Hot memories of Notre Dame football at Culver

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

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As the post-practice huddle of Notre Dame football players broke up, all eyes turned toward coach Lou Holtz.

“Go ahead,” was all Holtz could spit out before the gaggle of behemoths shed at least part of their warrior gear in search of relief.

“We took off our shoulder pads and headed for the water,” said former Irish quarterback Tom Krug. “It was brutally hot, and coach Holtz’s practices were intense.”

That was the vivid memory Krug, now 39, took away from Notre Dame’s first preseason experience at Culver Military Academy in 1995.

Two decades later, Brian Kelly has his team headed in the same direction for a week of non-contact work, starting Monday, before the Irish strap on the pads back home on Aug. 9.

Tight bond

Krug, now a Felony Division Circuit Court Judge in Sarasota, Fla., was quick to recall the impact the Culver experience had on him and the team, heading into what turned out to be 9-3 season that ended with a 31-26 Orange Bowl loss to Florida State.

“I’m someone who believes in the saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger,’” Krug said. “During our time there, it was practice and meetings; that’s it. All we thought about was, ‘When will this end?’”

When it finally did, the feeling Krug had was a surprise.

“I can’t think of many times I’ve had the feeling of self-fulfillment that I had on the (hour-long) bus trip back to campus,” Krug said. “It was like we survived boot camp. There was a pride and an excitement.”

Krug says that, to this day, when he talks with close friends (quarterback) Ron Powlus and (fullback) Marc Edwards, some sort of story from that time in Culver will be brought up.

Wasn’t quite “The Junction Boys,” that helped make “Bear” Bryant famous, but it may have had some modern-day similarities.

Boat crew

A master of motivation, Holtz used the available surroundings to set the tone for the season.

“One night, Coach Holtz brought us down to the lake and gave us a talk about how we all were in this boat together,” said current Niles High head football coach Antwon Jones, who was a freshman defensive lineman on that team. “There was a small boat on the shore of the lake. After coach Holtz got done talking, he had our captains (Paul Grasmanis, Ryan Leahy, Derrick Mayes, Shawn Wooden and Dusty Zeigler) light it on fire and send it out to the middle of the lake while everyone else sung the fight song.”

“Coach Holtz spent that whole time in Culver trying to paint that picture to us,” Krug said. “We’re all in the boat together.”

The night before the team broke camp, Holtz had a sailboat large enough to handle the entire team, take a tour of Lake Maxinkuckee while he nailed down his message.

Idle threats

“Coach Holtz warned us beforehand that there was going to be beefed-up security everywhere around the academy because the Ku Klux Klan was supposed to be meeting around there,” said Jones. “We were a little nervous, but we never saw anything.”

“There was some apprehension going down there,” Krug said. “I was a junior, just getting comfortable with everything on campus. Then, we’re going into a lot of unknown.

“We had heard rumors that the Ku Klux Klan was going to be gathering near there. We were sleeping two or three to a room and, without air conditioning, the heat was unbearable. We went to the hockey arena and slept on the bleachers.”

Krug said now he could see a method to what the players thought was Holtz’s madness.

“That trip did everything coach Holtz wanted it to do,” Krug said. “It brought everyone together. The conditions were tough. There were no luxuries. We took it to the edge, but when we came out of there, our friendships were strengthened.”

Eye-opener

It took Jones less than a week in Culver to develop an unwavering respect and admiration for Holtz.

Although, the situation really didn’t start out that way.

“Tensions were high in practice,” Jones said. “It was hot, and it was physical.”

Jones said the line play was exceptionally rough. In one particular morning workout, he was locked up with Zeigler, a veteran offensive line. The contact, which Jones said was mostly initiated by Zeigler, evolved into a fight. Holtz’s attention turned to the battle, and the rookie (Jones) got the boot from practice because of the altercation.

“I got hit with an upper cut, I had to fight back,” Jones said. “Here’s a freshman with his feelings hurt (after being banished from the field). I was talking to a manager after practice, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done. I’m outta here.’”

Of course, where was Jones going to go? Long walk back to South Bend. Even farther back to his home in Piqua, Ohio. The manager told him to cool down and not to worry about it.

“Before (the afternoon) practice, we were in our team huddle and coach Holtz singled me out in front of everyone,” Jones said. “He said he acted like he did because he thought I started the fight. He apologized to me after he found out it wasn’t me. That clinched it. When the head coach will apologize in front of everyone to a freshman who didn’t mean anything to the team, it said so much about coach Holtz.”

Finding leaders

Even out of the comfort zone in a difficult environment, it’s hard to contrive leadership on a football team.

Kelly tried to develop leaders in last season’s trip to Shiloh Park in Marion, Ind., but it never was manifested with players taking over during the season. Leadership seemed to be the missing intangible that was so important in 2012.

“In terms of leadership, you either have it or you don’t,” Krug said. “We had some really strong personalities (over the years) like Powlus, (offensive tackle) Aaron Taylor and (safety) Jeff Burris, who were great natural leaders.

“Just because he’s elected captain, a guy’s not always the best leader. You can’t manufacture those guys.”

A trip off campus won’t magically make that happen. Such an experience provides a fertile opportunity for leadership to percolate and evolve, but it can’t be forced.

Best bets to emerge as leaders this season are senior quarterback Everett Golson and sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith – both of whom will be getting used to new situations on the field.

Ironic

While 1995 was a memorable journey to Culver for both Krug and Jones, it’s ironic that neither remember returning there in ’96.

Yes, in fact, it did happen. The return trip was more of a “ho-hum, here we go again” type of situation and obviously didn’t carry the impact of the first exposure.

“In’96, we were wrapped up in everything that was going on with Coach Holtz (and his departure from the program),” Jones said. “That’s all that I remember from that year.”

“The (’95) experience made us a better team and better teammates,” said Krug. “We went through a lot together, and learned a lot about each other.”

Kelly can only hope to get as much out of Culver this year.

It was up to defensive linemen Paul Grasmanis to deliver the pop before the Notre Dame football team hit the road for a ride to Culver in 1995 (SBT File Photo).