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Steelers Steelers' preseason routine far cry from boot camp of the 1970s

Friday, July 25, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Central air has replaced window fans pushing 90-degree heat around a small room, and the community toilets and shower stalls down the hall have given way to private baths. Players no longer walk several hundred yards to lunch; a cart ferries them back and forth.

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And today, when the Steelers report to their 37th consecutive training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, they will find even more amenities: An enlarged, air-conditioned weight room and expanded locker rooms.

But the biggest change in training camp today from those in the 1970s and 1980s is the amount of time the Steelers spend there. It's not much.

Back when they were winning Super Bowls, the Steelers would report to St. Vincent College shortly after the Fourth of July and stay there nearly two months. This year, camp will last less than four weeks.

"I remember I would get depressed as July 4th approached," said Joe Gordon, the Steelers' former business manager and public relations director. "That was the end of summer."

Before 1978, NFL teams played six exhibition games and the Super Bowl champions played seven because they would open the summer with a game against the College All-Stars in Chicago. The Steelers played seven in 1975 and 1976, and Coach Chuck Noll always believed in plenty of preparation time.

"Chuck always had four weeks of training camp before the first preseason game," Gordon said.

Those days weren't spent lightly, either. The Steelers practiced in full pads twice a day virtually every day but Sunday, and there was more contact.

These days, the Steelers -- as do most teams -- practice in shells or light pads in the morning and full pads in the afternoon. There are days with just one practice. Last year, Coach Bill Cowher canceled one practice and took his team to a movie theater instead. Twice, he gave veterans with at least eight years of service the day off. He also holds two practices at night.

Rosters, though, are limited to 80 players plus exemptions for any NFL Europe player. There were no limits on rosters 20 years ago, and teams would bring up to 120 players to camp, which would lessen the amount of contact veterans endured.

"And in those early days," Gordon reminded, "the purpose of training camp was to get guys in shape. You didn't have year-round programs. Now, they're there virtually 50 weeks a year.

"With the size and strength of players today, you couldn't practice like they did in the '70s and early '80s. If you did that, you'd kill half the team. They're so much stronger, bigger, faster and no question in better shape."

Some NFL teams are skipping traditional training camps in favor of holding them at the posh facilities where they train during the season.

That's something the Steelers may never do.

"St. Vincent is a great setup for training camp," Coach Bill Cowher said, "because you are away, you have the ability to create that bond, so to speak. There are little distractions, and yet, when you do get some time off, if you live in Pittsburgh, you get to come home.

"Everyone wants to be the new people who buck the trend. They want to be trend-setters. It is a great game and we have too many trend-setters."

Cowher does not like the idea of holding training camp at the club's regular facilities. He also does not believe anyone would let him do it, either. He recalled how he tried to put the Steelers on the opposite sideline (the sunny side) in Three Rivers Stadium for his first season in 1992.

"We have been up there for a long time. I tried to change the sideline one time and almost got fired because of it. So, do you think I am going to move it from St. Vincent College?

"I am not going to touch that one. It is a great place to be."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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