Saturday, July 19, 1997
New camp enough or too much?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Training camp need not be a reformatory. It can be a resort. It can offer central air and cable TV, upholstered chairs and equipped kitchens. Plus all the sunshine you can stand.

Here at Shangri-La For Shoulder Pads, the Cincinnati Bengals have found nearly all of the comforts of home. And still they search for more.

"One of them came up to me during practice," Mike Brown said , "and asked if I knew where the pool was."

The Bengals are still getting their bearings at Georgetown College, but they have seen enough to perceive progress. Pro football's summer camp is still mainly about perspiration and isolation, but at Georgetown, at least, it seems a lot less like prison.

"Here," Ki-Jana Carter said, "there's a chance to be relaxed and be serene."

Serenity is seldom considered an important component in a football team - not nearly so important, say, as a thirst for blood - but it probably has its place. The fewer things a player has to complain about, the more attention he might pay to his craft.

That's the theory, anyway.

Mike Brown is not yet convinced. In 29 summers at Wilmington College, the Bengals' general manager and aspiring Spartan never missed all that he was missing. He endured without air conditioning and without complaint, content to have a bed and a book, comfy as Thoreau at Walden Pond.

"Creature comforts don't mean much to me," Brown said. "I find creature comforts more trouble than they're worth. But I found out that the players of today are used to certain things. If they don't have air conditioning, they feel deprived. I think this arrangement helps keep them satisfied for the moment, and we want them to feel good. How that translates into the win-loss column, I don't know."

Location does not matter

Probably, it doesn't. Probably, the Bengals' results would not be materially different if they trained in Nice or in Nome. Place a plow horse at Claiborne Farm, and he's not going to suddenly start running like Secretariat.

Yet whatever value players place on their work environment has been enhanced here. Their apartments are significantly more spacious than the dreary dorm rooms in Wilmington, and much more modern. Each unit is wired for cable TV and computer transmissions and equipped with a refrigerator - a big deal in a dry county.

What the Bengals remark on most, however, is that the complex itself requires fewer footsteps than did Wilmington. On a sweltering day, after a full-pads practice, proximity can be priceless.

Not the football norm

This runs contrary to football tradition, which holds that training camps should be selected for optimum sadism and that players should be made as miserable as the law allows. The basic concept is that players bond through shared suffering, and that all their trials during the season seem trivial compared to training camp.

Football is a hard game, and its coaches are instinctively suspicious of anything that might take the tough edge off of their troops.

"Training camp," said Jim Anderson, the Bengals running backs coach, "is not a place that should have too much luxury." Reductions in roster size have contributed to the changing culture of training camps. Coaches are reluctant to encourage too much contact now for fear of additional injuries to players they will be unable to replace. As players have become less expendable, training camp has become more tolerable. The days of twice-daily contact drills grow progressively distant.

"When I went to camp with Detroit in 1960, we scrimmaged every day because we were coming off a not-too-successful year," said Dick LeBeau, the Bengals' defensive coordinator. "We got pretty good, those who were left."

One day, when the Lions were down to two ambulatory ends, a coach told an exhausted Bill Glass, "One more play."

When Glass replied that he could go no further, the scrimmage was stopped. There was no one left to fill in.

"Billy," LeBeau wondered, "why didn't you do that 20 plays ago?"