–RON ZOOK, head football coach, the University of Florida
In Every Week a Season, acclaimed sports reporter and author Brian Curtis takes readers on an unprecedented whirlwind tour of NCAA Division I football. It’s a world that breeds great drama, a world that millions watch but few understand. It is a multibillion-dollar business. It is an obsession.
To get to the beating heart of college football, Curtis embarked on a breakneck itinerary that took him where all red-blooded college football fans long to be: behind the scenes at nine big-time programs. In nine weeks, Curtis visited Colorado State University, the University of Georgia, Boston College, the University of Tennessee, the University of Maryland, the University of Wisconsin, Louisiana State University, Florida State University, and Arizona State University. He braved the rain to watch Wisconsin pull off the upset of the year; he was at Neyland Stadium to see Tennessee manage a thrilling overtime victory; he was in Tallahassee to witness Florida State’s dramatic double overtime battle for the ACC title. As added bonuses, he was with Georgia when the team fought for the SEC Championship, and on the LSU sideline when the boys from Baton Rouge defeated Oklahoma to capture the BCS National Championship. At each stop, he brings us inside the game’s inner sanctum: in team meetings and scouting sessions; on the field and on the sidelines, during scrimmages, practices, and games; at pre-game traditions, meals, and religious services; in the locker room before the game and at half-time. Virtually nothing and no one was off-limits.
Along with the players, Curtis got to know the coaches–from the young guns to the legends–spending time with them in their offices and on the road. We see firsthand the challenges of running a major college football program–when called on, coaches must serve as CEOs, PR gurus, lawyers, politicians, and policemen. We also learn of the sacrifices made by wives and children that enable coaches to keep the numerous young athletes under their supervision focused, secure, and happy.
Brian Curtis gives a no-holds-barred insider’s account that will rank as one of the most honest and accurate books on big-time sports in America. Short of strapping on a helmet, you’ll never get closer to the game.
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Read an Excerpt
Colorado State University
#23 Colorado State vs. Colorado
Fort Collins, Colorado
In the first preseason AP college football poll, Colorado State (CSU) is ranked and Colorado (CU) is not as they prepare to meet in the season opener on August 30th. The game will be played at Invesco Field in Denver, in front of 76,000-plus passionate fans. In recent years, CSU has made the match-up a true rivalry, winning three of the last four games, after being an afterthought for many seasons. CSU returns all-conference quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt and tight end Joel Dreessen. Colorado is unstable at the quarterback position but returns a veteran team that finished first in the Big XII North Division in 2002. Both coaching staffs know that a loss can be devastating to their team’s postseason hopes, not to mention a year’s worth of frustration.
• • •
“And on the seventh day, he rested.” Apparently, God is no football coach.
It is shortly after noon on Sunday, August 24, when the Colorado State coaching staff assembles in a room on the second floor of the McGraw Building. A wipe board dominates one side of the room. By the middle of the week, it will be filled with columns labeled Run Game, Drop Back Pass, Play Action/Screens—this week’s plan of attack. Above the board, in green and gold letters, is a slogan: “Communication—is the key to success.” Another board lists the names of committed recruits, and next to this list are posters. One is titled “CSU Rates” and numerically lists if a recruit is 1) a great player, 2) a legitimate player, 3) a suspect or rejected player. There are similar rating charts for Grades and Recruitability.
On this hot Sunday afternoon, the staff sits in the air-conditioned room, huddled around a table full of sodas and coffees.
“Okay, so where do we stand with the scout teams?” asks Sonny Lubick, looking at longtime assistant coach and friend Mick Delaney. Lubick’s large presence comes more from the strength of his conviction than his height. His skin is bronzed from many days in the sun and there are a few wrinkles etched into his face. He looks at his staff intently, expecting prompt and detailed responses.
Delaney explains that the scout teams could use a few walk-ons to play wide receiver, running back, and safety. The NCAA limits the number of walk-ons who can practice in preseason, but once classes begin coaches can open the doors. (Of course, most of the students who walk on are quickly disillusioned or lose confidence in their own ability to play at the Division I level.) An axiom in football is, “You are only as good as your scout team.” Having a disciplined, well-prepared scout team is essential in getting starters ready for opponents.
Attention soon turns to the first game of the season: rival Colorado. “This is probably the most even we have ever been headed into the game in Colorado State history,” Lubick states matter-of-factly, alluding to the level of talent at both schools. This is something he couldn’t necessarily say in a press conference. “We should casually get that message across to the players during practice this week.”
Lubick reminds his coaches to watch this week for penalties, poor positioning, and turnovers.
After three grueling weeks of preseason practice, it is pretty clear who the starters are, except for the punter, but all agree to give the candidates until Thursday to prove themselves. Athletic trainer Fred Oglesby walks in and hands every coach an injury report. Luckily, there is nothing major.
A final issue is special teams. Co-offensive coordinator John Benton expresses concern that so many key starters are lined up to cover kickoffs on special teams. Special teams and tight ends coach Darrell Funk, a newcomer to the CSU staff from Northern Illinois, counters that only six or seven starters are on the kickoff team. Lubick quickly interjects that the team’s top four safeties are on special teams. His philosophy is to always have the best players on special teams—starters or not.
The offensive and defensive coaches split up to begin to formulate a game plan for Colorado. This week is a bit unusual. First, it is CSU’s biggest game of the year. Second, it is being played at Invesco Field in Denver, the home of the Denver Broncos—a neutral site. Third, and perhaps most important in terms of preparation, it is the season’s first game. There is no game film to review from a win or loss the day before. No bad morale. No losing streaks. Plenty of time to prepare. In fact, the coaches have been reviewing Colorado film from last season and creating a game plan since spring practice. By the time game week rolls around in late August, much of the scouting, film watching, and game planning has already taken place. But this is football and these are football coaches, so it is done over and over again.
“I was so psyched to come in today, actually,” says co-offensive coordinator Dan Hammerschmidt, “to really get going.”
Hammerschmidt is joined in the offensive meeting by Delaney, Funk, and wide receivers coach Matt Lubick, the head coach’s son. Benton retreats to his office to work on a strategy for combating CU blitzes. Hammerschmidt asks about Dexter Wynn, a stunningly quick and athletic cornerback who had played a little with the offense in preseason. Because he is slowed by a hip injury, the coaches decide to limit Wynn to eight plays on offense in the upcoming practice.
• • •
John Benton was a graduate assistant (GA) at CSU in the late 1980s and remembers drives to Boulder, an hour away. In those days, the only place in Colorado that could develop the game and practice film used by coaches was in Boulder, so every day at the end of practice he would race to the shop to get the film developed. Air Force and Colorado were using the same shop, so if he showed up after them, the wait could be hours. He would return to Fort Collins, mission completed, where the coaches would be waiting.
But the new millennium means computers, and the reliability, expediency, and accessibility of the new technology have changed the game for coaches. Now the standard system can spit out cut-up clips in a matter of seconds. Without much trouble, a coach can make a tape consisting only of plays from the 40-yard line on third down on the right hash at night on grass when his team is trailing. The computers can get that specific. The computers are hooked up to projection screens and the images are controlled by remote.
“Beware,” Lubick says, “we can’t get too reliant on technology. You still have to go out there and coach the team and relate to them.”
But Sundays are all about film. As the offensive staff watches clips of the Colorado defense from the 2002 season, including the loss to CSU, they search for tendencies and weaknesses. Perhaps there’s a short cornerback who could be a good match-up for a CSU receiver; maybe a defensive end is small compared to his line mates so CSU could run to his side; perhaps Colorado likes to play tight man-to-man on second down. Colorado State puts in a new offensive package for the game, learning a lesson from last season when TCU and New Mexico had success playing a combination of man-to-man and zone defenses against Colorado State. They want to get standout tight end Joel Dreessen the ball and get running back Marcus Houston outside.
“This is the first game, so we try to keep things simple,” Hammerschmidt acknowledges.
Benton adds, “We have had a long preparation for this game, so at this point we are just tweaking.”
