Ask anyone who the greatest college football coach of all time is and more times than not, one name will almost always stand out above the rest and it’s a name that still holds an almost religious reverence in some parts of the South, the name of Paul “Bear” Bryant. The legendary coach may be remembered as the greatest football coach in NCAA history, but something for which he might be remembered just as well were his 10 days in hell.
When we talk about 10 days in hell, it isn’t said figuratively nor is it said just in passing. For 100+ college football hopefuls, for a 10 day stretch in the mid-1950s, they were literally transported to as close to the fiery underworld as one can get without actually being dead, and even then some of them had probably wished they were dead rather than suffer through what was to come.
Texas A&M wanted to turn their football program around, so they brought in a new head coach that was determined to weed out the weak and toughen up those who survived. It wasn’t just a promise made to those that hired him, as Bryant had vowed to transport the entire team to a small town off campus where they could get away from distractions but also where they would be unable to escape what was to come.
Bryant would start practice before the crack of dawn, and it wouldn’t wrap up until after a team meeting that would run until 11:00 pm. Long days aren’t unheard of, but these practices would take place in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit with no breaks allowed for any player. Not only were breaks not allowed, but players were not allowed anything to eat or drink during practice times, and this included no water or ice. Players would suffer broken bones, heat exhaustion, cramping, vomiting, and unless a player required immediate emergency medical attention, they were not excused from practice.
During the 10 days of hell, Bryant saw more than 70 players quit and arrange transportation back to campus either on the team bus or through transportation of their own. Once a player opted to quit prior to the end of the 10 days, they were also excused from the Aggie’s Football Team and deemed to be too weak to play for their new coach.
Bryant’s 10 days of hell mentality wasn’t allowed beyond the 1954 season as the NCAA changed their rules prohibiting this torture from ever taking place again, and while Bear Bryant’s old school mentality didn’t equate into immediate success for the Aggies, they saw a huge improvement in just two short seasons and to this day the 10 days of hell are credited with turning around the entire Aggie’s Football Program.
You might think that based on the NCAA prohibiting the type of practice that Bear Bryant made famous we would see an end of such brutality, but instead, it was simply adopted by the NFL by such legends as Don Shula and John Madden, with both implementing what would become known as two-a-day practices. While two-a-day practices might not sound too bad, it often resulted in the first practice starting at Noon in the heat of the day and lasting for hours with players unable to take a break and unable to drink even a glass of water or chew a single ice cube. In fact, Shula was so strict, that the sight of even 1 player chewing a piece of ice during scheduled practice would send him into a verbal and physical tirade towards the said player.
Much like when Bear Bryant ran his practices, players were required to participate through any injury except those that would prevent them from being able to walk. Players were forced to play through broken bones in their backs and legs, broken arms and ribs, concussions, and even minor fractures in their legs if they were still able to walk onto the field.
Days off were not even heard of, as practices were held 7 days a week for the entire offseason with no time given for players to rest up or heal, and certainly no time for family vacations. After the afternoon practice, players were allowed to enjoy a small meal and all the water they could drink, but were required to study the game plan while doing so. It wasn’t a time to relax though, as soon after the break in practice would begin, the countdown clock was ticking away towards the 2nd practice of the day, where players would be required to go through it all again.
Even to this day, Oakland Raiders players remember these brutal practices under Coach Madden with former Raider running back Pete Banaszak fondly remembering “Madden worked the piss out of us”, and Quarterback Kenny Stabler describing practices in this way “The monotony of camp was so oppressive that without the diversions of whiskey and women, those of us who were wired for activity and no more than six hours of sleep a night might have gone berserk”.
The successes of both Madden and Shula might be contributed at least in part to the brutal practices, and if that’s the case, you might even expect to see those same practices enacted by teams today, but thanks to the NFLPA, we are assured that the days of practices lasting for hours in the heat of the day with no breaks aren’t going to be forced upon the Buccaneers any time soon.
In 2011 under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the National Football League Player’s Association (NFLPA) made certain that new rules governing what would be allowed in regards to offseason activities and practices would be included in the new contract. The contract which required all sides to come to an agreement over the new restrictions is a far cry from Bear Bryant and the 10 days of hell, and even have some questioning if the new rules have made football players soft, especially when compared to players who would practice through broken bones and concussions.
Among the new rules implemented by the NFLPA, we see that not only have new rules been instituted, but that the offseason is broken up into 3 different phases that are only permitted over a 9 week period, and are kept separate from what they consider to be pre-season practice.
Phase 1 lasts for two weeks lasting no more than 4 hours per day with only 2 of those hours being on the field and the other 2 being reserved for activities such as lifting weights and is strictly limited to strength and conditioning activities with only strength and conditioning coaches being allowed on the field. Phase 1 is also considered a dead ball period in which Quarterbacks can throw only to receivers with no coverage, kickers and punters are allowed to kick, but players cannot field the ball and no snappers or holders can be involved in the kicking drills, long snappers can only snap into a net with no other player involved, and defensive players may not catch any balls at all regardless of who is throwing the ball.
