IF YOU DROVE to the University of Utah this week, hoping to get an early look at the football team, you probably couldn't help noticing something: the team wasn't there. The practice facility, locker rooms, weight rooms and football offices were ghost towns.
The reason is the Utes were on their annual preseason field trip, a.k.a., Camp Carbon.The Utes return home today after closing camp, which should come as a great relief to everyone on the team. A vacation it's not. Seven days in Price, holed up in the dorms and planning your day around a trip to the Desert Wave Pool isn't what you'd call a vacation.
Utah coach Ron McBride has been taking the Utes to Camp Carbon for seven seasons. The idea is to get them out of town and away from girlfriends, nightclubs, parties and just about anything else that could keep them from thinking about football. It's the sports equivalent to boot camp. If youmake things boring enough, there's a chance they might even start looking forward to practice.
The idea of taking teams out of town for camps didn't start with McBride; others have been doing it for years. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley took the Knicks to a camp in South Carolina when he was coaching in New York. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan annually takes his team to training camp in either Cedar City or St. George. While players moan and complain about the lack of entertainment, coaches relish it. Many coaches share the feeling that there is something galvanizing about getting away with the guys and thinking about nothing but football or basketball.
When McBride coached at Wisconsin, the Badgers went to a Catholic seminary, eight miles from Madison. The gates had guards, which had to make the players feel even more isolated from the outside world. When he coached at Arizona, the team went to Camp Cochise, a remote outpost near the Mexican border.
As far as coaches are concerned, the more remote the location, the better. You get the feeling if they could find someplace without indoor plumbing, they'd be ecstatic. Any old post-apocalyptic landscape will do. Backwoods is good, but sagebrush and dirt are even better.
Another former Arizona assistant coach, Southern Utah University's Rich Ellerson, returns with his team today from Camp Piute, in Junction, Utah. "And people say Cedar City is out of the way," he said.
The camp was held at Piute High, where there is a football field but no team. The town has no hotel, no 7-Eleven, just a general store and a gas and convenience store. Players slept on cots in the gymnasium or outside the building. Trainers set up a tent to do taping. The town has two pay phones, which the players took turns using.
On the first night of SUU's camp, Ellerson went around doing bed checks. "Why are you checking beds?" one of the players said. "There isn't anything to do."
The only television was one the trainers scrounged up from inside the school, and the reception was fuzzy.
The theory is that if you put players in a remote, foreign environment they will concentrate only on their sport. Second, it's a bonding experience.
"You have a 25-year-old married guy with a couple of kids, and a 17-year-old freshman, and they're completely different. They'd never hang out together. So you put them in the same room and they become friends," said SUU football sports information director Neil Gardner.
Whether sequestering teams in remote locales actually works is anyone's guess. It's hard to trace a successful season back to a week in Junction or Price. At the same time, they come home feeling like they've been in a wilderness survival camp.
"I think maybe you have to see this to believe it," said Gardner. "I asked the players if they were actually having fun and they said they were. I even talked to some of the traditional grumblers, and they weren't grumbling."
So if you live in some smallish out-of-the-way Utah town and see a bunch of 275-pound linemen buying up magazines at the the convenience store, don't panic. That would be the Utes, the Thunderbirds or someone else hoping to get through the week. Don't worry, they won't be in town long. They just want to learn some plays, do some bonding and get back home where they can watch cable TV.