Scorching sun. Vomit. The thud of plastic.
Football training camps mean pain, which has long been held as a good thing for the guys sweating through this annual rite of passage in the weeks before the season kicks off. And here, in this particular culture, no suffering gets more love than that which comes at the end of brutal back-to-back practice sessions. For decades, college coaches believed so-called “two-a-days” were essential to whipping players into shape after long summer layoffs. They were, according to theory, crucibles from which the strongest of camaraderies emerged. Indeed, in the 20th century many coaches deemed three-a-days and even four-a-days—sometimes on consecutive days—as essential conditioning hacks.
But the professionalization of major college football over the last couple decades, combined with increasing awareness of health risks correlating with overexertion in the heat, is rendering this tradition obsolete. This August, many teams scheduled a total of three days of two-a-days—one usually held in the morning, the other at night—during their entire preseason camp. Some, like Georgia and Georgia Southern, intended to scale back to a single two-a-day and Arkansas might have become the first major program to do away with the practice altogether. In preparation for next Saturday’s season opener, Razorback coaches had four opportunities for a two-a-day but didn’t use a single one.
Signs of its demise are unmistakable. Consider the NFL had already jettisoned the tradition in 2011 thanks to collective bargaining agreement demands by the NFL Players Association. On the college level, it now looks like no such union for the players will emerge after a recent National Labor Relations Board decision. Still, the NCAA itself has already pushed toward goals such a players’ union would support by banning two-a-days on consecutive days. It allows teams a max of 12 “live” contact practices (i.e. involving live tackling to the ground and/or full-speed blocking while wearing pads) with no more than four in a given week.
Barry Lunney Jr., Arkansas’s tight end coach, points out today’s players don’t need “a true old-school two-a-day grind” like they did when he played quarterback for the Hogs in the early 1990s. He recalls football summer training was then “semi-optional, and you never saw your coaches. When you got back to football, you needed two-a-days to get everything installed and to get back to optimal shape.” But since the 1990s, major college football has become a more intensive sport and players today enter training camp already near prime condition.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema believes his 2015 team is experienced enough to not need two hitting sessions a day. Based on his own research and experience, he thinks saving players from those collisions will on the whole keep them fresher during the regular season. This August, he opted to use the time that would have gone toward a second same-day practice for film study or a walkthrough instead. While the Hogs did lose star senior running back Jonathan Williams to a torn foot ligament in a scrimmage two weekends ago, Bielema believes the tact has worked so far. He cited he had a single player on the injured practice list as of Wednesday compared to 17 injured players listed around this time last year. “The benefit of it has definitely been a lack of injuries,” he told the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club.
Another benefit, in theory, is the extra time can be used for more intensive individual training for newcomers and younger players. In the old days, those newcomers might not have arrived on campus until August, but today’s freshmen and transfers begin acclimating to the system months before. Lunney Jr. estimates, for instance, about 90% of current Razorback freshmen had been on campus since May 25. Most big conference football players, regardless of class, also take summer school classes.
Another major shift came last year after the NCAA allowed coaches to mandate their players spend eight hours a week on conditioning, weight training, and film study during the summer. Before that point, coaches couldn’t directly supervise their players in that time of year. They are supervising them more in the cold months, too, on account of a ceaselessly expanding spate of conference championships and bowl games. The College Football Playoff, capped at four teams for now but likely to balloon to eight or more teams, also demands more time. This means while college players are now getting fewer dings from two-a-days, they also sustain increasingly more hits from practices and games that wouldn’t have existed decades ago.
“While I applaud coaches who are taking steps to safeguard player health and safety, the reality is that college football players in Division I are training more than ever—and even year-round,” says Sathya Gosselin, a Hausfeld LLP attorney who has served as trial counsel in the landmark O’Bannon v. NCAA litigation. “Whether supervised by the athletic department or not, intensive off-season training is expected at every top college football program, and that requirement, spoken or unspoken, has significant implications for the education of college athletes and their pre-professional training.”
Many former football players, perhaps good enough to play a few years in the NFL or CFL—but not good enough to make a living in the pros—feel the sheer number of hours they poured into college football hurt their long-term job prospects.
Take Sam Olajubutu, a former All-SEC linebacker at Arkansas, who took classes every summer in college but has struggled to develop a non-football career after a cup of coffee in the pros. “Once you play college football for four or five years, and then you play pros for two or three years and then you get out into the real world, you’re already behind the eight ball as far as job experience and those kinds of things,” he told SYNC magazine. While a few major college players still work summer jobs (e.g. one Hog worked as a greeter at a restaurant, another reportedly as a security guard), mandated summer football hours on top of class hours make it even harder to squeeze in the kind of internships that would better prepare them for careers outside of football.
These are not the kind of issues, though, SEC football players tend to publicly discuss. For the most part, they talk about preparing their bodies and sharpening their skills for the season opener. To this end, Razorback coaches didn’t employ two-a-days as a conditioning hack but rather as a motivational one. They used the threat of them to coax more overall effort out of their players. Had the Hogs ever slacked off in practice for too long, two-a-days would have been punishment. Starting quarterback Brandon Allen said in early August it didn’t matter either way to him: “It all comes down to how we practice. If we don’t practice the way we need to practice we may as well throw two-a-days in there.”
Not all SEC programs share Bielema’s doubt in the practice’s intrinsic worth. Take Tennessee, the Hogs’ October 3 opponent. In early August its athletic department published a video trumpeting the belief “the grit and grind of Tennessee’s two-a-days are crucial come game time.”
Even though Tennessee had only scheduled three two-a-days in the middle of its training camp, Jones had no doubt the old tradition can still help add up to new winning ways: “We talk about being 1 percent better everyday,” he says. “Now, you have an opportunity to get 2 percent better with two practices.”
Top college coaches are quick to tout the benefits their players reap from all the time they spend studying football, training for football, and playing the game itself.
The costs, though, aren’t so readily calculated.