So get ready to learn the difference between swim workouts and football workouts, between prone and supine, between the hard luck Paul Posluszny suffered and harder luck, and don't forget to write.

I recently read your espn.com article titled "Orange Building Bodies, Esprit de Corps." I want to congratulate you on a wonderful piece of prose. I sincerely enjoyed the emotions and memories your article conjured up for me. See, I played Big Ten football at Northwestern University in Evanston for four years. I was a two-year starter on the defensive line ('01 and '02). My teammates and I endured the same type of "punishment" and exhaustion that I know the Syracuse players felt after their Friday morning workout ended. I also suffered through winter workouts, spring ball, and the most grueling and challenging, two-a-days in hell!

I have never read an article that hit the nail on the head, so to speak, as well as yours did. You were able to genuinely capture the atmosphere surrounding the story. You successfully conveyed the feelings and mind-sets of these young men as they made the zombie-like stroll to the football facility. You effectively composed a situation where, as a player, the screams of intended motivation from Sgt. Coach made your skin crawl, stomach ache and head hurt. Nonetheless, those yells of both encouragement and criticism will provide hours of locker-room mockery among the players. And those were the best times: the camaraderie in the locker room of knowing that you, as a team, overcame harsh conditions and adversity that prepared you for victory.

I thought back on my experience at Northwestern and coach [Randy] Walker with respect to his winter conditioning program. Coach Walker was about attitude and focus, more specifically, about the "next play." One might construe it as quite weird, or even insane, to put yourself in the following situation and be asked to "act" a certain way.

You are drop-dead tired after 60 minutes of intense drills where coaches tested and challenged every last ounce of your soul. You are to finish up with 40-yard sprints that are watched over and scrutinized by every coach on staff, including the desk clerk who has made his way into the facility with coffee in hand. The mentality is, the happier and more excited you are about running the sprints, the more likely the coaches will "take it easy" on you. Everyone must forcibly make a lot of noise. You must give off the perception that this (suffering and exhaustion) is indeed fun. In some cases, guys are too worn out to clap their hands … but they must.

After your eight (usually more) 40-yard sprints are run, it is now time to put a bow on the workout. However, a teammate makes a minor mistake and back on the line everyone goes. We must start all over. And again, we are asked to "act" like we're thrilled about this without "acting" tired. The more the team messes up, the more running they must do, and in turn, the more enthused we all must "act": clapping, yelling, smiling and jumping around.

Sounds like some twisted logic, albeit effective! Based on my personal experience, I am confident that those individuals (Orangemen) who stick it out to conquer will benefit tremendously in life. Football is a microcosm of life, and whether these young men know it (despite their record next season) they will be better off down the road because of it.

Thanks for your time and the memorable commentary.

Matt Anderson

I enjoyed your article and the pictures from "Orange building bodies, esprit de corps." I opened the article hoping to steal some workout ideas from the Orangemen, but after reading was more interested in the demeanor and attitude of the program. It was nice to recognize how hard a non-bowl team was working.


Stephen Baur
Assistant Basketball Coach
Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia

That would be, as we all know, the Acadia Axemen. It would be with great pride that I would announce I know the nicknames of all the colleges in North America. If only it were true. I know they're the Axemen because of the sig on his e-mail.

Hey Ivan, if I may be so bold to ask, please, if you have the ability to get in touch with Paul Posluszny, relay to him this e-mail or simply the message that there are plenty of us out here who know exactly what he's going through. An hour before kickoff of a tournament game in North Carolina, I verbally committed to a soccer scholarship from the University of Maryland. During the game, I completely tore the ACL and PCL and partially tore the MCL in my left knee. They also had to remove about 80 percent of the cartilage from my knee. I lost my scholarship, and just recently, in what seems a cruel twist of fate, I watched Maryland win the national championship. Now, the only way I can be anywhere close to the game I love is to coach my nephew's recreational team. Not to sound ungrateful, but coaching 9-year-olds is barely in the same ballpark as playing.

Reading about Paul's emotions and his mentality for approaching this challenge brought back a lot of those emotions for me. My message for Paul is this:

Learn from this. You are fortunate not to have injured yourself more severely. Take that fortune and run with it. I was watching the Orange Bowl and could see from your emotions how much you love football, and I pray that you value every single second you're on the practice field, in the weight room and on the field on game day. As so many of us have learned (including yourself to a certain degree), everything that you've spent your life working for and playing for can be gone in one twist. When you said you felt like you were undeserving to be leading your teammates in your current physical condition, I have been in that exact same situation and felt that exact same emotion. I had been elected captain before the injury but watched my senior season from the sidelines and felt so undeserving of even sitting on the bench with the rest of my team.

You can still lead by example. Whether you're aware of it or not, your teammates notice how hard you work in rehab. They notice the extra five seconds of your last sprint in the pool. One of my proudest moments in my life was at the end of that season when a couple of the underclassmen told me that watching my struggle made them more focused and that they played just a little bit harder. So believe me, you are definitely still leading by example.

Steve Schrimpf

Steve, thanks for one of the most interesting, from-the-gut letters I've ever received. I hope Posluszny -- and everyone else -- learns from your experience. I always thought that the stand-up coaches honor their scholarship offers, even when guys get hurt. But I must be residing in Fantasyland.

I enjoyed reading your article on Tennessee football. I have one comment that somewhat disputes your article. You said, "Cutcliffe's job is to put his name back on the Tennessee offense, to teach Erik Ainge the way he taught Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Peyton's brother Eli at Ole Miss." I don't agree with this statement. I believe Cutcliffe didn't teach either Manning any more than any other Division I quarterbacks coach could have. In fact, I believe the Mannings would have performed as well with most other Division I quarterback coaches and possibly better. Cutcliffe just happened to be in the right place at the right time and lucky to have that level of talent to work with.

