Orange building bodies, esprit de corps

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Surely, winter conditioning can't get tougher than this. You play for Syracuse University, and you're coming off your school's worst season in 113 years. It's 5:30 a.m., it's 10 degrees, and last night's snow greets you as you open the door to leave. You might have gotten six hours of sleep, sandwiched around that 2:30 a.m. homecoming by your housemates stumbling in from wherever they began the weekend.

If you're lucky, you have a car, and you leave time to scrape last night's snow and ice off the windshield. Otherwise, you join your teammates in a zombie-like walk down the hill toward the football building, where a 6 a.m. workout awaits. Some of you wear a hooded jacket. Some wear a knit cap. You're wearing a knit cap and a hood. Driving or walking, you dodge the dump truck, plow protruding from its front lip, that's wheeling up and down the parking lot.

As you head toward the football building, the gleaming, new orange weight machines in the windows seem to give off their own light in the predawn darkness. The expansive new weight room throws off a cheeriness matched only by defensive line coach Tim Cross, who's got a greeting for just about everyone he sees come through the door.

"What's up, baby?"

"I thought you were somebody else. I would have shut the door."

"Let's see you try to smile."

You mumble a reply. There's no time to chat. You rush past the sign that says, "The Road to the Championship is Always Under Construction." You've got a few minutes to get on your orange shorts, navy blue T-shirt with big orange letters announcing ORANGE PRIDE, and then, for the length of a 60-minute workout, act like you have some.

The funny thing is, you do.

After watching as his players sprinted, lifted, hurdled, sweated, bear-crawled, tugged, gasped and sweated some more on the floor of venerable Manley Field House, Syracuse strength coach Will Hicks, Jr., said, "I don't believe you can think what you saw today came from a 1-10 team."

It did, of course, the first 10-loss team in the 116-year history of Syracuse football. But there is a palpable crispness to this workout, both in the manner of the players and in how they work.

"It's a mental toughness thing," said Hicks, a native North Carolinean. "It's a whole lot easier to get up and be ready at 6 a.m. at Miami."

Head coach Greg Robinson arrived in his office at 5:25 a.m., and watched with pride as his players walked across the Syracuse tundra.

"It's establishing a work ethic," he said. "It's establishing a continuity base. It's establishing an esprit de corps. Those are the main purposes for what you do and when you do it."

Robinson, like Hicks, believes his team laid a foundation last season. To the rest of us, it just looks like the Orange laid an egg. But Robinson said Syracuse never stopped playing hard.

"The biggest disappointment and frustration is the season ended," Robinson said. "[In the last two games] At Notre Dame (34-10) and at Louisville (41-17), the fact is, we were right there battling. These kids have been very resilient. They have a nice way about them. We've got to develop them."

Teams that go to bowl games remain in game shape through December. It's less obvious, but no less important, that the rich in college football get richer. When offseason workouts began in early January, the Orange hadn't played since Thanksgiving weekend.

"If you're out of football for a month, you lose it real quick," senior linebacker Kelvin Smith said. "A week or two is good. A month is way too long. When I was home, I stayed out late. I saw a couple of friends. I don't do anything too crazy. I'm not partying hard. Everything I do in the offseason makes it easier for me."

Said Hicks, "I had to send them home with something to do. There is a sense of urgency with our kids. They know what to do. Last year, the intensity of the program took them by surprise a little bit. It's what Coach Robinson expects. This year, they were ready when they came back [from vacation]. They were prepared to start."

This sort of dedication is why Robinson believes that his team's road construction -- the hallway saying is one he borrowed from his former boss with the Kansas City Chiefs, Dick Vermeil -- is farther along than it looks. To the chronically skeptical Syracuse fan, that saying may sound the way FEMA sounds to the folks in New Orleans.

However, the Orange defense did play well enough to put three starters on the All-Big East first team. It's the offense, attempting to shift from the option-based attack of former coach Paul Pasqualoni to the West-Coast style favored by Robinson, that stunk on Onondaga County ice.

Syracuse finished 115th, second from the bottom, in Division I-A total offense, with 257.36 yards per game. Syracuse scored more than 17 points only twice, and that was in the first three games of the season, before opponents had an idea of what the Orange wanted to do.