A few feet away in the defensive coaches’ meeting room, they, too, are watching film. They’re reviewing clips of the Colorado offense at work in 2002 against Oklahoma, UCLA, and, yes, Colorado State. Although the words “Keep It Simple” are posted clearly above a wipe board at one end of the room, defensive strategies are anything but. Like their offensive counterparts, the staff looks for tendencies. Lubick is a defensive guy, focusing mainly on the secondary. He spends very little time with the offense, trusting Hammerschmidt and Benton to get it done and he makes no offensive calls during games, though he may occasionally chime in through his headset, “Are we doing okay, guys?” Joining Lubick in the meeting are defensive coordinator Steve Stanard, in his first year at CSU, defensive backs coach James Ward, and defensive line coaches Jesse Williams and Tom Ehlers.
“We need to watch for backs bumping our guys outside,” Lubick comments. “We should watch for trick plays like tight end or tackle eligible stuff.”
That comment leads to a lengthy discussion about how CSU would counter. Sitting in a strategy meeting is like landing in a foreign country with no comprehension of the language. Terms fly across the room: China, Boston, Black, Zeke, Zoro, Buzz, Under Pirate 57, Over 8. The coaches throw out terms as they talk about players watching the angle of the fullback’s first steps to determine if the play is a pass or a run or to call out switches so smoothly that, as Lubick points out, “It is as nice and smooth as an orchestra.”
Eventually, the staff has a preliminary game plan. One board lists the numerous offensive formations that Colorado runs under columns headed “21,” “22,” and “10.” These numbers represent the offensive personnel groups, with the first number indicating the number of backs and the second representing the number of tight ends. For each of these groups, the CSU coaches come up with a list of defensive plays that they believe will work best against the personnel groups. As the coaches debate, discuss, and decide, Lubick asks if they will have time to put all of the sets in during practice this week, to which the assistants unanimously say yes. Near the conclusion of the meeting, around 5:00 p.m., Lubick stands up and says, “We don’t give a hoot what they do, we’re as good as them.”
The coaches all stay and work longer. The offensive staff takes a dinner break and then resumes work at 6:00 p.m., knowing they will probably be there until 10:00. On Monday morning, the entire staff will regroup at 8:00 a.m. to plan practice for the week and to meet yet again as offense and defense. After months of planning, scouting, watching film, and practicing, CSU is finally in a game week. But have they prepared enough? Have they covered every possible scenario?
Lubick is exhausted, but less tired than he was during the dawn to midnight days of the previous weeks. He retreats to his office to sign a few footballs before taking off for home. His office is not large. The walls are covered with pictures of former players who have gone on to the NFL, recent team photos, plaques from charitable foundations, a picture of Lubick throwing out the first ball at a Colorado Rockies game, a Colorado Congressional Record document acknowledging the 2002 win over Colorado. There are pictures of his daughter and two sons, as well as of his grandsons, Matthew and William. Off to the side of his desk sits a bookshelf with dozens of green notebooks full of past year’s practice plans, game plans, and notes. Resting on the upper shelves are books, including Jackie’s Nine by Sharon Robinson, Parseghian and Notre Dame by the legendary coach, They Call Me Coach by John Wooden, Tom Osbourne’s Faith in the Game, Jim Dent’s The Junction Boys, and Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. On his desk is Rick Warren’s New York Times best-seller The Purpose-Driven Life.
The office reveals little about the modest man, and even less about his humble beginnings. His rise to the top of his profession is as unlikely as his escape from a small town.
• • •
Born and raised in the small enclave of Butte, Montana, Lubick was the son of a miner in a town full of them. Remarkably, Butte has produced some of the great coaches in the game, guys like Jim Sweeney and Sam Jankovich. Louis “Sonny” Lubick, named after Joe Louis and Lou Gehrig, played high school football at Christian Brothers High and played his college ball at Western Montana, where he earned a degree in History in 1960. After high school, Lubick initially worked in the mines but after an injury, he headed off to college. Butte was a blue-collar town, and for Lubick, getting a college degree was an accomplishment. He didn’t want a life working underground.
