Commentary

Commander-in-chief greets coaches at end of Middle East trip

Updated: May 26, 2008, 10:07 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Ivan Maisel is traveling with Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, Georgia's Mark Richt, Miami's Randy Shannon, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis and Yale's Jack Siedlecki on the coaches' tour of the Middle East. He has been updating this trip diary regularly since Tuesday, May 20, and will take a deeper look at the journey beginning Tuesday, May 27.

Monday, May 26

WASHINGTON -- When Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville and the other four coaches arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland from their six-day visit to U.S. military personnel in the Middle East, the Air Force arranged to whisk them to the White House for a meeting with President George W. Bush.

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Todd Van Emst Tommy Tuberville, flanked by his fellow coaches, talked to the media after meeting with President G. W. Bush at the White House.

Tuberville once had the nickname The Riverboat Gambler because of his willingness to make play calls that defied conventional wisdom. He is not intimidated by power, whether it's on the other sideline or in the Oval Office. Tuberville greets it on equal terms.

In a brief meeting in the Oval Office, Bush presented each of the coaches with a tie clip and a golf ball, each with the presidential seal.

"You need to get rid of all this stuff," Tuberville said, referring to the fewer than eight months remaining in Bush's term. "Your wife's not going to let you bring it home."

Bush chuckled and agreed.

The visit to the White House came after a 15-hour flight from Southwest Asia that had a few white-knuckle moments. Headwinds of more than 100 knots forced the KC-135 tanker to use so much fuel that when the plane got over Ireland -- the point of no return before crossing the Atlantic -- the nine-member crew from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas considered turning back to refuel at RAF Lakenheath in England.

Once the crew decided to press on, however, the headwind dropped to 20 knots. That's the way the coaches' tour went -- as smoothly as possible, given the tremendous logistics involved in carting two dozen civilians some 8,000 miles to visit three countries and a U.S. Navy ship in five days.

On the way to the White House, someone reminded the coaches to have some identification ready.

"Can't we just say we're with Charlie?" Mark Richt of Georgia said, teasing Charlie Weis of Notre Dame.

They needed no identification. A few of the coaches had no trouble acting as if they had been there before. Weis was an assistant coach on four Super Bowl winners. Richt, Tuberville and Randy Shannon of Miami have made at least two visits as players or assistants on national championship teams.

The fifth coach, Jack Siedlecki of Yale, is no stranger to the president, who graduated from the Ivy League school in 1968.

Once the bus moved through the gate -- after a bomb-sniffing dog moved quickly through the bus, ending with a nuzzle of Richt -- the coaches and eight other members of the tour moved quickly into the Oval Office.

The coaches gave the president their impressions of the trip. He, in turn, thanked them and gave them a tour of his office and the mementos of American history with which he had decorated it, including portraits of Lincoln and Washington.

After the meeting, Bush and the coaches walked slowly through the warm sunshine bathing the South Lawn to meet with the media.

"I wanted them to know how much I appreciate [their] going to say to these young men and women, 'Thanks for what you're doing,'" the president said. "This is Memorial Day. It's a day to honor not only those who have died in combat, but it's to honor those who continue to serve. And these men make a living motivating young men on the football field, and I am absolutely confident that when our soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen and Coast Guard men and women met them that they inspired them."

Bush concluded by saying, "I'm grateful to you all for going, and I'm really grateful that you expressed the gratitude of the American people."

Weis, speaking on behalf of the coaches to the press pool, described it as an "unbelievable experience."

"We just wish we could have brought our players over there, you know, the 18- to 23-year-olds that we deal with, so they could see what maturity looks like at a young age and teamwork to the utmost," Weis said. "I tell you what, on behalf of all five coaches, I can -- it was just an invigorating experience, one that we'll always treasure the rest of our lives."

Later, Siedlecki told the media, "They impressed me more than I impressed them."

In the end, it might have to be called a draw. Both the coaches and the military -- up to and including the commander in chief -- couldn't have been more delighted.

(Editor's note: Senior writer Ivan Maisel will have more notes and features from the 2008 Coaches Tour later this week.)

Sunday, May 25

U.S. AIR FORCE BASE, SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Midway through the second half, Mark Richt turned to his co-head coach, Tommy Tuberville, and said, "Hey, coach, we're both pretty good on the road." It may have been a 112-degree Sunday on Memorial Day weekend, and according to the signpost in the middle of the base, the Georgia and Auburn coaches may have been 8,023 miles from the Sugar Bowl. But still, the Southeastern Conference won.

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Todd Van EmstNo grass? No problem for these coaches, who spent Sunday coaching flag football teams comprised of U.S. service members.

On the final day of the 2008 Coaches Tour in the Middle East, the SEC flag football team coached by Richt and Tuberville hung on to defeat the ACC team coached by Randy Shannon of Miami and Jack Siedlecki of Yale to win the UnderArmour Bowl, 14-12. The SEC had to knock down a two-point conversion with no time remaining to keep the game from going into overtime.

The game capped a day in which the coaches toured the home of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. They watched from the support vehicles that guided a U-2 aircraft as it took off and then they went into a hangar and signed a U-2 aircraft on its nose. They also got to eyeball a Global Hawk, an unmanned surveillance plane, and tour an AWACS plane that stood on the tarmac.

Near her station on the AWACS, 1st Lt. Laura Ott, Notre Dame '05, posed for a picture with Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis. Ott began Sunday heartsick because she had been scheduled to go up on an 18-hour mission and would not be able to see Weis.

"I can't believe it," said Ott, who's from Gainesville, Fla, "the one day that Charlie Weis is here, we would be gone all day."

When she was walking to her plane, her crew told her to turn around because they had scheduled someone to take her shift.

When Army Pvt. Mattice Parks-McLean of Killeen, Texas, approached Siedlecki in the autograph line, he told the coach that he had attended his summer camp in 2006. He and several of his Shoemaker High teammates decided to go to Yale.

"His camp was great," said Parks-McLean, who played running back. "It actually had one-on-one instruction. The coaches helped us out. They were in our faces, pushing us more than we thought we could go."

Bulldogs running backs coach Larry Ciotti showed Parks-McLean how to secure the ball.

"I used to carry the ball like a loaf of bread," Parks-McLean said. "He told me to hold it to my chest and hold it with my hand instead of my fingers. It helped a lot."

After fumbling five times in his junior season, Parks-McLean didn't fumble as a senior. But he did blow out his right knee late that season. The recruiting calls dried up, so he joined the Army -- and played for Siedlecki.

"Two years ago, he was in the Yale Bowl playing a camp game," Siedlecki said, shaking his head. "Now he's here."

The flag football game took place on an 80-yard sand field that airmen created six months ago during their off-duty time. When Col. Dave Funk, the base commander, pointed out the field to the tour group from the front of the bus, and Weis asked, "Are we going to water the grass before the game?"

A few hours later, as the same bus brought the coaches to the field, someone announced that a coach needed to volunteer to serve as referee. Weis snapped it up.

"I'm going to screw the SEC," Weis said, looking for a reaction.

"It wouldn't be the first time," Tuberville shot back.

The game began a little after 5:30 p.m., with the sun low in the sky at about midfield. A base fire truck arrived to provide a generator for the portable game clock. In most games, the national anthem is played before the game. Here, the game screeched to a halt in the middle of the first 20-minute half when the national anthem came over the camp loudspeaker at 6 p.m.

In flag football halfway around the world, as well as in the SEC, the game comes down to talent. The SEC team included 1st Lt. Rob McMenomy, who played tight end at Air Force from 2002-05. McMenomy coached a base team to a flag-football championship here in March. His team at McGuire AFB in New Jersey is also a champion.

Each team scored a touchdown and missed a two-point conversion in the first 20-minute half.