"The production on offense during the game just wasn't there," fifth-year senior quarterback Perry Patterson said. "We know how good we can be. [Last season] makes us sick to our stomach … This is a fresh start for everybody. One-and-10 doesn't represent who we were."

At 5:58 a.m., Robinson stands in the center jump circle on basketball coach Jim Boeheim's practice court in Manley, a venerable barn that houses a 1/8-mile running track around the court. When the whistle blows at 6 a.m., the Orange line up for a couple of calisthenic drills and then break up into position groups and go to work.

There's an assistant coach waiting for them at each station. Linebacker coach Steve Russ' station consists of four large hoops, arranged in a pair of figure eights. The players run a figure eight counterclockwise, and then clockwise.

"C'mon, drive your arms!" Russ commands. "That's it! That's it!"

The quarterbacks and tight ends finish up a change-of-direction running drill at wide receiver coach Chris White's station, and jog over to Russ. He doesn't want jogging -- he makes them go back to White and run over to him.

A tight end fails to complete the figure eight, running straight back to the finish line instead of completing the loop. Everyone in the group must do five up-downs. It's a rare mistake. Only one other group did up-downs in the entire hour. Robinson beams when he is told that.

"That's the thing that's most glaring to me. The attention to detail is most important," Robinson said. "There was a time when the same group might have done up-downs at three different stations. We had groups that did more up-downs than they did drills."

At the opposite end of Manley, Hicks has set up a series of 28-inch-high, bright yellow hurdles. The position groups perform different drills depending on the needs at their position. The offensive linemen, for instance, hold a large, half-filled bucket of sand at arms' length, chest-high, and step over the hurdles. They also do a rep while sidestepping the hurdle.

"They protect this way," Hicks said, "and their body goes this way. This focuses it."

When the defensive linemen arrive, they bend their arms in front of them at 90-degree angles so that 25-pound sandbags can be placed in the crook. Then they perform the same drills: forward stepovers down, side stepovers back. Here, Hicks said, a defensive lineman learns he has to keep his body beneath his arms.

"You're teaching them not to arm-tackle," he said.

At the next station are five tackle dummies, set up in Olympic-ring formation. Cross, with his nonstop patter, pushes the players to bear crawl through them. "Bear crawls are the worst," said senior linebacker Kelvin Smith said.

By 6:30 a.m., the station work is completed. The players move out to the track, where they line up in the lanes and run two one-lap sprints. The offensive linemen lumber around the track. The defensive backs all look as if they've run in a lane before. The whistle blows, and the players move quickly toward one end of the Field House.

"You'll want to see this," equipment manager Kyle Fetterly said. "We only do this once in a while."

The players form a wide circle around Hicks and Robinson. In the middle is a large-water-filled, plastic disk with handles on opposite sides. It weighs about 40 pounds. An offensive player will play tug-of-war with the disk against a defensive player. There will be three matches. The side of the ball that wins two-out-of-three gets to watch the losing side run a lap.

Senior tight end Brandon Darlington yelled, "C'mon offense! It's our year." Maybe so; running back Kareem Jones beats safety Dowayne Davis, and wide receiver Jeremy Horne clinches the victory by pulling corner Nick Chestnut across the line. After defensive tackle Tony Jenkins salvages some pride by defeating guard Ryan Durand, the defense lines up.

From the cheering offensive players comes the yell, "Let's clap it up for the defense. Yo!" The winners clap rhythmically as the losers run. It's the exact esprit de corps that Robinson hoped to build, another foot of asphalt in the road under construction.

"I think the team building is real important," Smith said. "You see how your buddy is tired. You try to pick him up. You're just as tired. Everybody is in the same boat."

The players finish up with 10 minutes of drills with their position coach. They grab a shower and eat breakfast. Some lift. Some have class. Some -- mostly upperclassmen who have been around the block -- have no Friday classes. Their weekend has begun.

There's one other sign that the players took this workout seriously. No one paused between stations to throw up, a standard sign that a player is either out of shape, or had a late Thursday night, the unofficial kickoff of a Syracuse weekend.

"You see nachos everywhere the Monday after the Super Bowl," Hicks said. "You can always tell who went to a party."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.