May 27, 2010

Kelly: Experience making him a better coach

Oregon coach Chip Kelly was breathless. That's the only way to describe Wednesday's stop on the 2010 Coaches Tour that is being put on by the USO/Morale Entertainment/Armed Forces Entertainment.

Kelly, along with Illinois coach Ron Zook, Army coach Rich Ellerson and Harvard coach Tim Murphy, rode a small plane from Bahrain to the aircraft carrier the USS Eisenhower, which was in the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea, not far off the coast of Pakistan.

After touring the Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered carrier that was deployed in 1977, the coaches took a helicopter to a nearby destroyer, the USS Farragut.

The tour made earlier stops in Germany to visit the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which is where soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan first are taken, and Bahrain before hitting the water.

Kelly, who led Oregon to the Rose Bowl in his first season as coach last fall, shared his thoughts on the tour thus far.

I just wanted to say "thank you." There are people over here defending our freedom and letting us do what it is we do, like coach football. They are people that we sometimes forget about. They are over here, so when the opportunity came up, I jumped at it.

Everything Wednesday obviously was a first. It was amazing. A two-and-a-half hour flight on a plane called a C.O.D. from Bahrain to an aircraft carrier, to land on the carrier. That's not like flying commercial. It was tense waiting for the plane to hit that wire on the carrier.

We also took a helicopter ride from the carrier to a destroyer, and we toured that ship. That was fun. They are kind of a protector for the aircraft carrier and always are in its shadow.

We got a chance to speak to their crew and talk to them about leadership. Then you listen to what their hours are. Wow. I thought college football coaches worked long hours, but they haven't talked to people who work on these ships. They work 18-hour shifts, then have just a five-hour respite to get some sleep. Then they wake up and do it again. It sort of rejuvenates you as a coach to see what these guys are doing. I know I was inspired. There is an unbelievable sense of teamwork. Everyone kind of relies on everybody else.

The other thing that kind of struck me was the maturity of the soldiers. They are the same age as a lot of the players that we coach; it's impressive the way they conduct themselves and what they are trying to do. They are trying to get better. They have an enthusiasm about them.

I would think when you are deployed as long as they are at sea, with no contact, really, with the real world, it could be depressing. I think they said the crew has been in port for only five days in the last nine months. But it really was the other case. They were inspired, enthusiastic about their jobs.

I had a nice chat with the senior enlisted man on the destroyer. We talked a little bit about leadership and what his role is. He has been in the Navy for 21 years. He was kind of picking my brain, but I was asking him a lot more questions than he was asking me -- what he does to motivate, how he keeps them in line, about training, what they do for teamwork and team-building. It has been a really interesting experience that will make me a better coach.

I met with a guy named Mike Benjamin from south Boston who showed us around the destroyer. He played college baseball. As coaches, we sometimes think we have a lot on our plate. But when you look at what those guys have to do, they have so much more responsibility. Meeting with the leader of the carrier and what his job title is in terms of running this ship -- I thought I had a lot of responsibilities as a head coach, but it is nothing compared to these guys.

Watching those jets take off and land was incredible. You could almost reach out and touch them. The sound ripped through your body. Watching the ground crew work in unison with the pilots was impressive.

I got a sense of what we were going to get into back at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., before we left, when we were fit for body armor. They don't fit you for body armor when you go to Club Med. That was a reality shot of what this trip is all about. They won't put us in harm's way, but we aren't going to a resort, either. When you put the body armor and a helmet on, it strikes you then where we are going and what we are doing.

Now, when I hear about the war on TV and read about it in the newspaper, I'll look at it differently. There is a sense that you can touch it now because we will have been there. I will be more aware of what is going on in the world.

The people that we meet here, if you can, shoot them an e-mail and keep in contact with them and make sure that they understand that there are people back in the United States who care about what these men and women are doing.

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