Griz football coaches try novel camp approach

July 25, 2012

As an overwhelmed sixth grader attending your first overnight basketball camp on a college campus, there are three things you definitely can do without.

You don't want to be the only camper to receive a letter from his mom during the week and then have that letter get in the hands of the camp director, who feels it's best to pass out the pink envelope at an all-camp assembly.

You don't want to be caught cupping water out of a fountain and dripping it on the front your shirt and prepubescent chest in a jealous attempt to produce the same V-shaped sweat stain that all your friends were able to come by naturally.

And you definitely don't want to have your assigned coach -- an end-of-the-bench player at a Division III program -- take one look at you and decide you'll be known to him and your teammates as "Auschwitz" the rest of camp because you're so skinny.

I may have gone 0 for 3 on the above list at my first basketball camp, but at least I had The Man on my side. Or thought I did.

For any basketball fan growing up in northern Wisconsin in the early 80s, UW-Eau Claire's Ken Anderson was coaching deity. He had started coaching the Blugolds in 1968, and by the time I sent in my registration form and money to attend his summer camp in 1983, he had already led his NCAA Division III team to 11 Wisconsin State University Conference titles.

In local basketball circles there was no one bigger, and The Man had written and put his signature to a note on his camp brochure welcoming me to his camp and letting me know that he was personally excited to see me -- ME! -- on his campus that summer.

I couldn't wait for The Man to be my coach that week. Check out my two-footed jump stop! Look at how I chin the ball after grabbing a rebound! Watch me dribble with my left hand!

I wanted him to huddle with my team before the big game, and I wanted him to dish out enthusiastic high-fives after we won it. But after being introduced to the campers at our very first assembly, The Man vanished, not to be seen again the rest of the week.



All I had of our time together was a camp T-shirt that bore his name and a horrible epithet. It was a disappointing experience, one that would be repeated the next six summers at different locations.

Trent Tucker's camp at UW-River Falls? I saw the New York Knicks 3-point specialist one morning at the dining hall, eating breakfast by himself in the corner, reading the newspaper. He didn't look up.

Clem Haskins' camp? Saw him for the first time Thursday afternoon at the last session of camp. The Minnesota coach addressed all our parents, who were sitting in the bleachers, while we sat on the gym floor behind Haskins, seeing nothing the entire time but his back side. In retrospect, it was a fitting conclusion to my camp career.

Campers don't ask for much. They want to see the people who give their name to the camp, and they want those same people to see them make that sweet pass or up-and-under post move. To look over to the sideline and see an appreciative nod from The Man, Trent Tucker or Clem Haskins.

And we don't want to be called "Auschwitz."

Montana's Ty Gregorak feels our pain and is out to try to fix the problem, one football camp at a time.

"I've been to places and know of places where the coaches are not even there," Gregorak says, preaching to an understanding choir member. "Or maybe they'll be there at the start and at the finish but won't be involved in any meaningful way during the actual camp.

"They bring in high school or guest coaches to do the instruction while they go golfing."

Gregorak, Montana's first-year defensive coordinator, and his fellow Griz football coaches took a stand against the no-show camp culture when they hosted their first Individual and Big Man Camp in late June.

"The Montana coaches were the ones who actually did the coaching, and that's something I think is pretty special," he says. "Like I told the fellas on the first day, `This is going to be a little bit different.' "

Different? The first camp activity Friday afternoon was climbing to the M, where head coach Mick Delaney was waiting. "We hike those 13 or 14 switchbacks, and the guy waiting for us at the top is 70 years old and he's joking about having to wait so long for them to make the climb. It was awesome."

The head of the camp interacting with the campers? Joking with them? Making an effort? This wasn't just new, it was camp sacrilege.

Once back at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the 115 players went through a 40-minute, nine-station agility circuit, followed by a barbeque on the field while the video board rolled Griz highlight films.

I sure don't remember barbeques, just cafeteria food, and I don't remember anything close to what the coaches did next: Each one took his assigned players on a campus tour.

"My group checked everything out and then took a break on the Oval," Gregorak says. "I told my guys very honestly that a lot of them are only going to be students at college, not football players.

"Getting out of the stadium and onto campus gave us an opportunity to tell our guys the special things that are going on here. Sure, it's a football camp, but what we're really selling is Montana."

Friday ended back at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Thirty minutes of offensive instruction, 30 minutes of defensive instruction and an hour of the linemen going through position-specific drills and competition and everyone else playing 7 on 7.

The camp attracted more than 100 players, and Saturday morning showed another example of how Montana's coaches put in the effort to successfully make it a unique experience for each one of them.

The seniors started with a 30-minute presentation in the weight room with the football program's strength and conditioning coach, Rob Oviatt. The freshmen, sophomores and juniors gathered at the same time for a question-and-answer session with the rest of the Griz coaches.

"It was just talking, and it was really cool," Gregorak says. "We all got a chance to get up and share some things.

"Leon Burtnett, who's been a head coach in the Big 10 and offensive coordinator in the NFL, gives the man-in-the-mirror speech. Shalon Baker, who's five-foot-nothing, tells the kids about loving the game and being a football junkie. Justin Green and Scott Gragg talked about recruiting.

"I shared some of my recruiting experiences, like visiting Ohio State and meeting John Cooper on the weekend of their game against Michigan and how on my trip to Stanford my mother and I had lunch with (then Stanford Provost and future Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice."

The two groups rotated, then went back out to the field for an hour of offensive and defensive instruction and two hours of live play.

"(The campers) checked in at 1:30 at Craig Hall on Friday afternoon, and they were checked out by 1:30 on Saturday. That's a pretty good 24 hours," Gregorak says.

"They learn some skills and tools they can take with them, and it gives them great exposure to our coaching staff. We can watch a recruiting film, but what better way to learn about someone than spending time with them at camp?"

In its first year, the Individual and Big Man Camp attracted players from Montana, the in-region states of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Wyoming and the out-of-region states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California. All for a one-day camp.

"When you've had the success we've had and you're playing late in the season on ESPN like we've been able to do, football fans are watching us," Gregorak says.

"The last couple of times Montana has been on TV, whether it's been football or men's basketball, and those games have been at home, this place has been electric. Rocking. People see that and they think, That looks like a really cool place.

"If I'm a kid or a parent, I'm thinking, Let's go check that out."

The small-group, interactive nature of the camp also gave the coaches, particularly the passionate Gregorak, a chance to address some of the campers' questions. With ongoing newspaper reports that the entire athletics program at Montana is highly flammable and one spark away from totally going up in flames, Gregorak was able to give an opposing viewpoint.

"We were a point or two from going back to our eighth national championship game last season. Men's basketball set how many records last year? Our women's basketball coach is one of the winningest coaches ever. Soccer just won the Big Sky championship. We've had 14 consecutive 3.0 (grade point averages as a department). And how many championships have been won during that time? Who else is doing that?

"This place is in pretty good shape, and that's what we're selling. Mick Delaney is not using this job to try to get a bigger or better job. He wants to be here. Timm Rosenbach wants to be here. I'm going into my ninth year here. Shalon Baker, Scott Gragg and Justin Green? Those guys are all alums. This is their home."

Despite my camp experiences, I ended up going to UW-Eau Claire for my undergraduate degree. Never did meet The Man, who was still coaching the Blugolds at the time. Doesn't matter. Ken Anderson just lost the title to Ty Gregorak anyway.

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