December 15, 2010

Bowl practices can have lasting benefits

Tulsa coach Todd Graham calls it "winter ball," and whatever a coach may dub them, bowl practices are bonus time and a valuable tool for building a program.

The 70 schools that will take part in the 35 bowls get 15 practices to prepare for their postseason game. For most of the teams, the sessions often are more about the development of young players and less about preparing for the bowl opponent.

"I would say that we spend 75 percent of our time on development and 25 percent on game preparation," said North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien, whose team is playing West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 28.

This will be just the second time in four seasons that O'Brien will have the benefit of bowl practices, and he wants to maximize the opportunity.

"It's like another spring football," O'Brien said. "But it's better than spring practice because playing is fresh in the minds of the players. They don't take two months off, then pick up again [like spring practice]. They take a week off and practice. I think it's a better situation."

Baylor coach Art Briles is thrilled to finally have the benefit of bowl practice for a program that is making its first postseason appearance since the 1994 Alamo Bowl. But going to bowls is old hat for Briles, who led Houston to four bowls before taking the Baylor job after the 2007 season.

"Every situation is different," said Briles, whose Bears will play Illinois in the Dec. 29 Texas Bowl. "We aren't doing anything we did in the four bowls we went to at Houston. We put our stuff in here and worked it around recruiting and players' schedules. We will go light with the number of practices before classes get out. And when they are out, we will start being more consistent on meeting on a daily basis."

Like Briles, Graham is a postseason vet. In 2006, he guided Rice to its first bowl since 1961, and the Golden Hurricane this season are making their third bowl appearance in four seasons under Graham. Tulsa plays at Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve.

"Last year was the first we didn't go to a bowl," Graham said. "And I think that is part of the reason why we got off to a bad start this year [1-2]. We started off this year losing on a 'Hail Mary' pass [51-49 at East Carolina] and didn't play good versus Oklahoma State [65-28 loss], and then we won six in a row [after a 3-3 start].

"I think that has a lot to do with it. Your development fundamentally is key. We approach it just like it's spring training. I think it's very, very critical."

Florida International is experiencing its first bowl trip, though coach Mario Cristobal is used to them from his time as a player and assistant at Miami and as an assistant at Rutgers. Thing is, Cristobal needs to introduce his players to practicing in mid-December.

"I have talked to people," said Cristobal, whose team plays Toledo in the Dec. 26 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. "I looked at some of the old plans we had [when he was an assistant] under Butch Davis and Greg Schiano. And we put our minds together as a staff here.

"Early on, you want to stress fundamentals. You have to be able to run the ball, secure it, be good on third down and in the red zone and on special teams. Those things will be overemphasized in the first few practices."

While the development of young players is a priority, coaches also know veterans can benefit.

"It's a chance to make the good players better," O'Brien said. "We always pick out one or two things we try to improve upon with the guys who have played. If individuals become better, the team becomes better."

Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood plans to scrimmage his young guys before leaving to play Middle Tennessee State in the Jan. 6 Bowl.

"Before we leave, we will have the entire game plan in," he said, "so we will practice each week like we are playing that Saturday. We will have 100 percent of the game plan in before we leave so we have the right mind-set as we approach this game.

"We also are going to scrimmage our young kids. It will be a chance to think and practice the system instead of running scout team. It gives these guys an opportunity to get in practices in which they are running our offense, defense and special teams. And we will be able to evaluate them better. Once we get to Mobile, we will go back to scout teams."

Besides being able to develop players, coaches think there's a recruiting advantage to conducting bowl practices.

"It gives [recruits] an opportunity to see the coach work," O'Brien said. "The recruits get to sit through meetings and see how our players interact with other players."

In addition, coaches can get in all of this work with players largely unfettered with academic responsibilities.

"There's the added benefit of not having to work around classes," Briles said. "And the more you can stay involved on a personal level with any of your players, the more trust you build with them. So I think that part of it is really critical.

"The bowl practices are just a big advantage. We are glad we have them."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for He can be reached at, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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