Football lull between storms

Marvin Westwestwords

The college football off-season sure is dull. Not much happens.

Bowl attendance comparisons finally arrived. The Gator Bowl was up. It beat some of the big boys, including the Sugar and Cotton. Penn State-Memphis attracted the smallest Dallas crowd in 31 years.

Tennessee climbed a little in the AP and coaches’ final polls but not enough to trigger another Jeremy Pruitt bonus. He may have to settle for an old-fashioned raise.

Transfer portal is open for business. UConn has 23 looking for a new address. Georgia? Not so many. Believable explanations are rare.

Losing teams still looking for replacement coaches are considering adding panic to their searches. Tennessee has been there and done that.

Early enrollees got their first up-close look at Elijah Simmons. He is a Volunteer middle guard, six feet plus a little, 340 and probably plus a lot. He is shaped somewhat like the front of a railroad boxcar, almost square. Tennessee may need larger shoulder pads.

It was a shock when the rookies discovered that Simmons can dunk a basketball.

Arguments continue about which teams really deserved to be in the college playoffs. One authority proclaimed that LSU or even Clemson could beat bad NFL teams. Alabama used to be in these discussions.

The dead period ended and late recruiting scrambles intensified. Tennessee spent time and money to seek the services of a youthful Chattanooga con man, a secret Auburn signee.

Players decided what to do about the upcoming NFL draft. A really important one decided to continue in college. Trey Smith adapted Peyton Manning quotes.

Way-too-early forecasts for next season are dribbling in. Tennessee is moving on up, threatening reality.

During the excitement shortage, Boise State is suing its conference, the Mountain West.

Schools are bragging about alumni soon to appear in the Super Bowl and how many have played in past spectaculars. Two former Vols, Dustin Colquitt and Emmanuel Moseley, will perform in Super Bowl LIV. Jalen Hurd is on San Francisco’s injured reserve list. Seventy ex-Vols have played in times past.

Not much going on, right?

Well, Tennessee winter workouts are under way. That creates a contradiction. Winter workouts are not dull. They are intense. Serious hours, effort, professional instruction and top-of-the-line equipment are invested in player development.

The strength and conditioning coach, now called director of football sports performance, is responsible for increased size, power, speed, agility, explosiveness and endurance. This is a big job. Some say it is second in importance only to what the head coach does and says. Jim Chaney might disagree.

At Tennessee, this is Craig Fitzgerald’s time to shine.

While other assistant coaches are limited to essentially looking at their groups from a distance, Fitz has control of all able bodies for 20 hours a week. He is charged with setting the winter tone for the entire team. Mental and physical toughness is always a theme.

Fitzgerald is highly regarded – and compensated, $625,000 plus $41,650 bowl bonus, third largest pay package in his profession, more than Alabama spends.

Winter workouts are a relatively modern invention. Back in the old days, trainer Mickey O’Brien was responsible if anybody wanted to do push-ups while Robert R. Neyland was on fishing vacation in Florida.

Bowden Wyatt encouraged his Volunteers to stay in shape. They could lift weights or participate in racquetball or handball, play intramural basketball or sign up for a non-credit physical education class.

Doug Dickey arrived in the winter of ‘63 and was astonished to find that Tennessee had no winter workout program. He created one. It was a test of willpower, perseverance, even survival.

The Dickey search committee found but did not recommend the ugly, abandoned space under section X at Neyland Stadium. It was described as unsuitable, dirty and dreary. It had once been used for storage.

Dickey inspected, flashlight in hand. He said the room looked like something left over from the Civil War, except dusty cobwebs appeared older.

The coach could have made it better. He made it worse. Those who thought they wanted to be on his football team were going to do agility drills, wrestle, fight and scratch as if their life depended on it.

I visited the action one afternoon. The stench was awful. Several somebodies had lost their lunch.

You should have heard the tales told by Dewey Warren, Bert Ackermann and Robbie Franklin. The crowd of potential Vols thinned out. Those who stayed became champions.

Winter workouts today are plenty competitive and tough enough but the setting is beautiful. We can only hope those who happily participate achieve what the old guys did.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]

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