Gophers football players gathered in the end zone on their indoor practice field. They were dressed for a workout and surprisingly in good spirits. They talked, laughed and looked nothing like college kids should at 5:45 a.m. on a Monday morning.
At 6 a.m. on the dot, a whistle blew and they jogged to midfield to begin their hour-long workout. This is the other side of college football: winter workouts, an unglamorous but necessary component of every program.
"This is what everybody dreams about when they sign that scholarship," said Gophers head strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein, his sarcasm evident even at that early hour.
Football Saturdays in the fall bring excitement, passion and pageantry. Winter workouts bring predawn wake-up calls, sleepy walks across campus and tug-of-war contests before breakfast.
"This is the part we all look forward to," defensive end Ben Perry said.
OK, not really, but the Gophers recognize the importance of these workouts. This is the foundation for every season. Teams must maximize their offseason in order to make strides on the field the upcoming season.
Workouts are "voluntary" per NCAA rules (wink, wink), but teams swear by their results. It sounds clichéd -- all football coaches preach the need to get bigger, stronger, faster -- but the alternative is not an option. It's a safe bet that most major-college programs in America will conduct organized workouts this week. It's just part of the deal these days.
For a program that's rebuilding, winter workouts carry even more significance. The Gophers are in catch-up mode, so they can't afford to coast through the offseason and not make significant gains in physical appearance and conditioning.
"You have to come out here with a positive attitude," Perry said. "The offseason is not the easiest part of our lives, but it's what we have to do to win. The first couple of days are bad, but you get into a routine. You wake up at 5:15 and it's like, 'Hey, it's time to go to work.'"
The Gophers hold 6 a.m. workouts four days a week. They go to class afterward and return in the afternoon to lift weights. Monday's early session consisted of drills designed to improve speed, mobility, agility and conditioning. Each day focuses on something different.
Klein's program incorporates a variety of exercises (even somersaults) and equipment (track hurdles, giant tires). He created a competition to keep things lively and perhaps give players something to focus on besides the fact that throwing a heavy medicine ball at 6 a.m. isn't much fun.
The team selected eight captains, who, in turn, held a draft in which they selected teammates. The eight teams -- Loyalty, Pride, Effort, Commitment, Integrity, Toughness, Accountability, Discipline -- were divided into two divisions and compete for points based on results in drills and the weight room. Points also are deducted for various missteps such as not hustling, wearing the wrong workout clothes or being late to class. The standings are posted in the locker room, and the competition gets pretty heated at times.
"You've got to win every day now to win during the season," left tackle Ed Olson said. "We come out and compete every day."
Olson is captain of Team Accountability, which entered the week in first place in its division. And yes, he drafted his younger brother, Tommy, a sophomore offensive lineman. "He was actually my third pick," Ed said, smiling.
The team that finished last in Monday's competition performed jumping jacks, up-downs and other punitive exercises while everyone else did cool-down stretching.
"It pays to be first," Klein said. "And it stinks to be last."
All kidding aside, this is exactly what this program needs. The Gophers never will have the most talent in the Big Ten so they have to compete like crazy to succeed. They have to fight when things get hard, and what better way to develop that trait than to practice it every day.
"We're trying to push that mentality of, not win at all costs, but it's important to win and you have to compete to win," Klein said.
That means the Gophers will be back on the field Tuesday at 6 a.m. for another hard workout. So will college football players all across the country. This isn't their favorite part of the calendar, but that doesn't make it any less important.
"Everyone sees the results," Ed Olson said. "That's why they keep pushing. We just know it's going to pay off."
Chip Scoggins • email@example.com