- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The stories are true, Florida coach Urban Meyer says, although he's a little sheepish about them. When he took over at Bowling Green in 2001, he brought the Falcons into the gym, chained the doors, put out the garbage cans for puking and got down to business.
"Our purpose," Meyer says, "was to get rid of people."
Twenty-two Falcons become former Falcons. The next fall, Bowling Green went 8-3, improving by six victories.
When Meyer got to Utah in 2003, he wanted the 5-6 Utes to understand that 5-6 wasn't good enough. Doors were locked. Cans were placed.
"The work ethic was questioned," Meyer said, speaking of himself in the passive voice. "The team concept was questioned, and discipline was questioned. They had to finish drills."
They finished drills, and the next fall, they finished games. Utah improved to 10-2, including five comeback victories — finish drills, indeed — and went 12-0 last fall. Meyer brought a 16-game winning streak with him to Gainesville.
The Meyer stories made their way into the Florida locker room long before the Gators began their offseason work on Jan. 18 under new strength coaches Mickey Marotti and Matt Balis.
"There was a little bit of sleeplessness the night before the first workout," senior center Mike Degory said. "I had butterflies, just like before a big game."
The official name for it is "winter conditioning." For most of us, that means some work on the quads before we get on the chairlift. For football players of a generation or two ago, it meant that you ran a little, unless you didn't.
"When I was in school," said Virginia coach Al Groh, speaking of his playing career with the Cavaliers in the 1960s, "there was no standard offseason program. It was up to what the player wanted to do. If you trained, great. If you didn't train, nobody was mad at you. A player operating like that could never hope to keep up today."
Nebraska is considered the birthplace of offseason workouts, right around the time that Bob Devaney led the Huskers to consecutive national championships in 1970-71.
"Nebraska is the one I remember really doing something with weights," retired Texas coaching legend Darrell Royal said. "We started it after Nebraska got a reputation for doing it."
For the Division I-A football players of today, winter conditioning is the time when they add strength and subtract time off their 40s. But just as there are as many offenses as there are offensive coordinators, no two strength programs are alike.
"Different people have different goals," said 'Huskers strength coach Dave Kennedy, who is a disciple of Boyd Epley, the father of college strength work. "Winter conditioning is an all-encompassing term."
For instance, there's development of strength and speed and quickness, which is different from the conditioning necessary to prepare for a game.
Either way, the workouts have become so arduous that they take the "off" out of the offseason. Not that there is such a thing. Most teams begin their work in mid-January, only two weeks after bowl games conclude. The NCAA limits offseason work to eight hours a week and mandates that players must have eight consecutive weeks of down time at some point between the seasons.
"A lot of people say two-a-days is the time to get them tough," Meyer said. "It's over by then. You better not be getting tough in August. Our whole philosophy in August is to get ready for the first game. June and July are to get ready for August. Our whole goal in the middle of February is to develop toughness. Make people make a commitment. Get in or get out."
Meyer decided he didn't have to lock the Gators inside the gym. He didn't try to run anybody off. Florida may have fired Ron Zook, but the Gators won seven games last season.
"Here at Florida," sophomore linebacker Brandon Siler said, "if you lock the chains on the doors, you can run us as long as you want to. I'm going to be the last to leave. You can't take football away from us."
Meyer understood. "There are good players, good kids, a good program," he said. "It's a young team that didn't finish."
The Gators lost to Tennessee, LSU and Mississippi State in the final seconds. That's the flaw that Meyer intends to correct through "team-building," a buzzword that corporate America borrowed from sports, which has borrowed it back.
"Team-building," Groh says, "is where you can build the relationships between the players. They get to learn about each other. They get to learn who can be depended on, who's responsible, who needs to be pushed."
Meyer, through the work of Marotti and Balis, will demand that his players become one unit. Marotti, 40, gets to the weight room as early as 5 a.m., and he stays late. He is built like an ATM machine — square and stout — but players don't push his buttons. He pushes theirs.
"A lot of things we do are pretty hard physically," said Marotti, who spent the past eight years at Notre Dame, where he worked with Meyer under former coach Bob Davie. "The other thing is to come together. ... You have to keep pushing. It keeps the group together. That's the art. Whether you're a strength coach, position coach or a basketball coach, that's the art of coaching. It's much more than an offensive line drill. How do you get the group together?"
Marotti banned cell phones from the weight room. He banned visitors from the weight room. A desk that stood along one wall had become a backpack bin and a place to hang out pre- or post-workout. The desk is gone. Meyer is a hands-off administrator, but he gave Marotti one tenet to abide by.
"In everything we do," Meyer said, "there's a winner and a loser."
The Gators are divided into eight teams, and Marotti designs drills that accomplish his strength goals through competition. Speed work is done on Mondays. Wednesdays are for mat drills, which are mainly agility exercises that were the earliest form of winter conditioning.
On Thursdays, the Gators participate in "Run for the BCS," in which they are split into eight teams and put through a variety of strength competitions and drills. The winning teams "advance" to the "Rose Bowl," while the losers move on to other bowls that Meyer refuses to identify so as not to hurt feelings.
On Fridays, no one is saying TGIF.
Instead, it's "Full Metal Jacket Friday," Meyer said, referencing the military term and the 1987 movie of the same name. "Fridays are real hard. You've got to either walk out or finish the drill. Walk out is the easy decision. Finish the drill."
Every drill that involves running has a cone at the end to designate a finish line.
"If one person on your team quits, you have to start over," Siler said. "You got to dig deep for that. On one drill we went back 10 times. You got to go back when you're that much tireder. Give your all the first time. You got to dig deep for your team."
At the end of each session are "fourth-quarter finishers," special drills that Marotti has created to capture both the players' imagination and their last ounce of sweat — and not in that order. They may be as basic as push-up competitions. The Gators flip tires. They throw 150-pound sandbags.
"I hate to say you make it fun," Marotti said. "It's not fun. It's work. But you got to make sure you make it fun."
The most fiendish is the simplest. Two players grab opposite ends of a towel. They conduct their own personal tug of war.
"It's over when you take it out of his hand or he takes it out of yours," Siler said. "If you let go, you got to go all over again. You can't even pull because your arm is stuck. Somebody is going to let go. Five seconds, 10 minutes. Who has heart? Who has will? C'mon now. Hold the towel."
He looks down at his hands. On some nights, he said, they have been so tender that he can't pick up the TV remote. He slides it along the table and punches up the channel.
"Old school," Siler said with a grin. "No gloves. Got plenty of blisters. Old school, all old school. When it's time to fight and squeeze, it's all old-school stuff. There ain't no machine that makes you squeeze like that."
The physical work the players do has borne fruit. Degory, the Florida center, has increased the number of 225-pound bench presses he can do from 20 to 25. Siler, the Gator linebacker, has put on eight pounds, up to 234.
The results of the mental work, the team-building, won't become apparent until next fall. The Gators will find out if they can finish.
"A lot of guys have to dig deep," Siler said. "It's something they instilled in us. They are pushing you when you can't handle it anymore so that the game will be easier. When your body can't handle no more, you got to pull with your heart."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The trophies may be hoisted during bowl season, but it's during winter conditioning where titles are truly won.