“Ready, feet, hit!”
When I played at Florida State under Bobby Bowden, this phrase was on repeat in my head for three years as we moved from getting acclimated to our spring semester classes into the meat of our offseason conditioning program. “Mat drills” are what made you a Seminole during that time and everything was graded, from effort to skill to attitude. Every school had its variation of mat drills, but I’m standing behind the statement that FSU’s were the standard.
How hard were mat drills? Let me put it to you this way: I figured out a way to get rid of all the distractions in my life, including my high school sweetheart, and I found God – white Jesus, black Jesus and Hispanic Jesus. I saw all of them as I was prone on the floor after my first day of mat drills, throwing up and contemplating just how much I wanted to play football.
The layout of mat drills is simple. There were three 18-minute periods of speed, agility and endurance drills that are meant to be done perfectly and as a unit. Mat drills started at 5:45 a.m. during the coldest time of the year in Tallahassee (February) and my time was done inside Tully Gym. Each player had an assigned seat and players were to be seated, Indian-style, promptly at 5:45. Players started their stretch at 5:45 and don’t be late; if you were going to be late, better off just to miss it because the punishment was the same.
The groups were split up between “Bigs” (linemen), “Big skill” (quarterbacks, linebackers, tight ends) and “Skill” (defensive backs, wide receiver, running backs), and each segment was divided into groups of four. The row you were in was determined by the score you received in the previous mat drill; each section is graded from 0 to 4. Don’t get a zero; you might as well not show up, as the punishment is the same.
Fours are the standard – that’s championship-level effort. The rows also were chosen based upon what you did the previous season – were you in the coaches’ doghouse, did you miss class, etc., etc. Let’s just say you didn’t want to be in the last row.
A phrase that still causes me to shudder was, “Send that group back!” That meant you had to go back to the line and do the drill after the other groups were done but you still were in the same row. So, if you were in group one but were sent back, you now are the last group to go but you’re also group one, so you immediately have to go back to the front.
Group 1: Running Station (aka ‘Rest Station’)
Station 1: Technique and form running
Imagine that: I called the running station a rest station. Essentially, it’s nine minutes of 40-yard dashes. And you must sprint. If the coaches don’t think you’re competing or you lose to someone you shouldn’t, you can get a zero – and as I’ve said, you don’t want a zero. You might as well not show up.
Station 2: Speed ladders
You do nine minutes of various speed ladder drills, where you sprint 5 yards to the drill and 5 yards after the drill. Pull up before the cone and you get sent back. If up the ladder, you’ll get a zero. And you don’t want a zero.
Group 2: Andrews (named after Mickey Andrews aka ‘purgatory’)
Station 1: The pins
You do speed and availing drills under a 5-foot metal pin bridge contraption with rows. There are bags that you run over, around, through and touch for six minutes. This is supposed to help you stay low (or, if you prefer, not get too high) when you play. You learn a valuable lesson if you get too high. You also learn things by seeing others make mistakes.
Station 2: Cones
The best way to describe this is six minutes of sprinting in short 5- to 10-yard bursts on a slick basketball court. The problem: As soon as you catch your breath, it’s time to go again. Luckily, assistant John Lilly oversaw this drill and he was one of the more sane coaches on the staff.
Station 3: Andrews
This is where you had Andrews, one of the meanest and baddest dudes in college football, taking you through hand recognition and mirror drills, all while he is cursing at you. His presence alone made this drill so hard; you’d do anything to just get him to stop yelling at you. He’s also already identified which one of you is weak and he’s ready to exploit it to see if he can get them to crack. Writing this is making me have painful flashbacks.
Group 3: Mats
Unlike the other groups, which are broken up into stations that provide some relief during breaks, this is 18 minutes of straight drills on an old wrestling mat. You hear the words “ready, feet and hit,” and you dive out to the ground as far as you can and get up as quick as you can, chopping your feet in place, waiting to see what the coaches want you to do. If the group behind you isn’t immediately ready, you start again. There is no “winning” this drill. You finish the minimum two-point shuffle, two-point rolls, four-point shuffle and four-point rolls, then you get an opportunity to do more drills, like the monkey roll and some mess where you hit your chest, roll onto your back, then back on your chest, then back into an athletic position in whatever direction the coaches tell you to. It’s damn near impossible to be perfect. When a coach says “go!” you sprint full speed to the edge of the mat and stop on a dime to chop your feet. Then you sprint full speed to the cone, which is right next to a brick wall. I saw teammates run into the wall.
The drills themselves aren’t that hard. It was the combination of how early they were, the coaches literally being in your face yelling and cursing, the cold outside, the heat being on in the gym, that your teammate might’ve thrown up in the row in front of you and there’s no moving to the side, that you need to throw up but you know if you miss a drill you get a zero, that you’re in the same line with a teammate who pissed off the coaches during the past year and they keep sending your group back, that … I could go on and on, but you should get the drift.
The entire exercise is to put you in the most extreme circumstances and see how you react. Are you going to tuck tail, or are you going to come together and push though it? Football is hard and the season is long. Coaches were trying to replicate the most stressful moments and see if you can lean on your experience in the offseason to get you through the season. There is a military saying: “The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.” No, football certainly is not war, but the sentiment fits. The reason I think FSU should go back to some of the old ways is that those God-awful drills made you trust the man to your left and to your right. You trusted teammates to make plays because you knew what they went through.
When you look back on every game FSU lost last year except for Boston College, the Seminoles didn’t lose simply because they were outcoached. I’d argue that they were in position to win the games, but it came down to the opponent handling adversity better than FSU. That’s what mat drills is supposed to be about.
Article Originally Appeared on Gridiron Now: http://gridironnow.com/bobby-bowden-era-mat-drills-florida-state-teams/