He was first a high school coach, then was hired in 1970 as an assistant at Montana State while earning a Master’s in Administration. He rapidly rose through the assistant ranks and in 1978 was named the head coach. His first team went 8-2 but things went downhill and, by 1981, the program had slipped to 3-7. Lubick and his staff were fired. He resurfaced a year later at Colorado State as the offensive coordinator under head coach Leon Fuller. In 1985, he joined Jack Elway at Stanford for three seasons, before heading south to Miami and joining Dennis Erickson as defensive coordinator. It was with the Hurricanes that Lubick gained a national following, helping lead Miami to two national championships while playing in four title games. When Colorado State had an opening after Earl Bruce was fired in 1992, Lubick returned to Fort Collins as the head coach. And things have never been the same.
“This is a good sports town with knowledgeable fans,” says Lucky Kerig, a 30-something bar owner in town. “On game days, our place is empty. For away games, it is full.” Kerig continues, “Things changed in this town when Sonny came to CSU. He built things the right way with morality, family, and community. That’s why everyone wants to play for him. There wasn’t much before Sonny.”
Before Sonny. Before Sonny, the football program at CSU rarely won games and tried hard to pack the stadium on game days. Morale was low, losses mounted, and CSU was nowhere near the national radar. The football offices were in cramped quarters in a building next to the basketball arena, with such little space that team meetings had to be held in the bleachers of the basketball arena, sometimes during basketball practice. When the team split into position meetings, some groups were in hallways, some in the locker room, some even outside. Thoughts of a new athletic facility were never taken seriously—and considering the dismal past, the lack of enthusiasm for the football team was not surprising.
But after Lubick arrived, the Rams began winning, and with winning came a window to take the program to the next level. A new athletic center with offices, a weight room, and locker room would cost $12 million. Lubick helped raise an unprecedented $6 million in 18 months, and after the CSU students overwhelmingly passed an “athletic tax” to raise the remaining amount, the center was completed in 1998.
“It never would have happened before Sonny,” notes longtime CSU sports information director (SID) and alum, Gary Ozzello. The result is the state-of-the-art McGraw Athletic Facility, complete with offices for all sports and the athletic administration, the ticket office, and more. It is connected to Moby Arena, where the weight room was tripled in size and the locker rooms revamped.
In 2002, the University raised over $30 million for its general fund-raising campaign—almost three times the amount they raised Before Sonny. The Rams have won six Mountain West titles and gone to seven bowl games. In the 100 years Before Sonny, CSU went to just two bowl games. In the previous 40 years before Lubick’s arrival, they had just 10 winning seasons. Since his arrival in Fort Collins, Colorado State has entered the lexicon of college football, consistently ranked in the polls and appearing on television almost every weekend. He was the National Coach of the Year as named by Sports Illustrated in 1994 and the Rams rank twelfth in the nation in total victories since 1994. After just 10 seasons at CSU, Lubick is the winningest coach in school history, including nine straight winning seasons, sixth among current head coaches.
But how much farther can Lubick go with CSU? Playing in the non-BCS Mountain West Conference, the Rams would most likely have to go undefeated to be one of two at-large teams in the four BCS games. Since the inception of the modern-day BCS in 1998, no team from a non-BCS conference has ever played in the Series. This puts enormous pressure on those teams to win—all the time. But Lubick doesn’t see it that way.
“I think that is a bunch of hogwash. Everybody can be out of it. A team like Colorado, or any in a major conference, faces a tough schedule and many get eliminated early. We have just as good a chance as they do,” Lubick says.
There is at least one major difference between the BCS conference programs and all others: resources. Colorado State spends approximately $4.7 million on football annually, compared to a budget of $9–12 million for major programs that bring in $20 million in revenue and compared to just $3.4 million at CSU. As a result, the smaller schools cannot pay their coaches as much. Lubick’s package with incentives is over $500,000 and the average assistant coach’s salary at Colorado State is $77,000, both well below those at BCS conference schools. You have to wonder if that is a factor when options arise. Lubick’s name continued to pop up for jobs as recently as 2000, when he was rumored to be in line for the job at Southern California.
But for now he’s content in Fort Collins and the only thing on his mind is Monday’s practice. How is his team going to respond after a weekend away from football?
