Upstairs in the sleek new athletic building at Kansas State is the office of Vince Gibson, the head football coach. It is a luxurious room, commanded by an enormous walnut desk. From one window Gibson can, if he chooses, look out on Memorial Stadium and its AstroTurf carpet. A thick purple rug—the Wildcat colors are purple and white—makes Gibson's floor memorable. There is a large soft sofa and four deep, comfortable chairs, and in one corner is a walnut-grained soft-drink machine. Nearby are three conference rooms, offices for assistant coaches and a well-equipped kitchen. A huge reception room on the first floor is tastefully decorated with paintings and art objects.
On a late winter afternoon in a spartan basement beneath this display of athletic poshness, thin pads hang over the windowless concrete walls of a large room. There one football player backhands blood from his mouth, another wonders if his nose has been broken, a third throws up. At Kansas State they call it PE-103.
Sanctioned by the athletic code of the NCAA, Physical Education 103 and its equivalents can be found at colleges across the land, some in course catalogs, some as activities for which no credit is given. They are essentially nothing more than conditioning programs designed to get football players into shape for the 20 days of formal spring practice that will follow. As long as certain NCAA requirements are met, the colleges are free to conduct such drills—and even give credit for them. The NCAA stipulates that 1) advance notice of the drills must appear in the prescribed places, 2) they must be open to the male student body, 3) everybody in them must be there on a voluntary basis and 4) they have no direct connection with football at all.
Except for an occasional outsider, the "volunteers" in KSU's PE-103 are all football players. They gather five days a week for six weeks. The sessions used to be an hour, but after the team went 3-8 last year, Gibson instituted a get-tough campaign and some of the daily workouts were extended another 30 minutes. Typically, Monday is weight lifting and running; Tuesday is agility and conditioning drills; Wednesday is running and lifting weights; Thursday is first conditioning and then agility. Friday used to be left for basketball, but now it is more lifting and running. Everything is timed: how many push-ups, pull-ups, rope-climbs, etc. a player can do in 30 seconds. And the action never stops. Never. Two of the more grueling activities are wrestling and a contest in which two players kneeling on all fours are harnessed to each other back to back. The object is for one to drag the other 20 feet across the floor.
"I had heard from some of the older guys how rough it was," remembers Keith Best, a three-year letterman at Kansas State from 1969 to 1971 and now a reserve linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. "I had no idea, though. I'd been through conditioning drills before and I didn't think this could be much worse. It was only an hour. I'll never forget it. I ate a big lunch that first day: a salad with lots of Thousand Island dressing, and I drank lots of chocolate milk. Ten minutes into the first drill I lost it all."
"The worst part was if you were in the second section," says Bill Kennedy, a defensive end under Gibson in 1967-68. "There were wastepaper cans in the room and by then they were almost full.
"Actually, some of the activities are pretty brutal, but that's the way football is. There's nothing in there that doesn't happen on a football field. It's like Marine boot camp, only you can quit football, but in the Marines you're stuck."
In the coaching fraternity, Kansas State's program is known as being rugged, but it is hardly unique and certainly not under wraps. KSU has prepared a 20-minute film to show its drills to other coaches. No matter what they are called or what specific form they take, tough pre-spring-practice conditioning workouts are expected of players at almost every university in every major conference except the Ivy League, which permits no spring practice and therefore needs no pre-spring practice.
At Florida State they call it PE-117. Among the attractions of this course is a room in which a false ceiling of chicken wire is suspended four or five feet above wrestling mats. There the players wrestle. Each loser gets to wrestle some more. Recently a group of players charged that combat under chicken wire was not their idea of a way to earn an hour's credit, and half a dozen or so of them announced that they were quitting FSU. PE-117, they said, was dehumanizing and, besides, the only reason they volunteered for it was because they were ordered to do so. A few claimed that they had been left too exhausted from the conditioning drills to study, and as a result had flunked out of school. After the allegations were published in the
St. Petersburg Times
, the university requested an NCAA investigation, which is still going on.
"What is dehumanizing?" asks FSU's Larry Jones. "Chicken wire? We were just trying to teach them to keep their heads down. In football, you have to. It certainly didn't hurt anyone. In fact, if we had allowed them to stand up while wrestling they would have been bumping heads, and that's when they could have injured themselves. And I don't see how an hour of exercise a day could cause a boy to flunk out of school. Most of them would have flunked out even if they had never gone near the gym."