Troops offer inspiration, motivation for coaches
WASHINGTON -- At one point or another over the course of five days of visiting U.S. military personnel in the Middle East, Georgia's Mark Richt, Miami's Randy Shannon, Yale's Jack Siedlecki, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis expressed the same sentiment at least once: If I only could bring my team over here to meet these guys.
One small example came through a briefing Sunday from Brigadier General Lawrence L. Wells, the commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. Wells, in explaining what his Air Force men and women do to support the U.S. mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, showed infrared video taken from one of the 380th's surveillance planes.
The video is sharp enough that Wells could point out a small group of Marines preparing to raid a house that the enemy had been suspected of using. The video showed the bad guys huddled in the back of the house, preparing to ambush.
The officers in the plane alerted the Marines on the ground. Instead of bursting through the front of the house, the Marines snuck around the back and ambushed their targets. Without the discipline and attention to detail that coaches crave, those Marines would have walked directly into harm's way.
"They were proud of their team," Weis said as the KC-135 tanker brought the Coaches' Tour to Andrews Air Force Base to Maryland. "If athletes on any level could see how important the team was, their perception would be affected."
These coaches didn't get into the business to make enormous salaries. (In one Q-and-A during the trip, Siedlecki said his first coaching job featured a salary of $1,100.) They became coaches because they enjoy working with college-age players. They enjoy molding boys into men.
That's why the soft spot in the coaches' hearts occupied by the enlisted men can't be explained by patriotism alone. When they looked at the young airmen, seamen and soldiers, they saw their own players.
Officers may prefer the stratification of rank. Head coaches establish their authority, of course, but the most successful ones worry that they don't spend enough time with their players. When Richt stopped calling plays for the Bulldogs after the 2006 season, he opened up his office to any player who wanted 15 minutes with him.
"I saw at least 90 percent of them," Richt said on the flight from Germany to the Middle East on May 22. "I got to know 'em a little better."
That's what happened on the Coaches Tour 2008. The coaches worked the mess halls at the three air bases and aboard the USS Nassau the same way that they work training tables, or pre-practice stretches, or the post-practice locker room. They chatted, they teased, they motivated. Most of all, they let the men and women know they cared about them.
"One of the soldiers said to me, 'I didn't realize you guys would talk to us like this,'" Weis said.
Weis spent the entire trip being Weis -- busting the chops of the enlisted men, bellowing, high-fiving, being the larger-than-life figure that he has projected in his three-plus years with the Fighting Irish.
Weis found some parallels between the men and women in uniform and his players. He saw some differences, too.
Football players, especially those who arrive on campus straight off the ESPN 150, expect to be catered to from the moment they arrive on campus. They have been told for two or three years how talented they are. One of the biggest jobs that a coaching staff has is relieving these incoming freshmen of the notion that they are God's gift to college football.
The armed forces long ago mastered the art of breaking down individual agendas and molding a team.
"I think these kids are forced to mature at a much faster pace [than players] because of the responsibility they are given," Weis said in the wee hours Monday, as the KC-135 tanker that transported the tour crossed the Atlantic Ocean. "If they make a mistake, it could cost people's lives. They are wise beyond their years."
Siedlecki, 56, said the similarities for him didn't end with his players.
"My [three] children are that age," Siedlecki said. "One of the first ones we met was 19, younger than my youngest kid. They look so young to me."
Siedlecki noticed the maturity of the enlisted men and women just in the course of signing posters and T-shirts for them. At each stop, the five coaches would sit at a table, meeting and greeting the people who lived and worked on the base.
"They look you in the eye and talk to you," Siedlecki said, sitting in an airport in Bahrain last Friday morning. "Every one of these kids you see shakes your hand and thanks you for being here. The maturity level is different. Some of them are 19, 20, 21. You don't see that in college kids. ... I see a maturity and a loss of innocence."
When the 2008 Fighting Irish football team reconvenes in August, what Weis saw and heard and felt in the past week just may come up.
"The first day," Weis said. "You have one day where you can't do any football. You have an orientation day. That will be the perfect opportunity to talk about the [military's] sense of team. We put signs up in January saying, 'Leave your egos at the door.' These people live that creed. If you get your team to live that creed the way these soldiers do, you'll be OK."
It's a safe bet that all five coaches will tell all five of their teams of the maturity and teamwork they saw among the United States military. And tell them again.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.