In the second half, the SEC quarterback, Airman 1st Class Anthony Black of Quincy, Mass., threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Staff Sgt. Matt Drangstveit of Sioux Falls, S.D., with 5:27 to play. The two-point conversion proved to be the final margin. Black won the Game MVP Award.

When Black came off the field, Richt told him to stop and face him. Then the two-time SEC champion coach performed a chest bump with the Air Force enlisted man.

"For some reason, I felt comfortable," Black said. "I could talk to him one-on-one. When you see them on TV, you think it's so different. The things we were doing were the same things you did in high school."

Black couldn't convince himself of that regular-guy stuff. "I can't believe I just played football with that coach," he said "It's amazing."

When the ACC's two-point conversion failed, the SEC team lifted Richt and Tuberville up and carried them to midfield. Tuberville held up seven fingers. There are six months, by the way, until Auburn attempts to win its seventh straight against Alabama.

After a steak-and-lobster dinner with the entire base in the outdoor pavilion, the Coaches Tour 2008 was scheduled to leave at 2:45 a.m. local time, Monday to fly to Andrews Air Force Base. After meeting generals and fleet commanders, the coaches will be welcomed home in the White House on Monday afternoon by the commander in chief himself.

Friday, May 23

ABOARD THE USS NASSAU, AT SEA -- The USS Nassau runs on diesel that fuels two steam propulsion plants, if you want to be technical about it. But anyone serving on this amphibious assault ship, from the youngest seaman to the commanding officer, will tell you that what really fuels the Nassau is morale.

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Todd Van EmstThe combine and question-and-answer session gave military members at sea a taste of the football life.
The five college football coaches visiting American military personnel in the Middle East arrived at just the right time.

"We just got to the halfway point of this deployment," said Lt. Ike Stutts of Decatur, Ala. "You're excited to be halfway done, [but] you're really down. We have that [loss of] morale up. You have to worry that all anybody is saying is, 'Same thing today.' It's very 'Groundhog Day.'"

If you ever saw that 1993 film, then you understand why Friday became the day on the Nassau when the DJ interrupted the replay of Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You Babe." From the moment that the 2008 Coaches' Tour landed on the flight deck in a CH-53 helicopter, the same ol', same ol' ceased to exist.

"There are some pretty rabid fans on this ship," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Edgar of Marietta, Ohio. "It's a pride thing. … For a lot of guys, that's how they define where they're from."

During the 24 hours on the Nassau, the coaches -- Mark Richt of Georgia, Randy Shannon of Miami, Jack Siedlecki of Yale, Tommy Tuberville of Auburn and Charlie Weis of Notre Dame -- toured the Nassau, signed posters and T-shirts in the crew mess Friday night and held a question-and-answer session in the hangar bay on Saturday morning.

The response from the 1,147 men and women on board resounded with joy and excitement. The only visitors they have received since they left their home base in Norfolk, Va., in February have been Navy brass.

When Seaman Paul Crosby spotted Weis in a passageway during the ship tour, his face lit up.

"I'm from Indianapolis!" Crosby said.

Weis, assuming he could bond with a fellow Indianan, offered his hand and said, "That's what I'm talking about! Give me a little something!"

Crosby, who's actually from Greenfield, Ind., may be a Fighting Irish fan. But he confessed to Weis, the former New England Patriots' assistant: "It's nice to like you finally. I'm a fan of the Colts."

The tour took the coaches from the well decks to the bridge of the ship that the Navy calls Top Gator. Afterward, the visitors stopped being tourists and started coaching again. Welcome to the Under Armour USS Nassau Combine, surely the first football combine ever held on the flight deck of an assault ship at sea.

The coaches did their best to make the flight deck look like a practice field, although you would have to squint real hard not to notice the 360 degrees of salt water meeting horizon. With small red cones, the coaches marked off a 40-yard dash, 20- and 60-yard shuttles and a three-cone drill.

"That's a pretty good setting for having a 40-yard dash," Tuberville said. "You can always have the wind at your back."