"Surely, winter conditioning can't get tougher than this."

Are you serious? Tell those football boys to cry me a river. As a recently graduated Villanova men's college swimmer, I can say that I wish I had it as good as they do, and that's not even including the scholarship money. Men's swimming is a non-scholarship sport, meaning I'll be paying off my student loans for the next 15 years.

"Gleaming new orange weight machines" in the windows of the football building? Our weight room was a five-minute walk from the pool -- and it's a really cold and long five-minute walk at 5:45 in the morning.

And that's not counting the walk to the pool from your dorm/parking lot.

Philly may not be as cold as Syracuse can get, but at least this year it's about comparable (I currently live and work in Liverpool, just north of SU), and the wind can blow just as hard. You make it sound like their practice was an hour. Ours were from 6-7:45 a.m., and usually ran over. It was a mad dash to the cafeteria to make our 8:30 classes -- we didn't get a special cafeteria or advanced registration to get out of bad class times or hard teachers. (Oh, and by the way -- I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering. See how many O-line communications majors can pull that one off).

"Surely, winter conditioning can't get tougher than this." Oh yes, it can. Tell these boys to go show up at the pool on a nice snowy morning at 6 a.m. We are there all winter long, and most have been doing it since before high school. And remember -- we do everything they do while holding our breath.

Bill Serencsits
Villanova Men's Swimming, '01-'05
Liverpool, N.Y.

Bill, thanks for the voice from the other side of the athletic department. You may do everything while holding your breath, but I don't think you're going to convince the football world. In other words, don't hold your breath.

It surprises me that you would choose to write an article about football players from Syracuse who have early morning workouts in Syracuse. As a varsity letter winner for the past four years at Fordham University in swimming and water polo, I find this article laughable. I have been attending 5:30 a.m. and even earlier workouts since I was in junior high school. Sure, this is the life swimmers choose, and we do not expect any respect for it, but I assure you winter conditioning for football players is not as hard as it gets.

Here at Fordham, football, basketball and even baseball players live together, and swimmers often do too. So I find it fictitious for myself, growing up in State College, Pa., where I have seen and been inside the Penn State football on-campus apartments, to believe that Syracuse does not have the same setup obviously allowing for plenty of sleep.

Perhaps this article would be better written about the Syracuse swim teams that just competed in the Big East and Luk Boral who finished second in the 200 breaststroke after winning the 200 breaststroke his freshman and sophomore years. Or the Syracuse women who also had many top 16-point scorers. Where were you at all those a.m. workouts? Ask the Syracuse football team to swim a few thousand yards in a practice at 5:30 a.m. Surely winter conditioning can't get tougher than that.

Jason Bini
Bronx, N.Y.

Between Bill and Jason, if nothing else, we have learned how swimmers are crying out for recognition. Jason, you say you're not expecting any respect, but your whole letter is asking for it, and you deserve it. You may even think the football workouts are laughable. Judging by the tone of your e-mail, you may even think football players are pantywaists. But most college football fans have no idea how much work athletes do in the offseason. That's why we did the series.

One more thing: You question the accuracy of what I saw at Syracuse because of what you saw at Penn State. That's like me covering a swim workout at Penn State and calling into question the work you've done at Fordham.

I enjoyed your espn.com column on the strength training program at Oklahoma. But just a quick note to say that the prone position is when a person lies facedown on their stomach. The sit-up position would be the supine position.

I'd guess that annoying fans like me drive you nuts. Please accept my grinning apologies in advance.

Best wishes -- I always look forward to your columns.

Derek T. Woodrum, MD
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Thanks for the correction. I am prone to make mistakes like that.
Or maybe I'm supine to make them.

Mr. Maisel, It is not even spring practice time and already you have the first article on OU and Bob Stoops and Co. Please stop! I am not from Texas or any other Big 12 school. I am just tired of (it seems like every week during the season) articles on Bob Stoops and OU as if he has some sort of Hall of Fame aura. The last 3-4 years he has not accomplished a lot compared to others (besides getting outcoached and blown out of two championship games). So, for the sanity of non-OU fans, let's spread it around a little bit. Thanks for listening.

Craig Struble
Barrington, Ill.

You know, Craig, you're right. Stoops hasn't done much, other than win the Big 12 South in three of those last three to four years you mention, and make it to two national championship games, and become the second-winningest (.824) coach active in Division I-A, and have a "down" year in which the Sooners went 8-4 and won the Holiday Bowl. What were we thinking?

I justify this comment by asking the question, since Cutcliffe had five years to recruit and teach a quarterback to replace Eli at Mississippi, why didn't he? The quarterbacks he groomed to replace Eli -- Michael Spurlock, Robert Lane and Ethan Flatt -- were total failures, thus his losing record in 2004 and ultimate dismissal at Mississippi. This leads me to believe Cutcliffe isn't the coach everyone makes him out to be. It'll be interesting to see what he does with Tennessee in the next few years. I predict he and Fulmer will be looking for employment elsewhere within two years.

Best regards,

Charles Moore
Baton Rouge, La.

I'll take the other side of that prediction, Charles, and await the results in 2008. In Cutcliffe's defense, my memory is that the presence of Eli scared off a number of quarterbacks from Ole Miss. Freshmen want to play, and they knew they had no chance of playing quickly with Eli there. Nor do I think on-field results had the lion's share to do with why Cutcliffe is no longer at Ole Miss. He had one losing season.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.