• • •
At precisely 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning, August 25, 15 staff members, including GAs, interns, and an academic counselor, gather in the staff room for their daily meeting. The group designs practice for the day, organized into 22 five-minute periods, or about two hours worth of football. Lubick asks for suggestions for practice from the group, and tries to reach a consensus on the practice schedule. They decide to finish off Monday’s practice with the first-team offense going against the first-team defense. There will be two “live game” punting situations in the afternoon session, testing the readiness of the special teams. The game is just five days away.
Defensive coordinator Steve Stanard stayed late on Sunday night. To the wipe board, he added a plethora of information including statistics about Colorado’s tendencies, breaking them down into passing and running plays and numbers and percentages. For example, when Colorado lines up in the “22” personnel group with two backs and two tight ends, the Buffaloes ran the ball 82 percent of the time, telling an opposing coach a lot about how to counter.
Hammerschmidt and Benton work furiously on charts Monday afternoon, diagramming defensive formations they expect to see in the Saturday game. There are 70 offensive plays listed on the board under the Run and Pass categories. (Thunder) Sink Rip/Liz Base 95 Strike. Thunder indicates the personnel group (i.e., “21” for that play). Sink refers to the formation. Rip/Liz tells the tight end and receivers the strong side. Base is the protection for that play while 95 Strike refers to the pass patterns run by the receivers. The coaches work on scout cards, diagramming the defensive plays that they want the scout defenses to run against their offense in practice. This process can take hours. The offensive scouting report lies on the table and it is almost 30 pages. It includes last year’s game goals and this season’s; a CU depth chart and overview; Colorado player bios taken from the media guide; diagrams of CU fronts, blitzes, and coverages. How much of this information the players absorb is questionable.
Just before noon, Lubick leaves his staff for the half mile ride to C.B. & Potts restaurant, where he holds his weekly press conference. There are beat writers, television crews, and radio guys on hand for quotes—and pizza. The walls of the place are full of CSU memorabilia: a Wheaties box with Ram alum Amy Van Dyken on the cover, CSU jerseys, pictures, the old stadium’s original scoreboard from 1949. Co-owner Kevin Sheesley, who played for the Rams in the late 1970s, laments that fan support is not as strong as it should be. “Fans are still slow to come around. We are adding 4,000 seats to the stadium. We should be adding 40,000.”
After a brief opening statement, the man at the mike holds court.
“Ticket sales have been good for the game, so we get some money back for our video equipment . . . Preseason seemed more grueling this year, maybe because of the new rules with two-a-days . . . We still have a lot of questions to address in the next four days . . . Dexter [Wynn] will be healthy and will practice on both sides of the ball . . . Probably no true freshmen will play this week . . . What does CU have in store? I can’t control it. Maybe we will send someone up there this week to look through the fence to see what they are doing.”
The last statement is a reference to Colorado coach Gary Barnett’s comments a few weeks earlier about someone watching their closed practice through a fence and posting details on the Internet.
Lubick answers questions for ten minutes before the hungry crowd heads to a buffet bar of pizza and salad. Sitting in the back of the upstairs room is Lubick’s wife, Carol Jo, who greets reporters and CSU athletic personnel with hugs and warm smiles.
After grabbing a plate of food, Lubick heads over to a table and breaks bread with five writers. He casually answers more questions, talks about the rivalry and generally seems to enjoy lunch. It is what SID Gary Ozzello calls “the weekly ‘after-news-conference news conference.’ ”
Tony Phifer, who has been covering CSU for close to twenty years, says, “It is much different dealing with him [Lubick] than any coach. He has learned to treat the media well in this state. He un- derstands it.” The Coloradoan reporter points out that Lubick has no inhibitions about letting the media know about any trouble, whether there is an injury, a player disciplined, or eligibility issues. By being so upfront, Phifer says, it often “buys him the benefit of the doubt.”
“When I started twenty-five years ago,” Lubick says, “there was only one guy that would come out to practice. Now look at the numbers. Of course, talk radio and such are looking for controversies. I still read the papers but I understand that half the articles will be positive and half negative.”
• • •
At 2:20 p.m., special teams coach Darrell Funk tells the players in the first-floor auditorium all about punt returns. He shows them clips from last year’s CU game. Raising his ire is the fact that Colorado kick returner Jeremy Bloom hit the Rams up for huge returns in last year’s CSU win, including a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“He is just a guy. Go down and knock the —— out of him,” Funk commands. “We are not going to make him bigger than life.”
