Mizzou's mission: Boot camp bonding

The hardest part wasn't lugging the 50-pound sacks around for a 4.5-mile hike. It wasn't hauling tires or carrying metal poles. It wasn't even working up the courage to shoot M16s out of a bunker.

No, the hardest part of Missouri's overnight boot camp with the Missouri National Guard came in the quiet of the night.

As in the real quiet, when not a gadget was stirring -- not even a cellphone.

"Man, the last time I couldn't use my phone, I don't know. Maybe before I had a phone when I was a kid,'' said Mizzou senior Earnest Ross. "I'm a mama's boy too. I call my mom every night. But our phones weren't working.''

And that was exactly Frank Haith's plan when he schlepped his team on a four-hour bus ride from Columbia, Mo., to just south of Joplin -- to force the Tigers to unplug from technology and plug in to one another.

The Tigers' roster includes four freshmen, two transfers and one former junior college player, a hodgepodge group that Haith believes needs two critical things to succeed: togetherness and leadership.

When he first came to campus two seasons ago, he had a similarly disjointed group and enrolled them in The Program, a two-day team-building clinic run by a former marine. That team went on to finish 30-5 and earn a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.

So when Capt. Brian Hatcher reached out about a training session with the National Guard, Haith leapt at the chance. It's not an original idea, mind you. Today, team-building exercises and military workouts are big among college coaches who are trying to find new ways to blend rosters that turn over quickly. Between a rapid rise in transferring and early NBA departures, basketball lineups are particularly fluid and coaches are willing to try just about anything to develop some sort of continuity.

The military, of course, knows a lot about the need for teamwork and how to develop leaders. And while talking about it helps, actually forcing athletes out of their comfort zone is especially effective.

"We've got newcomers living in the dorms, older guys in apartments, transfers,'' Haith said. "Eventually it all comes together, but we're trying to speed up the process a little bit.''

Haith counted on Phil Pressey to guide his team last season, but the point guard left after his junior year, leaving behind a team in dire need of on-court direction.

Haith believes he has replacements on this team -- Ross, Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson are the obvious candidates -- but none has put in a lot of time at Missouri.

Ross and Brown played for the Tigers for the first time last season, after transferring from Auburn and Oregon, respectively. Clarkson, meantime, sat out a year ago after leaving Tulsa.

So Haith asked Hatcher, who had done a similar program with the football team, to devise an overnight schedule that would be fun for the players but would also challenge those three to take over.

The team arrived around noon on a Saturday last month. Hatcher wanted to make sure they had fun first, so he immediately divided them into two teams -- coaches versus players. He gave each participant an M4 retrofitted by the Guard as a paintball gun and set the coaches up protecting a compound, then asking the players to try to infiltrate it.

"We got creamed,'' Haith said. "The National Guard really helped our guys and not us, but I also know I took a lot of them out coming through the grass and they didn't go down. They came into the building and had paintballs all over them. I was like, C'mon.''

"Nah, that's not true,'' Clarkson said. "They were just missing.''

Once the paintball game ended, Hatcher readied the Mizzou contigent for the real meat of the trip -- a grueling 4.5-mile hike in the middle of an August afternoon.

As competitors and athletes, naturally the players wanted to win, but soon learned that the object here isn't coming in first but rather working together to finish at all.

"At first it was more competitive, to see who could finish first or do the most,'' Ross said. "As the miles added up, it was just about getting through it.''

Hatcher combined coaches with players and divided them into three groups, tabbing Brown, Ross and Clarkson as the leaders.

Each group had to haul four 50-pound packs ("We actually overstuffed it,'' Hatcher admitted wickedly), plus other materials gathered at three checkpoints: six straps at the first, 20-pound metal poles at the second and tires with the wheel wells still included at the third.

At one point, Clarkson turned his ankle but refused to surrender the pack. "He really impressed me,'' Haith said.

Eventually all three teams -- exhausted and spent -- finished. Brown's team won.

Afterward, Hatcher took the by-then-ragged group to the range (one player, whom Hatcher wouldn't name, fell asleep after the hike and didn't make it), where they got to fire M16s at targets that were spaced from 50 to 300 meters apart.

Freshman Wes Clark, who'd never fired a gun before, proved to be a pretty good shot, hitting 23 of the 40 targets, which would have been good enough to qualify him for the National Guard.

Finally, after dinner they crashed in the wireless-less barracks before heading back to Columbia in the morning.

"You have to talk about why you did what you did,'' Haith said. "You don't want to leave it up to them to figure out. They were like: 'Hey, we got the coaches. We shot them!' So you have to make sure they understood the purpose. I think they did.''

The players said all of the right things afterward: that they felt more connected and more sure of their roles; that they came away with an understanding of what it will take to work together, and more, to win together.

The real proof, of course, will come in the next few months.

It is one thing to lug gear together for a handful of miles.

It's another to endure an entire season's worth of baggage.