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Response time

Grueling, early morning workouts play major role in molding Panthers for the battles to come

Sunday, February 28, 1999

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

At 6 a.m. this time of year, the University of Pittsburgh campus is dark and, for the most part, desolate. But something is going on. At the summit of the campus, the Charles L. Cost Sports Center is locked except for one door on the far right of the entrance. Down the hall, in the facility's athletic barn, there is activity.

 
Pitt Coach Walt Harris put the Panthers through 20-yard wind sprints and was not pleased with the overall results. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

Pitt football players have finished stretching and are starting 90 minutes or more of a grueling, multifaceted workout.

"This," Coach Walt Harris said, "is where our team is born. This is where our resolve comes in. This is tough."


Foreshadowing

The half-month, early-morning winter conditioning portion of the Panthers' off-season workout program is something Harris instituted after he was hired in December 1996.

Two years ago, he was encouraged to see the group of seniors he inherited - particularly the fifth-year players - emerge as team leaders during a productive winter conditioning program. That fall, the Panthers turned things around and earned an invitation to the Liberty Bowl.

Last year, Harris was disappointed enough in his team's effort and its lack of leadership during winter conditioning that he postponed the first spring practice to fit in a couple of extra early-morning workouts. That team stumbled to a 2-9 record last fall.

Harris doesn't think those are coincidences. He believes what he sees in winter conditioning augurs what everyone will see in the fall.

On the eve of what is scheduled to be the final winter conditioning session of 1999, the coach is mildly concerned about what he sees this year.

"I think we're in some ways further along [than at this time last year]," he said a few days ago as the Panthers were into their second week of the special workouts.

"But I still see the same problem."

Does that mean the 1999 team will fare somewhere between the six victories of 1997 and the two of 1998? Even Harris doesn't know that, although he's prepared to put off outdoor spring practices again until he is satisfied with the early-morning effort. The team is scheduled to break out footballs and hit the Pitt Stadium field Tuesday.

"I'm not sure that we'll be ready to go," Harris said. "I told them I made a mistake last year in only sitting out one day."

The Panthers have one more chance - early tomorrow morning - to convince their coach they are ready and deserve to begin spring drills on schedule.


The drills

The winter conditioning workouts consist of three sessions, some days followed by weightlifting.

First, players are divided into six groups according to position. They rotate among stations around the indoor field, which looks pristine after getting new artificial turf last fall - dark green carpet with bright white yard lines and hash marks.

Each station has a different activity and is overseen by an assistant coach or two. At one stop, players slip on harnesses and pull small sleds loaded with large barbell weights. At another, they run through a rope gauntlet and maze of large blocking pads. There also are bear crawls, scissors strides and sprints. There is a lot of running, twisting, straining and bending.

Next, the players line up and run 20-yard sprints from one 40-yard line to the other. Over and over, they push themselves, with Harris standing right in the middle, signaling each group to start and encouraging them to go all out.

After a brief rest, the team spreads out and the players begin to jog in place. At Harris' command, they drop to their bellies, then immediately pull themselves back up and start jogging again. There are four sets of these - Harris calls them quarters - and over the two weeks the Panthers worked their way up to 25 down-and-ups per quarter.

Finally, there is a cool-down stretch. There's not a dry shirt in the place.

The workouts are designed to target various body areas and get the players in top condition before spring ball. But there is another purpose to the winter conditioning.

It's no accident that the workouts are held so early. Or that field coaches - not strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris - run the early-morning sessions. The coaches are trying to whip more than bodies into shape.

"We do this to get it in their minds that they need to respond," Harris said. "Right now, they'll respond better than they will halfway through spring practice because they don't have as many things to worry about. If they won't respond now, they won't respond when they have to think about things like the football and plays."

Throughout the early-morning sessions, the coaches don't let up. They call out players by name, challenging them to work harder. Harris wanders among the players, reminding them that they are responsible for their effort and that when they win, it's something no one can take away from them.

"Sometimes, it takes time to get into a person's mind," Harris said.

The whole thing is a bit like boot camp. Except no one is called "maggot."


Winded

It's the sprints that bother Harris most this year.

"We have a few who are stragglers," he said. "We're still having a problem getting them to accelerate through the line."

Those who are pulling up before they reach the finish are spoiling it for the others.

"As a whole so far, it's been better," senior tight end Ben Kopp said. "We've had our days, of course, where we could have gone through the line a little better."

"There are more guys here who are used to what's going on," added senior defensive end Julian Graham. "There are still some flaws. It's hard. It's never easy."

Sophomore fullback Rickey Mendenhall said the players are responsible for making things better.

"This year, there are a lot of people who are working hard, but there are still those few who are letting the team down," he said. "It has to change. We can't let that happen."

Mendenhall's resolve is particularly noteworthy considering his 1998 season. He worked his way into a starting job, but Harris grew disenchanted with him and demoted him to the scout team.

Yet there he is during the winter conditioning sessions, waving his arms, yelling out encouragement to his teammates.

Then there's tailback Nick Goings, a transfer from Ohio State who becomes eligible this year. He doesn't say much, if anything, but it's hard not to notice as he focuses on the coaches and follows directions exactly. And he never lets himself appear tired or winded.

That's one area where Harris has seen improvement over last year.

"We didn't have enough leaders last year," he said.

"You're always looking for guys to be leaders. We're trying to teach them what a leader is. He's goal-oriented, trustworthy and a self-starter.

"I've seen some excellent leadership out here."

Harris rattled off some of the other players who have taken on that role - defensive backs Hank Poteat, D.J. Dinkins and Seth Hornack, linebacker Karim Thompson, offensive lineman Ryan Hansen - all seniors - and, in something of a surprise, sophomore Kenny Harris. Harris, who has moved from the secondary to receiver, struggled his first two years at Pitt on the field and in meeting the coaches' expectations.

That's the kind of about-face Harris lives for. If he doesn't see enough of the other players coming around, well, they found out last year that their coach doesn't bluff.

"If he's not satisfied, he's told us he would [postpone spring practice again]," Kopp said.

"You never know when we can hold that practice again," Graham said. "This is the best time for this, when we all need each other to push each other."


Orange dreams

The Cost Center doesn't have the kind of locker or shower facilities to accommodate the football team. So the drenched players bundle up as they filter out after their workout.

The air is frosty and the campus stretched out below is just beginning to come to life.

Pitt Stadium sits just down to the right. Maybe the Panthers notice, and maybe they don't, and maybe they get the metaphor and maybe not, but on most mornings a pretty orange sunrise is floating quietly over their home field.



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