Phase 2 lasts for three weeks lasting no more than 4 hours per day and follows the same restrictions as phase 1 with a few exceptions. In phase 2, all coaches are allowed on the field rather than just the strength and conditioning coaches, individual drills are allowed, but no drills involving offense versus defense, no one on one drills, and no helmets are allowed.
Phase 3, which is considered the final phase of offseason training, lasts a total of four weeks, which includes a week for minicamp. A maximum of 3 Organized Team Activities (OTA’s) is allowed each week for the first 2 weeks with a 4th non-OTA workout being allowed as long as it follows the same rules as set out in phase 2. One week is set aside for minicamp and can be held in weeks 3 or 4 but may only be held once and only for one week. The other week not used for mini camp may only have a maximum of 4 OTAs with no non-OTA workout allowed.
During phase 3, other new rules must be followed, including no pads can be worn by any player with the exception of protective knee and elbow pads, however, helmets are permitted with no live contact being allowed even with helmets worn. 7 on 7, 9 on 7, and 11 on 11 drills are permitted in phase 3, but no live contact is permitted during any drill throughout the entire phase.
Mini Camp has a set of rules specifically for mini camp, including practice being limited to no more than 10 hours per day and a mandatory day off for everyone on Friday. Physicals are to be held on Monday of minicamp with practice prohibited, every day except Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Practice when held are limited to two practices per day, but only 3 ½ hours of those practices can be held on the field and the 2nd of the two practices must be limited to walk through activities only.
In case any coach even thinks about breaking the rules set in place, there are strict penalties put in place for both coaches and teams consisting of a week of lost workouts, $100,000 for a coach’s first violation and $250,000 for their second violation. Fines for clubs/teams are a bit higher than coaches with a first violation carrying a penalty of $250,000 and $500,000 for their second violation. All activities during this period are also deemed to be completely voluntary and no player can be penalized for opting to not participate, no matter their reasoning.
Once the offseason 9 week period is over, teams are required to break for the summer with players allowed to go their own way and spend the time off however they choose. Some players opt to go away on vacation with their families with other players opting to continue workouts by organizing practices at another facility, often choosing their former college or high school facilities as they are already familiar with the facilities and coaches and can often see it as a way to get back to basics and back to where it all began.
The mandatory pre-season practices can’t be held until 15 days prior to the team’s first game with practices being limited to 4 hours per day. The first day is limited to physicals and meetings only, with the 2nd and 3rd day being limited to practices consisting of no pads or contact allowed between any player. After the 3rd day, pads are allowed during only one practice per day with a 3-hour limit imposed on that practice. The 4th hour of that practice is limited to a walk-through if the team has reached the 3-hour limit.
Once the season kicks off, the limits and restrictions don’t suddenly stop, and in some cases are as strict as the OTAs. Teams are limited to only 14 padded practices during the regular season with only 11 allowed during the first 11 weeks. A team is permitted to hold two padded practices during one week of the first 11, with the remaining three practices to be held sometime during the final six weeks of the regular season. The bye week isn’t exactly a week off for players, but they are required to have four consecutive days off in which players can not practice nor attend team meetings of any kind.
Assuming a team makes the postseason, the restrictions keep right on coming as a team is limited to only one padded practice per week during the postseason and those padded practices are limited to only three hours plus a walk-through with position coaches which can’t exceed a half-hour.
It’s easy to see why restrictions were put in place after the 10 days of hell and the brutal outcome that left players so broken that they were unable to even continue practice, but one has to wonder with all these new limits put in place, if we’ve taken the grit and grind out of what resulted in some of the best players to ever step on the field. We’ve gone from players being forced to practice all day without so much as an ice cube, to seeing water coolers all along the sideline of practice fields. We’ve gone from players being bused to remote towns away from the distractions to players living it up in 5-star hotels with room service and poolside bars. We’ve gone from players holding contests to see who could hit the hardest to players not even being allowed to touch another player. We’ve gone from players afraid to not practice because there was no guaranteed contract to players refusing to practice because their contract is coming due and they want a raise of millions of dollars.
Have we created an environment that produces softer players, or are we simply ensuring the environment doesn’t result in a player unable to recall a play they were given just seconds before as we saw with Bret Favre? The debate will continue in every locker room and every stadium around the league from both players and fans, but ultimately we have to weigh the increased longevity of players and their overall long-term health versus the impact on the overall game.
As long as the game itself doesn’t suffer, perhaps just maybe, we owe it to the players to ensure they can remember the game they gave up everything to play long after they’ve walked away and that they maintain the ability to walk away rather than hobble.
Bear Bryant and 10 days of hell versus the grueling 7 days a week practices of Don Shula and John Madden versus the restrictions and regulations imposed today on practices run by Bruce Arians and Frank Reich. Obviously, it’s now a league geared towards players and pleasing them, but that makes one wonder what practices will look like in another 50 years