Hanging above Funk’s head is a sign that reads, “Teamwork: The ability to forsake individual recognition in lieu of a common goal. Teamwork not only defines the individual but it also defines the organization.” Funk clearly embraces the philosophy and expects his players to do the same.
Twenty minutes later, all of the players are in their respective position meeting rooms for 40 minutes. In these smaller groups, the position coaches show more film and begin to reveal the game plan for Saturday. Hammerschmidt sits down with his quarterbacks, including Bradlee Van Pelt, the reigning conference player of the year. Van Pelt is intelligent, brash, and obviously comfortable with himself. If you have ever seen the football movie “The Program,” think Joe Cain. Van Pelt has long, blond hair, good looks, and a strong build. He asks questions of Hammerschmidt about the defenses and rapidly identifies blitzes while watching CU game film. Because Van Pelt is a scrambler, Hammerschmidt decides to show him, backup Justin Holland, and redshirt freshman Joey Kearney, film of the 2002 Colorado-Missouri game. Missouri QB Brad Smith also is a scrambler.
“One thing about Bradlee,” says Hammerschmidt, “regardless of some of his antics and comments, he knows his stuff and is not afraid to ask questions.”
A quick conversation with Van Pelt shows that Hammerschmidt knows his quarterback well. He is honest, wacky, and at times seems to be putting on a show. A sampling of Van Pelt, or “BVP” as he’s named himself, reveals a young man unafraid to go beyond the standard sound bites most of his peers seem content to dish out.
ON NERVES: “It is tough the night before, the anticipation. Do you know the reads? You can’t have a bad game. . . . Mondays there are butterflies when you know it’s game week, but there are less butterflies as you get older.”
ON COACHES: “You have to put all of your trust in your coaching staff. You want to trust them and hope they call a good game. Players are like chess pieces and you hope coaches put you in a position to win.”
ON TEAMMATES: “When you are dealing with players’ dreams, there is a passion. There is a lot of jealousy within our team.”
ON FAME: “At first it’s weird when kids stare at you, but you get used to it. There are more negatives with it than positives. There are rumors that you can’t control. You can’t be nice to everyone but when you are not, you’re called on it.”
ON ACADEMICS: “I think A’s require too much time. Football is my priority.”
ON PRESSURE: “During the game, the most pressure is on you. That’s what you live for.”
Van Pelt first enrolled at Michigan State, hoping to play quarterback, but was moved to defense. He had enough faith in himself to know that he could play quarterback, and he was smart enough to see that it would have to be elsewhere. He came to CSU with raw athletic talent, poor fundamentals as a signal-caller, and a heart the size of the state. He developed into a starter with formidable skills. At the start of the 2003 season, he is listed as a candidate for the Davey O’Brien Award, given to the nation’s top quarterback. A few days from the start of the season, he seems prepared to go out and back up the hype. But he’s been known to talk a little trash and he can expect a harsh reception from the Buffaloes.
• • •
In a typical game week, Monday is a light day for the players. The staff meets with the team, goes over the game film from the previous game, and the players jog and stretch. But with the opener on Saturday, Sonny Lubick is in no mind-set for an easy practice. They have a lot to cover in five days.
As the players run past Lubick during warm-ups, the coach yells, “You win today, you win this week. This is when you win.” On a cool afternoon, the players are focused yet loose. They gather around their coach before breaking into drills. “Be alert, work hard, and let’s have no mistakes today in practice,” Lubick insists. With that, the horn sounds and players sprint to various parts of the three practice fields. Punters work on kicks, the wide receivers run routes, the quarterbacks take snaps from an automated snapping machine, the linemen hit each other. Defensive line coach Tom Ehlers instructs a group of six on how to block on a double team.
“It is just like that song, ‘Get Down On It,’ ” he says.
