MORGANTOWN — It’s been more than a decade now since Jim Dent of ESPN.com opened his story on Bear Bryant’s memorable summer camp that preceded his first season as Texas A&M coach in 1954 — 60 years ago — this way:
Out along the edge of the Texas Hill Country, with temperatures soaring beyond 110 degrees, the Texas A&M Aggies gathered that summer in 1954. It was supposed to be a typical preseason football training camp.
It was hardly that.
Football, you see, was different then.
Camp was, well, it was something today’s football players would not want any part of, be it Bryant’s journey into Junction, Texas, that became the book “The Junction Boys” by Dent and the made-for-TV movie, or any other preseason camp around the country.
We are reminded of it because West Virginia has just finished its camp. It was held on campus, not off in some God-forsaken corner of Texas. It was held often without pads, with strict rules about when contact drills could be held.
Two-a-days were limited, while the food was unlimited.
This, maybe, is something those players should be reading and saying thank you — thank you for bringing sanity to college football.
“Junction was a flyspeck on the Texas map when the two Greyhound buses made their way through the winding two-lane highway to this place that was nothing but rocks, sandspurs, rattlesnakes and turkey buzzards. No one knew what Paul “Bear” Bryant had in mind when the buses pulled through the front gate of the distant outpost in the rocky hills,” Dent wrote.
“He had been hired six months earlier as a kind of savior of Aggie football. And in the rugged country known as Junction, Texas, some three hundred miles from the A&M campus, the legendary coach took his players to hell and back. The Aggies were short on talent that season, and as Bryant said, he wanted to ‘separate the quitters from the keepers.’”
Question: Was football tougher then? Were players tougher then?
They practiced in pads, twice a day, sometimes for four hours at a time. You weren’t allowed to drink water. Hell, you weren’t allowed to bleed if you got cut, or so it seemed.
Then and now — can we find a way to judge it?
Tom Bradley is West Virginia’s newest coach, but also the most experienced. He goes back not to Bear Bryant’s early days, but to 1979, another era, a time when football camp was still an exercise in survival as much as in creating an offense or a defense.
“When I first started up at Penn State every day was two-a-days and sometimes we had three-a-days,” Bradley began. “Heck, we ate with our pads on — just took off our shoulder pads. Then we’d have a special-team practice.”
The imagery is beautiful, the Penn State football team, their shoulder pads and helmets laying probably out on the field drying in the sun as they took a lunch break before heading back out to practice.
But changes were coming — slowly.
Seemed like each few years something was cut out.
“The difference is the amount of practice, the amount of hitting you do now,” Bradley said. “As time filtered down on scholarship limits, things had to change. You know, back in the old days you had 105, man, even 125 before that. You had 3 or 4 good groups, so you could do more hitting.
“You could replace people. But as the number of players you had got lowered and lowered, the rules changed and they were good rules. Sometimes coaches, we always want to do more and more and more. We’re never satisfied. The rules are good for the players.”
As Bradley explained it, over time it went from two-a-days in pads to two-a-days to one of the practices in pads and then kept going lower and lower.
It was necessary, as Dent pointed out in his article on Bryant’s 1954 camp:
“It was a miracle that no one died. Several suffered from heat prostration and tackle Billy Schroeder was saved on his deathbed by a wily old doctor named John Wiedeman who packed the boy’s body in ice. Schroeder, who still suffers physically from the heatstroke, remembers the out of body experience at the infirmary in downtown Junction.
“He remembers floating to the ceiling and then watching the doctors and two nurses attending to his body. He still carries the image of student trainer Billy Pickard standing over him and bawling like a newborn calf, believing the star player was dead.”
You don’t see that any longer. Safety first now, and athletes conditioned as they come into camp, trainers everywhere.
“They are in much better shape today because of the strength programs,” Bradley said. “There’s more strength coaches who are good at what they doing. Our guys are great. We’re no longer getting them into shape in camp. They come in shape.”
Bradley thought back to his playing days.
“I remember there were two tests — the 40 test and the long-distance test — and if you passed the test you were ready to go,” Bradley said.
Being in better shape, and simply the passage of time and the education of how to get athletes ready has made a huge difference in what is necessary.
“Because they are in better shape they are more explosive,” Bradley noted. “Being more explosive, you have to be careful about how much hitting you do. It’s harder hitting because of the guys.”
And, because they are in better shape, practice time can be cut down because you don’t have to spend time on conditioning. In past years you would run after practice — maybe sprints, maybe distance — but now coaches can have snappy practices and maintain condition.
It no longer is torture and far less dangerous.
Did Bryant’s tactics work back there 60 years ago?
Well, that team finished 1-9, Bear Bryant’s only losing season, which might make you think, but it provided the nucleus of an undefeated team that almost won the national championship two years later.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel