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Friday, August 8, 2003

Bedore

Woodling: NCAA mandates practice precautions

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Gunga Din couldn't have found work in a college football camp in the middle of the 20th Century. Water boys were for men in pith helmets, not football helmets.

"We weren't allowed a drop of water," Don Fambrough told me as he watched the Kansas University football team practice the other morning. "It's a wonder we all didn't die."

Post-practice was different, though, when Fambrough wore a Jayhawk uniform in the late 1940s. When drills ended, KU coach George Sauer would allow his parched players to moisten their mouths. That's all they could do, though.

"Coach Sauer had his assistants follow us around to make sure we didn't swallow it," Fambrough related. "We just swished it around in our mouths and spit it out."

Today, of course, football players are carefully hydrated during planned water breaks. Any sign of heat-related distress is treated with dogged concern. Yet athletes still succumb every now and then from heat-related causes.

Now the NCAA has mandated unprecedented restrictive rules for preseason practices, starting with a five-day acclimatization period. Most radical of the changes is to cut the staple of preseason drills -- two-a-days -- in half. Coaches always have relied on two-a-days to whip their players into shape. Now two-a-days have been reduced to once every other day.

Many old-school coaches -- and probably many new-school coaches, too -- believe the NCAA is once again guilty of superfluous legislation.

Florida Atlantic's Howard Schnellenberger, a man who has been coaching since Amos Alonzo Stagg was a boy, told the Orlando Sentinel facetiously: "I'm surprised they don't tell me I can't show up at work until 8 and that I have to go home and kiss my wife by 9. We don't need the NCAA or anybody telling us we can have 18 hours or 20 hours in a week (for practice)."

Kansas coach Mark Mangino, in only his second year as a head coach, is more diplomatic, yet feels the same way.

"With all the tragedies in college football and pro football and even baseball," Mangino said, "I can see why the NCAA wants there to be precautions. But I would prefer they have faith in the coach to make good decisions."

What Mangino is saying is that contemporary coaches listen to team doctors and trainers. If a doctor says a player shouldn't practice, that player doesn't practice. No questions asked. If a trainer suggests more water breaks because of the heat, extra water breaks are automatically included in a revised schedule. That's standard operating procedure.

Those of you who have read the book or seen the movie "The Junction Boys" know the legendary Bear Bryant nearly caused a player to die during an inhumane preseason practice in the mid-1950s while in his first year at Texas A&M.;

In contemporary times, if Bear Bryant took players out into the brutal heat and humidity of a west Texas summer and did to them what he did to those young Aggies, they'd drop like flies.

Does that mean college football players were tougher in those days? Not tougher, really, but certainly hardened by the limited technology of their generation.

For want of a better phrase, Mangino calls this "The Air-Conditioned Computer Age."

"When I was a kid, we didn't have air-conditioning or computers so we'd leave the house after breakfast, go out and play baseball all day and then come home at six o'clock," Mangino said. "Then we'd go play some more."

Mangino's theory holds water, but there is another factor. Size. Today's linemen weigh about 100 pounds more than they did 40 and 50 years ago.

"The largest player I played with was Red Ettinger and he weighed 215 pounds," Fambrough said. "It was a different game back then."

Football isn't always a case of the more things change the more they stay the same. The game has indeed changed. The players are bigger, stronger, faster and -- as we have seen too many times -- more vulnerable to heat-related stress.

But did the NCAA really need to add still more pages to its humongous rule book in order to safeguard student-athletes? Probably not, but the new rules are like prescribing chicken soup for a cold. They won't necessarily help, but they couldn't hurt.

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