There seems to be a new form of training coaches and players have embraced throughout college athletics:
Michigan and Northwestern have had their players go through Navy SEALs training. UCLA went to San Diego earlier this month for a two-day stay with Navy SEALs. Oregon and Nebraska have participated in The Program, a military-style leadership and team-building course founded by a former special operations officer.
But none of them have gone as far as Syracuse football. The team just completed a second straight year of military training on base at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., working with the 10th Mountain Division in various physical and leadership drills. Players stayed in the military barracks, held meetings at Army Battalion Headquarters and ate in the Army dining hall -- including lunch on the first day with 30 military personnel.
No cell phones. No Internet. No distractions.
Former coach Doug Marrone came up with the idea last year, and the Orange spent an entire week at Fort Drum during training camp. Players pointed to the way they grew closer together because they essentially only had each other for seven full days. New coach Scott Shafer believed it was important to go back.
Syracuse only stayed five days this year, but players agreed they all bonded together just the same while also gaining a greater appreciation for what soldiers do on a daily basis.
"We had really good teamwork and it carried over from the drills we did with the soldiers to practice," linebacker Marquis Spruill said in a recent phone interview. "We came together as a team, had time to really bond and just chill."
For Spruill, the experience was completely different from last season. Spruill attended a military prep school, so when he heard that the Orange were headed to Fort Drum last summer, bad memories flooded back. He did not enjoy the experience. But this time around, Spruill had a much better mindset because he knew what to expect. Plus, the focus this year was more on teamwork and competition. There were not nearly as many combative situations, Spruil says.
So he believes the players thrived because of that. One teamwork drill that stuck with center Macky MacPherson in particular was the leadership challenge, something the Orange did last year as well. Half of the team was divided up into 10-member groups. The groupings were done with team-building in mind. MacPherson's team, for example, featured players that did not know each other very well, including freshmen receivers and linebackers.
The mini-squadrons competed against each other in several competitions -- including working together to pull a military vehicle 120 yards, and trying to get across a tactical water bridge the fastest. The rest of the team participated in a heavy artillery demonstration. When they retreated back to their dorms, players squeezed into smaller beds for sleep and did not have much in the way of creature comforts. So they had more time to bond.
Spruill points to one of the biggest moments of the trip -- the first defensive players only meeting of fall camp. Shafer, who served as defensive coordinator before getting promoted, was unhappy with the way the defense was practicing. Spruill, recently elected a team captain, was told he needed to do something about it.
So he called the meeting.
"Coach Shaf has high expectations for us and we didn’t meet the expectations that day. He got on us a little bit. We had half the guys hanging their heads, the other half mad at him," Spruill said. "But we got everybody together in the room, and I talked to them. I expressed the things we needed to do, his expectation level and got the ball rolling. We set goals for the things we had to do, to get better as a defense and make our team better as a whole. So far everybody's responded and responded well."
Now back in Syracuse, the players had time to reflect on their visit to the base. Why does military training seem to be a growing trend?
"I think it goes both to an enormous amount of respect that people have with our military and also we know how accountable and how much like a football team a military team is," MacPherson said. "You look at Navy SEALs -- if a guy is off by two seconds, he’s putting one of his brothers in danger. Obviously, football is not nearly as important or as serious as warfare, but at the same time, we go out there and we have a strong sense of accountability to the guys and to our brothers on the sidelines."
Now the key is transferring lessons learned from Fort Drum to a brand new season.