Camps have been opening around the country with some opening on campus. Some programs however have made the choice to escape the literal and figurative heat of their home to commune with nature and each other in an effort to start the season on the right foot. This camp phenomenon is not new to the college football; however I will attempt to give historical perspective on this.
The year was 1954; Texas A&M hired a little known coach name Paul Bryant. Bryant met with his prospective players and realized that a few things were missing, among them; pride and toughness. So what does Bryant do? He takes his Aggies to a small central Texas town named Junction for ten days and the team practices in temperatures that were in excess of 100 degrees with “wet blanket like” humidity. The idea was not only to toughen up the players in his program but to prune away the dead weight in the program. Bryant believed that the Aggies, as they were outfitted, were not representative of the core values of that school (A&M is and Agricultural and Military school), so the hope was that the team would develop a sense of pride in what they were building and a healthy respect for the military roots of the school. The bi-product of this was the camaraderie that these young men (now old men) felt and the idea that they were not only playing for A&M but for each other. Why is this something that I bring up in this forum? Very simple, since the “Junction boys” there have been many programs that have employed this strategy; getting away from campus and into an isolated venue free of distractions; girlfriends, athletic posse, social, print and electronic media, and of course the temptation for players to go their separate ways after practice.
Coaches have remarked that the best thing about getting away from campus is that coaches can control the environment. They know what the players are eating; they know that athletes will not be roaming the bars, trolling for trouble in the form of a drunken mini-skirt wearing coed, or a sweaty golden bottle of beer. Coaches have often felt that even though they are knocking on dorm room doors on campus at bed check that there is never the assurance that the players are alone, sober, or ready to sneak out after bed check, many a player has been caught enjoying the nightlife by a position coach assigned to wander the nightclub district of various college towns, whats worse is having opposing coaches catch your players. However, when coaches take their teams to these remote locations where are they going to be sneaking out to? A 6’4” 290 pound muscle-bound man is certainly going to stand out in Socorro, New Mexico (UTEP ‘s fall camping site), and he will stand out even more at 2 am. UTEP is one of the programs that have adopted the idea of having fall camp in an isolated locale, which makes sense, as the summer heat in El Paso can be unbearable, as well as the call of the Juarez night life, just across the border which can be alluring to freshman in their first extended stint away from home. The son’s of Pay Dirt Pete are hoping to strike gold this season and use this time to build chemistry and instill an attitude. New Mexico will also be making the trek to Ruidoso, NM to escape the August heat in Albuquerque which is not just the 90 degree temps but the heat of coming off of a 1-11 campaign in Mike Locksley’s first year. Locksley’s Lobos lacked some camaraderie last season according to program insiders, so the fix for that is getting away from the magnifying glass being held by the Albuquerque media. The hope is the green Lobos will gain some grey; with the Lobos returning to Albuquerque a more seasoned and together pack.
Some coaches who believe that this is a recipe for success point to Arizona in 2008, with then embattled head coach Mike Stoops. The ‘Cats made the trek to Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona to escape the oppressive Tucson heat; the Sierra Vista, AZ based camp nearly a mile high but miles from the distractions that exist, including the expectations heaped on the Stoops regime if he were to retain his job provided a springboard for Stoops troops. Stoops felt when camp broke that he had a more focused and galvanized team which went on to finish 8-5 with a Las Vegas Bowl victory. Conversely, New Mexico State and UNLV both went away to camps; UNLV to northern Nevada last season, New Mexico St to northern New Mexico the year prior. Both schools parlayed those camp experiences into losing records and a search for new head coach the next off season. Bottom line is it is not always successful.
Arizona State opened its indoor practice bubble in Tempe, and has held camp on campus since then. The Devils, for years had been regular campers at Camp Tontozona in eastern Arizona, the camp was the last link to the Frank Kush era, which is seen by some as the golden age for Sun Devils football. Some of Sparky’s followers have felt that the loss of “Camp T” has changed the identity of the program and not for the better; although it could be the back to back losing seasons that have more to do with the change in identity for “Fork’em Nation”.
It should be noted that the A&M Aggies finished the 1954 season with a 1-9 record but went on to finish 7-2-1 the next year and 9-0-1 the year after with a number of seniors who were sophomores on Bryant’s first team leading the way. Going away to camp does not guarantee a bowl trip or even a winning record, it guarantees nothing; you even still have players who get suspended or kicked off the team, both UTEP and New Mexico can attest to this. The belief could be that those players would have gotten into trouble eventually had the team stayed on campus which could be true, but we do not know for certain. Fact is that with the economic crunch many athletic departments are encountering you wonder if it is wise for programs to spend money on these camps. If the result is a great season on the field, thereby increasing ticket revenue, and a huge bowl game payout then it is worth it, but if the result is a 3-9 record and a second division finish in your conference then the camp idea is not a great one. The bottom line in this is that fan bases of programs that go away to camp should not believe that success is automatic, in fact it is anything but a given.