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It's ironic that in the first year of the Illinois High School Association's new Football Acclimatization Policy, the weather during what traditionally had been known as "doubles week" was as mild as morning dew.
Area coaches all dealt with the new policy approved by the IHSA Board on May 8. All have opinions on the new procedures — some benign opinions, some favorable, some not. A couple felt it was akin to an undeserved slap on the wrist.
The revamped policy came out of a joint recommendation by the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and the Football Advisory Committee. On April 17 the two committees heard presentations by the Sports Legacy Institute and the Korey Stringer Institute, named after the NFL All-Pro lineman who died of complications from heat stroke during the Minnesota Vikings' 2001 preseason camp.
The two-week acclimatization period, which began on the first day of football practice, Aug. 14, and lasted until Aug. 27, specifies maximum daily and weekly practice time, mandates a minimum of two hours rest between practice sessions including weight training or conditioning, and dictates the amount of allowable equipment — helmets, shoulder pads, full equipment.
Like them or not, each area coach adhered to the new rules.
"It is what it is," said St. Charles East coach Mike Fields. "I always tell the kids, you can't worry about what you can't control."
Going back decades, the first week of football traditionally offered the dreaded "doubles" practice sessions. Maybe the next week, too, if a school started classes later or a coach simply felt his players needed more drilling.
Under the acclimatization rule, practices on those first four days could last no longer than three hours, not including chalk talks and film sessions. Full pads, meaning full contact, weren't introduced until the sixth day of practice on Aug. 20. Some schools, due to the academic calendar, had one day of doubles.
For now acclimatization is limited to football. One preseason day Kaneland coach Tom Fedderly noticed Knights tennis players scampering on asphalt and soccer players gutting it out. He was even asked why his team wasn't practicing.
"My biggest thought," Fedderly said, "is we were just kind of laughing when we can have a walk-through" — no football, helmet or any pads allowed — "and we're watching the soccer team having their second practice and do all the stuff they normally do. We're the only ones ... I'm sure it's going to go to the other sports, but it just wasn't done as of yet."
On Aug. 20 football practices were expanded to five hours, total, with a maximum session of 3 hours and 2-hour minimum rest in between. Except for Sunday's off-day, practice times then alternated between five and three hours through the rest of the acclimatization period.
"It's intended to keep kids safe," said Aurora Central Catholic coach Brian Casey, whose roster lists nine boys weighing at least 250 pounds. "That's the goal, and if that's the goal then that's the right thing to do."
Former prep football players old enough to remember a promising Chicago Bears rookie running back named Walter Payton will always have a soft spot in their heart for that old-school coach who rattled face masks and believed water breaks were for sissies. A recent Facebook conversation brought up the time when an athletic director stopped by a Wheaton Central practice, the coach called for a water break and confused players wondered where to turn for such a thing.
In today's overly litigious, politically correct — yet in this area, wiser — landscape that type has either retired or been drummed out of football one castrated bull at a time. It's now accepted as counterproductive to drive players into the ground and expect great results.
"I've been doing this 26, 27 years, that generation of coaches is gone ... where you grind (players) and don't give them water," said Geneva coach Rob Wicinski. "There's just so much great information out there on water and how to keep athletes healthy. You want to keep your athletes healthy so you can maximize their production on the field."
Wicinski is all for player safety, but took exception to the mandated 2-hour rest between practices. To him it seemed like the IHSA felt a "lack of confidence and faith in the coaches."
"We're not ogres," he said.
"It goes back to the concussions and the tackling, too," Wicinski said. "They really came down on Illinois coaches for techniques on tackling. Nobody tackles old-school anymore."
Batavia coach Dennis Piron was in his rival coach's corner. Piron said acclimatization may be a welcome idea by ensuring a standard all programs must follow, but felt the rule was a strike against coaches who operated in the best interests of their players regardless.
"We care about kids. We always have," Piron said of Batavia's staff.
"I think these restrictions are fine and admirable in their purpose," he said, "but in their assumption they're wholly disrespectful because, in a way, I'm being told I'm doing things that will hurt children."
Piron noted that a goal of preseason practices, particularly that first week, is to get players "fit and ready to go." The first couple games this season will be interesting to monitor from both fitness and readiness perspectives. As is, Week 1 can be a slog through fumbles and penalties.
Though most programs nowadays condition year-round, Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe thought some might skimp on conditioning in order to emphasize installing offensive and defensive packages and suggested "a backfire in injuries" could occur. Marmion coach Dan Thorpe, while understanding the intent of the new rule, was concerned his Cadets may be behind, early on, in terms of hitting.
"Now in hindsight I wish we would have been more physical in our June and July camp," Thorpe said.
To deal with a new format that cut early practice time nearly in half — Aurora Christian would go six hours in doubles — time-management and organizational skills needed to be "uber-focused," as Wicinski said. He wasn't much affected; his practices generally didn't run much longer than two hours. Fedderly runs a clockwork practice, "on a timer."
New St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak, who plotted the doubles schedule when he was Elk Grove's defensive coordinator, had to be creative. To accommodate new teacher orientation he had the North Stars come in for an early morning walk-through, a midafternoon film session and an early evening practice.
To get a head start before August, as Pomazak said, teams "front-loaded" their summer training camps. The 25-day "contact period," which includes the increasingly prevalent 7-on-7 passing competitions, was where most coaches got in their plays.
"It really kind of makes you think how you're going to stretch your summer," said Pomazak. The installation of his own 4-3 defense, and the reapplication of offensive coordinator Jared McCall's spread scheme went so well the North Stars were game-planning for opener Elk Grove basically two weeks in advance.
West Aurora coach Nate Eimer stressed a direct connection between summer camp and preseason training: "You can't treat this practice as day No. 1," he told is players.
Aurora Central Catholic's Casey — "stunned" the IHSA didn't address the summer contact period where theoretically a coach cold go full-pads the entire time — said his entire offense and defense also were in by the time summer camp broke.
"Now it's a matter of fine-tuning things," he said.
Aurora Christian's Beebe wishes he could return to the "two-a-day schedule we had when we were kids."
He may get something closer to that next season.
IHSA assistant executive director Matt Troha notes that, given the reduced practice time under the acclimatization period and the desire to shorten the time between the summer contact period and the start of the season, the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and the Football Advisory Committee both agree that moving forward football practice should begin on a Monday rather than on a Wednesday, as it has for years.
"We anticipate that a member school will bring forward this proposal and it will be on the ballot this year," Troha wrote in an email.
A summer two days shorter? Now, that affects sports writers!
"We'll adjust," Eimer said, "we'll do a good job, we'll get more efficient and we'll do what our bosses tell us."