The no-skid flight deck might keep helicopters from bouncing and blowing about, but the 10 men who competed in the running drills slid around as if they had entered the French Open. Most of them looked like Master At Arms Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Sanders of Pensacola, Fla., a former high school wide receiver.

"I've always had a competitive spirit," Sanders said, "but here I'm 23. I'm getting into my has-been years."

Tuberville manned the starting line. Shannon operated the stopwatch at the other end. When Weis walked up, he shouted at Shannon, "I'm going to run the 40, Randy. Ready? Got a calendar?"

Airman Bryan Blackler of Waldoboro, Maine, took the 40 with a 4.98, the only sub-five time. Blackler, 21, said he won 12 letters in five sports, none of them football -- his high school didn't field a team.

After the running drills, the combine moved to the ship's weight room, where each participant did as many reps as he could of 185 pounds. When it ended, Airman Romaine Taylor and Seaman Courtney Taylor had tied for first place.

At the end of the Q and A with the coaches Saturday came the awards ceremony, with prizes ranging from Under Armour shirts to signed posters to signed footballs for Taylor and Turner.

Now that college football has overtime, there couldn't be a tie. Taylor and Turner were summoned to the front of the assembly, where Shannon refereed the playoff: a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Let the record show that Taylor won in the second round, paper covering rock.

Thursday, May 22

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar -- We all have our heroes. For Sgt. 1st Class Curt Straub of Brunswick, Ohio, there is Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.

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Todd Van EmstThe coaches spent Thursday signing autographs and meeting the troops.

"I met one of the biggest Notre Dame fans of all time," said Weis, who would have to be considered one of the leading judges of that species.

When Straub saw Weis at Camp As Sayliaha, he made the contestants on "The Price is Right!" look like Buddhist monks. Straub held his hands up to a TV camera and said, "Look! I'm shaking!"

Later Weis said, "he said, 'Coach Weis, this is the greatest day of my life.' I spent five minutes with some kid in the desert. Can you imagine?"

Straub not only met Weis, he used him to awaken his father from a deep, middle-of-the-night, American sleep.

"I got somebody on the phone who wants to talk to you," Straub said.

An Air Force captain at a question-and-answer session with the members of the 2008 Coaches Tour prefaced his question by saying, "You guys are my Brad Pitt. You guys are my Tom Cruise."

As the audience clapped and hooted, the captain added, "I would rather not talk to anyone else than you guys right now."

Yes, the coaches complete him.

The coaches -- Weis, Mark Richt of Georgia, Randy Shannon of Miami, Jack Siedlecki of Yale and Tommy Tuberville of Auburn -- visited military personnel at two bases Thursday, signing untold number of autographs, shaking hands and talking. It wasn't even the thousands of T-shirts that they gave away. Under Armour, the sponsor of the tour, sent 1,900 shirts to dole out to the service members.

Weis brought 5,000 to 6,000 thousand of the official Fighting Irish T-shirt from the 2007 season.

There is Siedlecki himself, when he answered a question drawing parallels between the leadership skills needed by coaches and officers.

"I cannot believe how proud the people, every guy here, how proud they are of what they're doing," Siedlecki said. "I'd love my football team, all 110 of them, to have the integrity and attitude that you guys have."

We all have our heroes, and with no disrespect meant to any of the hundreds and hundreds of service members whom the coaches entertained, I have found mine.

I found a Navy pilot who used to be a sportswriter.

I didn't know this Rick Dorsey, the Lt. JG Dorsey of P-3 3quadron VP-26 who came up and reintroduced himself to me in Memorial Plaza, the open-air tent where the coaches signed autographs and mingled Thursday night. I knew Rick when he worked at The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. Dorsey graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, which is pretty much the Harvard of hacking. He covered plenty of SEC football and three or four Masters. He covered all the events that make my business fun.

In 2001 -- "Before Sept. 11," he said -- Dorsey decided to join the Navy, looking for a way to fund graduate school. He wanted to become a teacher. Instead, he got accepted at Officer Candidate School. So he's flying a P-3 patrol plane around the Middle East, helping to clear paths for ships in the Persian Gulf, helping the coalition forces on the ground.