The drills continue in smaller groups and the shouts from the coaches are punctuated every five minutes by the horn. Periods are dedicated to special teams, skellys (skeleton drills where linemen are absent), individual position drills, team versus scout, etc. A sample defensive practice plan for the linebackers looks like this:
Period 1Special Teams Period 10Scout Skelly—Bronco
2Special Teams11Scout Skelly—Bronco
3Pursuit 1211 Personnel
4Sprint Pass/Boot 1311 Personnel
5Sprint Pass/Boot 1410 Personnel
6Sprint Pass/Boot 1522 Personnel
7Scout 9 on 7 (21, Slot, Pro, Black)1622 Personnel
8Scout 9 on 7 (21, Slot, Pro, Black)17O v D (Red Zone, 3rd)
9Scout Skelly—Bronco 18O v D (Red Zone, 3rd)
The practice plans allow for a rhythm and build to full-team periods with the starters on both sides of the ball facing off. A typical practice has 18–24 periods, depending on the day of the week and what needs to be worked on. The longer days come in the beginning of the week.
During Monday’s practice, Van Pelt rotates snaps with backup quarterback Justin Holland, working with the first-team offense. After a tight end runs a wrong route, Van Pelt, a team captain, calls for the team to get focused. On another play, a scout team defender rushes Van Pelt, his helmet knocking into Van Pelt’s arm. Van Pelt cringes and holds his wrist. Hitting the quarterback is a no-no in practice. The injury is minor and he is ready to go moments later.
As practice continues, there are sounds of cars crashing—literally. The CSU practices are open to the public and media every day, and the practice fields sit alongside College Avenue, a road that is heavily congested, particularly in the afternoons. Cars often stop to gaze at the goings-on in practice, forcing the drivers behind them to slam on their brakes. Staff members say an average of three crashes per day is the norm.
Practice comes to a close at 6:00 p.m. after the team is put through long sprints down the field. Van Pelt leads the pack on almost every dash. As the players finish up and gasp for air, they gather on one knee around Lubick for some final words.
“This was not a great practice today. Our scout teams were not good. You guys need to be much better,” Lubick says, removing his baseball hat and scratching the back of his head. He is frustrated especially by the punt return coverage at the end of practice. Alluding to Colorado returner Jeremy Bloom, the player that Funk referred to in the special teams meeting, Lubick says, “Let’s get down field and get that guy.” But Lubick does make sure to hand out compliments, even to the scout players who he has just scolded. After all, a team is only as good as its scout team.
• • •
The next day at practice, after some extra time on the field and in meetings with the GAs, the scout teams are a bit improved. Practice is dominated by the booming and forceful voice of Steve Stanard, and punctuated by the more low-key approach of John Benton. There is the occasional sound of Lubick’s voice, saying something like, “Oh, gosh fellas, can we get it right?” As is typical, Lubick spends a great deal of time with the younger players, working on techniques and positioning.
“CSU is really one of the few schools that really embrace walk-ons and scouts,” remarks redshirt sophomore John Spight. “They treat all the walk-ons here well, which makes us want to play hard. A lot of the freshmen are surprised when Coach Lubick works with them.”
Most programs pay little attention to those who pay their way through school and who are often used as tackling dummies during the season. But, as we’ve seen, things are different here. At CSU, walk-ons have done good things. In fact, six of the CSU players who have played under Lubick and gone on to the NFL joined the Rams as walk-ons. Every year, there are freshmen who were told by one or more of the CSU coaches during their senior year in high school that they would have the chance to try out at CSU in the fall. So, each year, Lubick and his staff offer walk-ons an open meeting and a 30-minute tryout.
Toward the end of practice, the first-team offense and first-team defense face off for eight plays. Three plays in, linebacker Courtney Jones comes through the line and hits low on Van Pelt, knocking into his leg and throwing him off balance. Many of the players and coaches pause or let out a groan before realizing that the star is okay. Van Pelt is sharp in practice and is his usual animated self. He is Public Enemy #1 for Colorado, and not only because he torched them in the 2002 game, passing and running his team to victory. His spike of the ball in the face of a Colorado player after scoring the winning touchdown was not taken well, nor was his comment that “Colorado was the worst #7 team ever.” The newspapers and Internet chat rooms buzzed of bounties on Van Pelt. What will happen Saturday night?