PARK CITY, Utah – Barbecue ribs, steaks and a choice of tasty side dishes, neatly displayed on a linen-covered table. Or cold beans and franks, served up on the floor.
Those were the only two menu options available at the banquet Paul Wulff put on for his Eastern Washington University football team heading into spring practice. And whether one dined in style on the ribs and steak, or choked down an unheated hot dog while sitting cross-legged on the floor, depended on how their team had performed during a series of competitions that capped a demanding and highly competitive winter workout program.
Wulff, the Eagles’ eighth-year head coach, still smiles when he recalls the reaction of his players when they walked into the banquet room.
“On one half of the room we sat up tables with nice drinks, ribs and meat,” he explained during Tuesday’s final session with the media at the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff.
On the other half sat the cold beans and franks, sans tables or chairs.
“They all walked in all laid back,” Wulff continued, “and saw the ribs and steaks.”
Wulff, however, was quick to nod toward the more common fare on the austere side of the room and announced, “The losers are eating that.”
It might sound a bit cruel, but Wulff considered it a fitting end to an off-season plan geared to re-enforcing some of the concepts that provide the foundation for any successful college program – along with erasing any lingering memories of last year’s disappointing 3-8 finish.
“As a staff, we just knew we had to change,” said Wulff, who had guided the Eagles to a share of the Big Sky Conference regular-season championship the previous two seasons. “We had to create new leadership, teamwork and competition.”
To that end, EWU coaches put their players through some innovative winter workouts that not only tested their physical and mental abilities, but their competitive natures, as well.
Early on in the Eagles’ off-season program, coaches handed out three different colored jerseys – red, white and yellow – to their players.
The red jerseys, Wulff explained, were awarded to those who displayed a “championship” weight-room effort that included great attention to detail and a tendency to “do all the right things.”
The white jerseys went to those who were “mediocre, 5-6 or 6-5 type of team-record players,” who were doing some good things, but “not quite doing the extra things.”
And the yellow?
“That meant you were 3-8,” Wulff said.
As part of the program, the coaching staff would gather at the end of each workout to evaluate each player’s effort and designate the color of jersey he would be assigned for the next workout.
“It became a pride thing – who would get a red?” Wulff explained. “And the guys with the yellow were really sticking out, and the team would figure out that these guys better pick it up.”
Eventually, Wulff and his staff broke the team up into six individual groups, awarding a certain amount of red, white and yellow jerseys to the players in each group, who would compete against each other in various types of physical and mental tests.
“Then it was up to those teams to push each other, because we would give awards to whoever had the most red jerseys,” added Wulff, who claims his players worked harder during the off-season than any group in recent memory.
“There was a change in everybody’s approach, from the coaches to the players to the strength coach,” he said. “We had to get back to some basic fundamentals, mainly because of the young football team we had last fall. We had to get them to understand the level of commitment and intensity we needed to be a competitive team again.”
So how did it all work out?
“I really liked the way the team responded,” Wulff said. “I felt like we had a lot of growth as a football team throughout the winter. Last year was a first-time experience for some of our younger kids who came off back-to-back championships. So this was a great learning experience on what it’s going to take to get back on top.”
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