"When you go out and clear a convoy and help it get from Point A to Point B, you're not going to see that on the news," Dorsey said, "that you helped somebody get their mail, their food. You flew and nobody died, that's a good day."

It's hard to believe that someone would give up sportswriting for securing freedom. But who am I to judge?

With all the Stephen Colbert in me, I asked Dorsey to admit that flying a Navy plane in the Middle East wasn't as tough as sportswriting. Dorsey started talking as if he had thought about it.

"They're both the same in that every day is so different," Dorsey said. "You go to a game and you don't know what to expect. You fly to an area and you don't know what to expect."

The more we talked, the more the sportswriter in him began to break out. He doesn't miss the deadlines.

"Every year, in the middle of March, I don't like being in the military," he said. "That's March Madness and the time leading up to the Masters."

He will rotate back to his base in Maine this summer, where he will reintroduce himself to Susan, whom he married last fall. As we began to say goodbye, his face brightened.

"In Augusta, this is the day when they open the course to the writers," Dorsey said. "I know this because every Thursday before Memorial Day, I got to play Augusta National."

Giving up a round at Augusta National to serve his country? You have your heroes. I found mine.

Wednesday, May 21

LANDSTUHL, Germany -- Air Force Technical Sgt. Christopher J. Frost sat up in his bed in the intensive care unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on Wednesday morning. The remains of his breakfast sat on the swivel table next to a reissue of "Oil!" -- the book that spawned the Oscar-winning movie, "There Will Be Blood."

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Todd Van EmstGeorgia coach Mark Richt spent time with Army Sgt. Lamarkis Singleton at Landsthul Regional Medical Center.

In a semicircle around his bed, from Frost's left to his right, stood coaches Mark Richt of Georgia, Charlie Weis of Notre Dame, Jack Siedlecki of Yale, Randy Shannon of Miami and Tommy Tuberville of Auburn, as well as a handful of others participating in Coaches Tour 2008.

Displayed before them on top of the bedcovers, well south of Frost's right knee, sat a purplish stump. His right foot and ankle are gone, lost in a roadside bomb explosion Sunday. One soldier died and two others in the vehicle occupied other beds in this ICU. Frost, a former wrestler at Chico (Calif.) State, also had stitches in a 90-degree pattern below his right eye.

"It was such a big explosion," Frost told his visitors, "like 700 pounds. It picked the floor up on me. All this," he said, pointing to his right eye, "is from my rifle butt. I had it on a sling. That floor hit the rifle and pushed the rifle up into my face … cut myself up pretty good."

"Actually, your face doesn't look too bad, to tell the truth," Weis said.

"Well, you know," Frost said, "I wasn't pretty before. It wasn't far to fall."

The coaches smiled, and any apprehension that might have been in the room dissipated like a bad odor.

The Air Force tanker transporting the coaches to the Middle East had to be refueled at Ramstein Air Force Base, a two-minute bus ride from the hospital. The organizers of the trip stretched the stop to two-and-a-half hours so the coaches could squeeze in a quick trip to Landstuhl.

The coaches moved quickly though the hospital, spending only a few minutes with any of the wounded or injured. There is a difference -- Army Sgt. Lamarkus Singleton, two months into his tour to Afghanistan, tore the patellar tendon in his right knee playing basketball. He got evacuated to Germany and underwent surgery Tuesday. Richt chatted up Singleton, then Tuberville walked into the room.

"Bulldog or Auburn Tiger?" Tuberville asked.

"My wife and her family are Auburn fans." Singleton said. "My family is Roll Tide fans."

Someone pointed out to Singleton that the Auburn coach stood at the foot of his bed. No one in the room wore crimson.

"Here," Tuberville said giving Singleton a souvenir coin commemorating the Auburn coaches' trip. "Give this to one of your Auburn folks."

