What Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler Thought About Water

On day one of camp, nearly 100 football players pressed their cleats into hard dirt that refused to yield. Sharp rocks gashed their bodies; cacti pierced their skin; crunched noses spilled blood onto ragged jerseys. During the day, players suffocated in the 110-degree heat, fluids exhausted from their worn bodies. At night, they bunked in metal huts “hotter than a breakfast griddle,” sweat running off foreheads and eyelids and dripping from behind knees. By day ten, the team numbered less than 40. This was 1954 in Junction, Texas, a sparse cow town wasted by a years-long drought. This was Coach Paul Bryant’s first training camp at Texas A&M. This was hell at the hands of a man remembered simply as “Bear.”

Bear BryantThis was a different era for football. Toughness mattered more than talent. “Sacrifice. Work. Self-discipline,” as Coach Bryant said, “I teach these things, and my boys don’t forget when they leave.” During this camp, one player cracked multiple ribs at morning practice. He returned in the afternoon – wheezing, wobbling, and vomiting – but still practiced. Injuries needed dirt rubbed on them, not medical attention. Missing practice to heal was not smart it was weakness. And water, well in Coach Bryant’s mind, water was something wasted on the weak.

Bryant believed the fastest way to whip a team into shape was to deny the boys water, even in the brutal heat. He had withheld water during practices at Kentucky and Maryland, and those teams seemed to grow stronger in the fourth quarter. The team doctor even agreed with Bryant’s harsh methods. Back in College Station, Dr. R.H. Harrison had told him, ‘A stomach that is full of water can cause the blood flow to increase to the spleen. That, in turn, could cause a ruptured spleen.’ Smokey Harper (the A&M trainer) summed it up in a manner that pleased Bryant: ‘Hell, you never pour ice water into a car’s hot radiator. So why pour ice water into a hot boy?’

Jim Dent’s Junction Boys offers a glimpse into the harsh sacrifices made to appease the tyrant most players grew to love (or at least respect). Junction Boys is a football book about hard men built by an even harder man. Its stories are hard-nosed and without bullshit, as if also shaped in Coach Bryant’s image. I appreciated the entire read, but loved the point about water because it reminded me of one I heard as a kid.JB

At Michigan, Dad played for an equally determined and driven coach in Bo Schembechler. Though Dad’s nature was not to share many stories about his days playing, he did tell one about a particularly memorable practice. I’ve done my best to paraphrase him:

I don’t know who it was. The NCAA maybe, or the University. But someone mandated to Bo that we needed a certain amount of water at practice. So Bo agreed. ‘Fine, they’ll have their water.’ Next thing, we’re at practice and right at midfield is an oasis of long folding tables stocked with water jugs, cups of cold water, relief from misery. So we’re out smashing into one another for hours, wonderin’ when Bo was gonna let us taste that water. We’re whispering, angling to figure how we could sneak a sip and soothe our damn sandpaper tongues. Finally, one of the guys asked Bo when we’d get a water break. So Bo stopped practice and gave the poor kid an all day stare. Then he said, ‘they told me we needed to have water at practice. Nobody said I had to let you drink it.’

As I said, a different era.

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5 comments

  1. They may have been tough, but not very smart. Never abuse your tools if you want them to last was a lesson from my father. Bear and Bo would have been better off heeding such advice.

    1. Hi Deb- Yes, certainly doesnt seem very smart. And it is crazy that this was the belief not long ago. I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing we’ve moved away from the days of no water and salt tablets!

  2. Kelly-as always, a very thoughtful and excellent post. You have real talent, my friend. A bit of perspective–I played high school football in 1969-72, and college football in 1973-76 (like someone else you know.) We were not given water either, but we all knew this before the season started. In other words–show up in shape, gentlemen or you’ll regret it. As a result, most of our conditioning was running and grass drills; weight training and bulking up was non-existant. Thus, you didn’t see linemen over 225, or backs over 200 pounds. Of course, 40 years later, we all brag about how tough it was and how we survived. Strikingly, I don’t recall many heat-related illnesses or deaths back then. I’m not trying to say that we were much tougher than today’s ballplayers. You got it right– it was a different era. Matt Bagamery

  3. As a current nursing student, my brain just keeps shouting “danger Will Robinson, Danger, Danger”. I just wonder how or if the dehydration played into all the long term brain injuries, wear and tear on their bodies. It couldn’t have helped. I guess it’s just a miracle we didn’t have more young athletes drop over dead on the playing field.

    1. Hi Marci- Absolutely. Its frightening to think about, but without question the culmination of all the issues with “rub some dirt on it” mentality have led to the crisis were in today. Football remains America’s most popular sport but below the surface are real risks to the game, especially with shrinking numbers at the youth level.

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