May 14, 2008

Richt, other coaches set to visit troops

No matter how often they're described as leading their teams into battle, football coaches understand the foolishness in using wartime analogies to discuss their professions.

"There are some similarities with playing football and serving in the military, such as strategy, tactics, training and the fact it takes a lot of guys doing the right thing to have success," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "But there is much more on the line when you're fighting in the military."

Richt and a few other coaches are about to learn that first-hand. Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, Miami's Randy Shannon, Yale's Jack Siedlecki and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis will join Richt from May 20-26 in a tour of military bases across the Middle East.

The program is similar to Operation Hardwood, a summertime tour of military bases conducted by college basketball coaches that began five years ago. This tour, organized by Armed Forces Entertainment, marks the first year college football coaches will conduct a similar excursion.

"(It's) just a small token of appreciation for me to be one of a group of college football coaches to go over there and try to mix and mingle with a whole bunch of our troops that have a lot more important job than any of us have," Weis said. "I feel both honored and privileged to have been asked, and I'm looking forward to going."

Coaches will participate in meet-and-greets at various bases and will coach in a flag football game played by military personnel. The coaches also will participate in question-and-answer sessions.

The idea for this began in part because of the resounding success of Operation Hardwood and Operation Gridiron, a USO-sponsored event that features former NFL players. Armed Forces Entertainment believed a program featuring Division I football coaches could have similar success.

"Football is one of America's favorite pastimes," said Air Force Col. Ed Shock, the head of Armed Forces Entertainment. "The folks out there either want to show off their skills or get pointers on how they can play better."

As for how these particular coaches were chosen, Shock said Armed Forces Entertainment didn't specify what coaches they wanted to make the trip. They simply made a request for any Division I coaches who expressed an interest in making the trip.

"Once they raised their hand and said they'd commit, it was pretty much first-come, first-serve," Shock said. "They were all receptive. It wasn't that difficult."

It's easy to understand why these particular coaches were interested in making the trip. Many of them have personal connections to the military.

Shannon, for instance, has a daughter, Tyquitah, who has served in the military and recently returned from a tour of duty in Japan.

"It made me appreciate and understand what it's all about," Shannon said.


"It's an unbelievable opportunity I think it's something anyone would say 'yes' to if they were offered it."
-Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki

Tuberville is the son of a career military official, Charles Tuberville, who drove a tank in the Army and retired from the National Guard. Tuberville said his father fought in World War II and received a Purple Heart. The Auburn coach once was part of the last group of 18-year-olds to receive a draft number, though he wasn't actually drafted.

"I spent a lot of time around Army people and had an opportunity to see how it worked, the inner workings of the military," Tuberville said. "I'm really the only one in my family who's never been in the military."

During a coaching career that has included stops at Amherst and Yale, Siedlecki has worked with three players who went on to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. The list includes Teddy Pataki, a former Yale wide receiver and the son of former New York governor George Pataki.

Former Amherst defensive lineman Paul Rieckhoff now works as the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest organization for veterans of the current war. Todd Nichols, a former Amherst safety, served multiple tours of duty in the Middle East while working as a Marine helicopter pilot.

Siedlecki exchanged e-mails with a couple of those former players after learning he'd be making this trip.

"It's an unbelievable opportunity," he said. "I didn't even really think about it. I said, 'Yes,' when I found out I had the calendar free. I think it's something anyone would say 'yes' to if they were offered it."

The organizers are counting on that. They're hoping to make this an annual event much in the same way that Operation Hardwood has blossomed in the past few years, as positive word-of-mouth caused more and more coaches to volunteer.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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