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Lords OF DISCIPLINE
S.L. Price
October 22, 2001
From Maryland to Missouri, from Northwestern to Alabama, a new wave of hard-line coaches is laying down the law
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October 22, 2001

Lords Of Discipline

From Maryland to Missouri, from Northwestern to Alabama, a new wave of hard-line coaches is laying down the law

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All his life, Jamonte Robinson had been waiting for this man. He understands that now. Then, on the last day of November 2000, Robinson only knew that he was late for the first team meeting with a new coach, a coach he figured wouldn't be much different from the others he'd played for, authority figures who'd talked about toughness but had always let him slide. Wasn't he a starting linebacker, a rising senior, a star? Robinson opened the door to the meeting room, where all the Missouri football players had gathered with new coach Gary Pinkel. Pinkel stopped in mid-sentence, stared at Robinson and said, "Get out!"

Robinson blinked. Heads turned. Pinkel said it again, "Get out!" Robinson tried to explain: He'd been in class, this meeting had come together so quickly.... Pinkel tore into him. How could Robinson be so disrespectful? How could he be so insulting to his teammates? The more the 21-year-old Robinson tried to explain, the more he realized how lame he sounded and the higher his voice rose, and he began to feel as he hadn't felt for a decade—lost, weak, exposed. He tried to regain some swagger. Something in Pinkel's face wouldn't let him. "I sounded like an 11-year-old boy," Robinson says. "It was scary, but he sent a signal."

Last season, with Missouri suffering from what athletic director Mike Alden calls a massive "disconnect" between coach Larry Smith and the players, the Tigers finished 3-8. "If you were a star, you could get away with anything," Robinson says. Not anymore. Armed with the same slate of old-school rules and obsession for detail that powered his overachieving program at Toledo, the 49-year-old Pinkel has plugged his players into a coaching program long thought obsolete. No earrings, no hats on indoors, no excuses. In August players had to sign a team covenant, espousing such values as trust and commitment, and every Friday during the school year they must sign a truth statement regarding class attendance, upcoming papers and tests. During football meetings players must have their feet on the floor and make eye contact with whoever's speaking. On the field no one is permitted to put his hands on his knees, lest he show weakness to the opponent—not even during a game like the three-overtime marathon in which the Tigers defeated Oklahoma State 31-28 on Oct. 6.

"The structure is the same as it was when I played for Don James in 1971," says Pinkel, who was a standout tight end for the demanding James at Kent State and served 12 years on his staff at Washington. "As tough as things get—and we're going through some tough times here—that will never change. I won't deviate from what I believe in."

He's not alone. At a time when basketball players can intimidate college coaches with only three letters—NBA—and NFL coaches frequently are one locker room revolt from unemployment, there seems to be a trend in college football toward coaches entranced by the unyielding voices of Vince Lombardi and Woody Hayes. In a bid to transform the rudderless program left behind by Mike DuBose, Alabama coach Dennis Franchione, 50, greeted each player in August with a 182-page policy manual and nightly off-season curfews for players not doing well academically. North Carolina's new coach, 51-year-old John Bunting, whose Tar Heels pulled off one of the season's biggest upsets, a 41-9 victory over Florida State on Sept. 22, opened camp in August by demanding his players' car keys. At Kentucky new coach Guy Morriss, 50, has instituted 6 a.m. workouts and took away players' cell phones and car keys during preseason workouts.

At Maryland 51-year-old Ralph Friedgen, who's 6-0 after waiting 31 years for a head coaching job, swept away any traces of Ron Vanderlinden's listless tenure by instituting a 10:30 p.m. curfew, banning in-season consumption of alcohol and barring injured Terrapins from dressing for games. He is the son of Big Ralph Friedgen, a teammate of Lombardi's at Fordham and a high school coach for 30 years. In 1968, unhappy as a guard with the Terps, Little Ralph called his dad to say he was transferring. Big Ralph told him the locks on the house were going to be changed, because "quitters don't live here." Little Ralph tore the phone off the wall, but he stayed at Maryland. "My dad was a hard-nosed coach," Friedgen says, "and every successful coach I've been around has been that way."

When he took over the Terrapins last November, Friedgen was stunned by the number of players who'd blown off class, so he began an attendance tracking list, updated daily by 4 p.m. Anyone who missed class ran stadium steps the next morning at five. "The first day it looked like a track meet out here," Friedgen says. "One kid hadn't gone to class for two weeks. Finally, one cold winter morning he was wringing wet, steam was just rising off him. I said, 'You're going to be in great shape when you flunk out of here.' And he was."

Friedgen's reputation as an offensive guru at Georgia Tech caught the Terrapins' attention, but nothing got them in line faster than his crackdown. "Everyone's going to class. They don't want to deal with the wrath of Coach Friedgen," says senior center Melvin Fowler. "In the past four years combined we didn't have the discipline we have now, but a lot of guys on this team, me included, we're happy. We may not show it, but we know this is exactly what we need."

College football's new lords of discipline hold no illusions about bringing back the my-way-or-the-highway days. Players will endure plenty, the coaches say, but only if they know you care about them and you hear them out. Like Pinkel and Franchione, Friedgen has instituted a players' council—Maryland's has 10 members—selected by a vote of the team. The council constantly pushes him to scale back curfews, which he's resisting. However, after a tornado touched down just beyond Byrd Stadium on Sept. 24, killing two students, the council persuaded Friedgen to cancel practice. Still, Friedgen says, he was startled recently when a Terp went so far as to describe him as a player's coach. "That's the kiss of death," Friedgen says. "Most of those guys get fired."

No one would call Northwestern's Randy Walker a player's coach—not on the field, anyway. His drills are famous for their toughness and precision, and he once described practice as something akin to Pavlovian training. "You give them positives when they run that maze the right way and find the cheese," he said. "You shock their asses when they don't."

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