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Coaches no longer knock heads to find out if their team is tough enough

Mike Riley, entering his 12th season at Oregon State, admits 'it was crazy what we used to do.'  (USATSI)
Mike Riley, entering his 12th season at Oregon State, admits 'it was crazy what we used to do.' (USATSI)

The realization hit Charlie Strong shortly after he arrived at Texas. New team. New program. For him, new standards.

Like any coach taking over under those conditions, Strong had to determine the toughness of his new squad. The, ahem, transition to a new coach has taken many forms. Some of them not for the squeamish. But in this case, it's worth noticing how Strong has cleaned up and firmed up the roster.

The light bulb above Strong's head went on long before three players were suspended, another seven were dismissed from the team this offseason. Some of those actions were inevitable. Strong was inheriting a foreign (Mack Brown's) roster. Some of it was common sense. There were legal issues.

Strong had to start on the ground floor in evaluating the want-to of his players. This is a (lower-case) strong, determined coach who had to shape that roster into one with a snarl.

"I just looked at tape," Strong said.

One by one, he called in what was basically the two-deep roster. Strong had cut up a few of their individual plays for viewing. The plays weren't necessarily highlights. Just the opposite. It was a job evaluation before any of the Longhorns had taken a snap in front of their new coach.

"I didn't have to say much," Strong said. "Some of them walked out of the room with their heads down."

Without raising his voice, without punishing drills under a hot sun, without gassers, Strong was finding out how tough his guys were. Then they hit the field.

"There were a couple of times I started practice over," he added. "They had the work ethic in them. I think fall camp is going to be the tell tale. How far can we go with this team?"

That is a question asked within every program in this modern era. The football culture is changing before our eyes. Call it The New Tough. It is no longer applicable, smart -- or even allowed -- to smash young adults into each other repeatedly in the name of manhood and better football. In his age, Bear Bryant's Junction Boys might be subpoenaed witnesses instead of lore.

Coaches have to be wiser, perhaps more compassionate. If not, they risk getting run out of the stadium, or their job, perhaps run right into court. That's because the other guy is into The New Tough too. In the ultimate test of physicality in American sports, less has definitely become more.

"I probably stayed old school too long," said Iowa State's Paul Rhoads. "The fine line with us idiot coaches is preparation, preparation, preparation, to make sure you get enough reps each week."

Twenty years ago there were no 20-hour work week limitations. Concussions weren't defined. Spring practice was a hit fest. Game weeks were completely unregulated. Full pads five days a week? Knock yourself out. The Frank Kushes of the world did. There was little talk of "saving legs" for game day, or speed-fueled finesse offenses to save them for. The current scholarship limitations were just taking effect.

Most of today's coaches at least grew up in that climate if not fully embraced it.

"Isn't it interesting?" said Mike Riley, entering his 12th year at Oregon State, his 39th in the profession. "I don't know if I can verbalize this very well. It was crazy what we used to do."

It's been an evolution of awareness of physical, biological, legal and football issues. Last month, the NCAA limited full-padded practices to two per week in-season. A recent class-action settlement established basic guidelines for diagnosis of concussions and return to play protocols.

In both cases the NCAA instituted mere guidelines, largely unenforceable. But the changes did at least reflect that awareness.

All of it came three years after the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement spelling out specific padded practice limitations. Specifically, no more than one day of fully padded hitting during the regular season.

There is no such union representing the players. Still, the old ways are dying. There's a new way to define the foundation of the game -- toughness.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez remembers hitting for 20 straight days in spring practice as a West Virginia player. At the end, coach Don Nehlen handed out T-shirts that said, "I hit for 20."

"We killed for that T-shirt," Rich Rod said. "Now when you think about it, do you really need 20 days where you just knock the snot out of each other? No."

When the two-day guidelines were set last month, it barely caused a ripple among coaches. The overwhelming majority in the profession already limited full-pad practices. It lessened the chances of injury in a game limited by 85 scholarships, a game relying more on speed and film study than brawn.

It's almost became the difference between military war games and Stratego.

Year-round training means players are more prepared for the rigors of two-a-days. The 20-hour work limit -- although it is frequently violated with so-called "voluntary" work -- had been a further tapping of the breaks.

"You have to teach more in less time," Rodriguez said. "When the games start, we put full pads on one day during the week -- Tuesdays. And that's kind of a chest bump. ... You've got to get the toughness out in some other way."

"You're not going to find out anymore while you're practicing," former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti added.

If not, then ... when? Coaches of all stripes want to know who their "war daddies" are -- those guys who will run through a wall -- to get to another wall. Rodriguez proudly collected the bent facemasks of former West Virginia fullback Owen Schmitt, a Division III walk-on transfer.

Aliotti, 59, had to adjust on the fly. Thirty-five years in the profession, he had seen it all.

"I'm not sure you ever really know" who your tough guys are, he said.

"But in the recruiting process you just have to find that out. You've got to watch them practice and play. Do they get in the front of the line and take reps? Are they hiding even if they're a star, or do they stick their nose in and tackle or go over the middle to catch a ball?"

Aliotti rattles off examples of his personal war daddies -- Chad Cota, a safety on the 1994 Rose Bowl team. The aptly named Wesly Mallard, a former walk-on linebacker. Kiko Alonso, the Pro Football Writers NFL defensive rookie of the year.

"They were just heat-seeking missiles," Aliotti said. "I had to tell those guys, 'Please, take it easy.' "

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is in the business each day of finding overachievers. That term sort of defines Gophers football. It sort of defines him. The man has reconstituted his life to shape a healthier approach to living with epilepsy.

"You may not get the most talented guy," Kill said. "You try to find that tough guy. Sometimes he runs a 4.7, not a 4.6. Sometimes you can't make them tough. You've got to recruit them tough."

At Minnesota, two-hour scrimmages every three or four days are a thing of the past. There are limits on goal line, red zone situations.

"We live in a different culture," Kill said, "different society."

Back in the late 1990s, Oregon State was conducting live kickoff coverage, almost unheard of today. Out of those drills, Riley found walk-on Jake Cookus, a contributor at safety for four years.

"We're into a better way," Riley said.

There is the technique in recent years of "thud" practices, not quite taking the ball carrier to the ground.

"Our coaches understand this is not Cro-Magnon football," Stanford's David Shaw said. "We're not just slamming guys heads together."

However ...

"You have to be physical. You have to play football and that means tackling guys to the ground to be any good at it. You have to do it in training camp. ... It's part of football. If you can do it safely, you can do it smartly."

And no one would doubt the toughness of the Cardinal.

In the offseason, Rhoads purchased 28 Catapult vests, a biometric device that measures not only if players are tired but why. It's about productivity.

"I won't question any of our kids' toughness in our program," he said. "But I will question maybe my intelligence in the past on how I worked them."

Back at Texas the New Tough has taken hold. The Longhorns may not win the Big 12 this year, but it's early in the Strong regime. The new coach is certain. Eventually -- to paraphrase Rodriguez -- the Horns will start knocking the snot out of people.

"You don't want someone to pat you on the back and tell you everything's all right," center Dom Espinosa said. "I think our idea of what tough was before, may be different than what we're going for now."

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