||Saturday, December 22
Make bowl games fun, rewarding
Former Georgia coach Jim Donnan and former Arizona coach Dick Tomey will put their coaching knowledge and skills to the test on Verge Friday on ESPN.com during the Culligan Holiday Bowl (Fri., Dec. 28, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Donnan and Tomey will also be contributing articles on bowl preparation and provide their game plans on Washington and Texas.
When I was coaching Arizona, the usual sequence of events began after we finished the regular season the Friday after Thanksgiving against Arizona State. The coaches would go to work, but we would give the guys two weeks off.
After a tough, long season the guys need a break. They continued to lift and run, but there was no practice. Once you start practice again, they are rejuvenated in a certain way because they've benefited from the time off and the rest. Even the break away from football helps and they are anxious to get going when they get back. It's surprising how quickly they get themselves going.
Although, I do believe the things that can get away from you in the time off is special teams. More bowl games are won and lost in special teams because those get away from you quicker than offense or defense. Another important area is turnovers. Ball security is a real issue in bowl games. You have to stay on it, emphasize it.
One of the best parts about going to a bowl game was the extra practice time. We would always take an extra 45 minutes to an hour after practice with the whole team to work with the young players. It was really like a spring practice type environment with the young players. We'd do that for six or eight practices. The young guys would get an extra half or third a spring practice and that's of great benefit to any team.
We would resume practice on or about December 10, 11 or 12. Since this was late in the semester, we would kind of dance around finals as best we could and have weekend practices on the two weekends surrounding finals. Then we would begin practice as soon as finals finished. We had no curfews at home, the guys would just live their lives.
There were occasions where we would go two-a-days once the guys were out of finals. In that format, we would practice in the morning and evening. Those were typical, hard work practices. The staff started early, sometime around 6 a.m. Your early morning hours are to get together as a staff and detail -- make sure you have all the interaction of practice worked out -- all the exchanges of personnel, all the things you particularly want to see that are common to the opponent. The coaches have meeting with the players. You get on the field about 8 a.m. Once off the field, you grab some lunch and look at the tape from the morning practice to find the things that you feel need to be done better in the afternoon practice.
The rest of the schedule would depend on whether it was a New Year's Day game or an earlier game. If it was a New Year's Day game, we would practice right up to Christmas. The guys would have Christmas off -- a chance to go home -- and then regroup and go to the site. If it was the Holiday Bowl, for instance, when we went to San Diego, we would practice right up to the time we left. We went to San Diego nine days before the game. We would give the players Christmas Day off at the bowl site.
The closer you get to the game the more specific you get about your opponent and it becomes less spring practice like and more like a game week. I'll give you an example from the Holiday Bowl when we played Nebraska. We were playing an option team -- we hadn't played one all year -- the one thing we had to do was run option at our team the entire time we practiced. That was really unusual.
We had a guy, Nick Fleury, who was an option quarterback on our team that was our most valuable player in that Holiday Bowl. He did a fabulous job -- in practice! We had him at wide receiver and moved him to quarterback for our scout team. He did an unbelievable job simulating Nebraska for our team.
Simulating an attack that's so different from yours is very difficult, but it's easier in a bowl game than in a normal game because you have more time. The toughest games for a wishbone team are the first game and the bowl game because they are so unusual. The toughest game for any team that has an unusual offense or defense is the first game or the bowl game.
There can be a lot of difference in the way teams prepare. The biggest difference in that week was that eight days before the game Nebraska scrimmaged for three hours and we didn't scrimmage three hours from the end of spring practice until that time. They had so many more players than we had. We only scrimmaged like 12 plays before the game, they scrimmaged three hours! It's a difference in who you had and how you could handle an injury or two.
We arrived at the site nine days before the game and we've been working on things we're going to use in the game all along -- combined with more of the spring practice type format. Once we got to the bowl site, we narrowed our focus to the game. We practiced six times and started into a normal game week routine making our installations on the second day we arrived.
You have to be careful to not let the extra time get you to depart too much from what you've done. Your players are still going to execute what they've done better. To me the biggest thing you've got to do is work hard on the kicking game. Not having kicked off or covered punts in a month can be a huge problem. You're reluctant to do that live -- it's just an 80-yard full speed collision. You have to find creative ways to practice. You have to make sure you do enough of that stuff because if you watch a lot of bowl games, turnovers and kicking game mistakes rear their ugly head.
You always have special plays ready to go. You've looked at all the tape on a team for the year and if a particular kind of play or blitz on defense has been effective against that team the whole year, you might include it in your plan. You also know that your opponent has looked at their film and may well have adjusted to whatever it was that was giving them a problem. I don't think you change that much.
For instance, the game we played against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl or Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, our team had won 10 or 11 games and you're not going to change dramatically. The best thing is to do the things you do. Just do them better. Make sure you are in good shape, highly motivated, the kicking game is sound, protect the ball and play hard.
Everyone who goes on a bowl trip has a great time -- the families and supporters. Then there's the coaches who go out there to work. The only negative is they're not having the same kind of free time everyone else is but it's such a pleasure to be there. The bowls do such a great job. For instance, the Holiday Bowl to me does as good a job in hospitality and balance as any bowl in the country. They do a fabulous job of hosting the teams without having so many events that the teams are exhausted.
You need to give the players a chance to have fun and enjoy themselves until you get right down to the game. Some teams change hotels night before the game, we never did that. Some teams have real strict curfews the whole time, we had curfews but they were pretty liberal. However, you do need to have strict guidelines. The players can't do anything to dishonor themselves, the University or the team. You just try to do as many things as you can to give the players a chance to have freedom and enjoy themselves. You want them to have an experience that they will want to return to.
I've known teams that have made the bowl experience a kind of event that the players weren't all that excited about going back. You want players to aspire to go to a bowl. The hotels do a good job setting up game rooms and hospitality rooms for the players. They try to accommodate players' wives and children, if that's their situation.
You try to do everything you can to make it an enjoyable situation for the players and make sure they understand there is a job to do and that they need to achieve the right balance.
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