Weis went up one floor to see a former Notre Dame student. Miami coach Shannon stopped to talk to a wounded soldier from Louisiana. As they talked, they figured out that Shannon had recruited him to play linebacker at Miami. (The patient did not grant permission to use his name.)

Shannon walked out of the room with a stunned smile on his face.

"Unbelievable," he said.

Frost is scheduled to undergo one more surgery Thursday, and doctors expect him to be transported to Walter Reed Army Hospital back in the U.S. on Friday. If one quick meeting is any indication, Frost's roadblocks to recovery will be physical, not mental.

"Well, there are only two ways to go," Frost told the coaches. "I'd rather go forward."

As the visit wound up, Richt told Frost to contact the football offices of any of the coaches if he wanted to go to any one of their games.

"OK, roger that," Frost said.

Afterward, Richt marveled at Frost's attitude.

"He sure didn't act like he was feeling sorry for himself," Richt said. "He seemed to have no bitter feelings. … I think those guys were more happy to see us because we cared about them than they were any kind of football fans. They weren't. They appreciated that we cared enough to show up."

Tuesday, May 20

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- The college football coaches who are leaving Tuesday to visit U.S. troops in the Middle East are doing so to bring a piece of home -- the Saturday-afternoons-in-the-fall piece -- to the young men and women working so hard so far away.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is going in order to honor the troops. But he's also going in order to honor his father.

"I was fortunate," Tuberville said. "I grew up with a military dad who fought in World War II. … He was in the Army and drove a tank. He drove a tank down the middle of Paris when they liberated it."

Tuberville and his fellow coaches, Mark Richt of Georgia, Randy Shannon of Miami, Jack Siedlecki of Yale and Charlie Weis of Notre Dame, are the unusual stars of this trip, organized by Armed Forces Entertainment and a private firm, Morale Entertainment.

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Todd Van EmstTommy Tuberville talked with senior airman Christopher Guleff at Scott Air Force Base on Tuesday before the coaches left for the Middle East.
The typical AFE trip features a comedian or a musical act and consists of six to eight people for as many as 30 days. On the coaches' tour, those numbers are pretty much reversed. A traveling party of 25 will depart from here Tuesday afternoon to go and return to Andrews Air Force Base on the afternoon of Memorial Day. In those seven days, the coaches will travel across the Middle East.

Through it all, Tommy Tuberville will be thinking of his dad. Charles Tuberville went into Europe days after D-Day. He fought in the bitter winters in Belgium. He suffered shrapnel wounds, went into a hospital in Switzerland and returned to the front.

"He was in the battle of Ardennes," Tuberville said. "He wouldn't talk about it too much. He said, 'You can imagine being 18 years old, in a foreign country, not knowing anybody, freezing to death.' He said it snowed all the time. It snowed all the time. He said [they] didn't have anything to eat, you know, very little. He said your boots were about half worn out. You didn't have things back then like they do now.

"He said he was scared slap to death. 'Everybody was getting killed, right of me, left of me,'" Tuberville recalled his dad telling him. "'You didn't know when your time was coming.' They're all wars. But that wasn't a bombing war. That was a lot of combat."

Charles Tuberville returned home, started a family and joined the National Guard, in which he rose to the rank of master sergeant.

"I used to shine his boots," Tommy Tuberville said.

Tuberville recalled how his family ate dinner at 5:30 p.m. every weeknight so that it could watch the CBS Evening News and see anchor Walter Cronkite announce the number of American dead and injured in Vietnam. As Tuberville prepared to leave for the Middle East, his father returned to his side.

"It brings back a lot of memories of being around him and what he liked," Tuberville said. "I mean, he thought a lot of the military. It put him in harm's way, but it also saved his life, in terms of learning how to deal with a lot of things. He was a hard worker. It taught him discipline, work ethic. It's a lot of what we teach them in coaching."

In the summer of 1977, at National Guard camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Tuberville's father suffered a heart attack and died. He was 53.

"Same age as me," Tuberville said.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com