Rock Chalk Jayhawk: KU basketball traditions fill ‘The Phog’
A redshirt freshman guard at the University of Illinois, Jerrance Howard dared not laugh at the sight of 37-year-old first-year Illini coach Bill Self dressed as a drill sergeant for the final day of preseason basketball Boot Camp in late September, year 2000, in Champaign, Illinois.
“Coach Self came down to the gym with his face painted, wearing Army fatigues, boots on,” Howard, Kansas’ seventh-year assistant basketball coach, recalled Friday. Howard was speaking in advance of the start of the 17th-annual Bill Self/KU Boot Camp conditioning program at 6 a.m. Monday in the Jayhawks’ practice facility adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse.
“Coach said, ‘I heard Michigan State just ran 25 suicides. We’re going to run 30.’ It was 6 in the morning. It was his way of putting us in a tough situation and a tough mindset,” Howard said.
A suicide sprint is baseline to quarter-court and back; baseline to half-court and back; baseline to three-quarter court and back; baseline to end line and back. Various times are demanded of the players, with penalty laps assessed to the entire team if any player fails to meet particular standards.
Howard — he noted the Illini won the Big Ten and reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight that first season under demanding coach Self — said he and his former U of I teammates like to reminisce about Self’s Boot Camps at team reunions.
“You see somebody you played with … the first thing you talk about is Boot Camp,” Howard said. “There are memories from the day you start to the day you finish.”
That’s memories of two week’s worth of sprints, backboard touches, defensive slides and other conditioning drills conducted before the sun comes up.
“I say I’m a better person having taken part in it. Once you get through that, you feel you can accomplish anything in life,” Howard said. “It’s not just about running and the 30 suicides, it’s about coming together as a group in tough times. It makes you stronger and creates a bond that is life-lasting.
“Things you go through at Boot Camp made me a better person, coach, husband, father. The life lessons you learn getting up in the morning, being accountable, having energy, putting other people before yourself are valuable. Ask any player who has been through it … getting a T-shirt at the end of it (awarded to all Boot Camp graduates on the final day) feels better than getting a gold medal or million-dollar check.”
Third-year Washburn basketball coach/former KU guard Brett Ballard did not experience Boot Camp as a player. He played for Roy Williams, who instead of a Boot Camp program held a 12-minute conditioning run on the first day of the school year at KU’s Memorial Stadium. Ballard completed the most laps of any Jayhawk (in 12 minutes) during his two seasons at KU (2000-01 and ’01-’02).
Ballard’s first taste of Boot Camp came as a member of Self’s KU coaching staff from 2004 to 2010. Now he’s brought Boot Camp to Washburn after also holding it at Baker University, where he was head coach from 2010-12. Boot Camp was also conducted the years Ballard worked for former Jayhawk phenom Danny Manning at both Tulsa (2012-14) and Wake Forest (2014-17).
“Ours is similar to Coach Self’s — a lot of close-outs, slides, different movements that hopefully replicate what players have to do on the court,” Ballard said of Washburn’s Boot Camp. “There’s some running. It’s basically the same — come together as a team, suffer together, accomplish things together.
“At Boot Camp the biggest thing is if you attack every drill you’ll be fine. When you try to coast, Coach Self can see it. When you try to conserve energy, that’s not a good recipe.”
The idea is to use Boot Camp as a way to prepare the Jayhawks’ players for the first official practice of the 2019-20 season, which this year will take place on Sept. 24 ar KU’s Late Night in the Phog on Oct. 4.
“I totally believe in it,” KU assistant coach Norm Roberts said of Boot Camp, which he ran with Self at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois, and also during Self’s first year at KU. Roberts then became head coach at St. John’s for six seasons. He held Boot Camp before each of those seasons, returning to KU in April 2012.
“When you know something is good, you follow up with it no matter where you are,” Roberts said. “They loved it at St. John’s. You can’t help but love it. It brings toughness, togetherness, pulls guys in the program together and helps you make it through tough times as a team during the season.”
Roberts noted that “the reason Coach (Self) started it in the first place is he wanted to keep guys from getting injured. If you run ‘em and run ‘em every day to get them in shape, guys get hurt at practice. This way they hopefully are in shape before practice starts.”
Current Wake Forest assistant coach/former KU staff member Justin Bauman says he’s looking forward to the start of Manning’s 2019 Demon Deacon Boot Camp, also on Monday. Bauman, who worked three years for Williams and three for Self at KU, served as a student manager during Self’s inaugural KU Boot Camp before the start of the 2003-04 season..
“I remember being a manager. For two weeks you have to get there at 4:45 in the morning to set everything up. Now I’m just glad I can walk in at 5:30 or 5:45,” Bauman said with a laugh.
“I remember at KU before coach Self’s first year I had no clue what to expect with Boot Camp. I remember it was really early. Everybody was on time. It was new for guys like Mike Lee,. Aaron Miles. Keith Langford. I think Aaron told some guys to sleep in their practice gear at night and sleep in the locker room so they’d get some extra sleep and still be on time.
“The managers would get there at 4:45. Coach Self would walk in with more energy than anybody in the building. I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, as a manager we need to do what they (coaches) do as far as clapping and yelling to encourage the guys to do it.’
“It may be tough,” Bauman continued, “but there’s no way you can’t love it. It brings toughness, togetherness. Guys make sure it pulls them together during the season when there are tough times.”
Bauman says a key to a successful 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. Boot Camp session is enthusiasm in the practice gym.
“What Coach says is, ‘If you are not talking, you are clapping.’ You’ve got to bring some energy into the building,” KU assistant Howard said.
Self, who created his Boot Camp routine at Oral Roberts 27 years ago, described his conditioning program this way:
“It’s probably more than most players have gone through — of course, it’s not anything they can’t get through. Through all the drill work, they get their bodies in shape, also their feet in shape. It’s kind of a mental thing we put our guys through.”
It’s obviously not easy working out an hour in the morning, then heading to classes on campus. After that, it’s afternoon weightlifting as well as practicing (four hours of on-court instruction is allowed per week this time of year) and playing in unsupervised pick-up games.
“For two weeks anything goes basically. Whether it’s a 5 a.m. wakeup call for workouts to afternoon-type things, to if you are a minute late to tutoring or if you are a minute late for class .... anything goes. Whatever we (coaches) say. That two weeks they can’t argue with us,” Self said.
“What it does is create an element of more than team toughness. They are pulling together. You get to the point (during the season) they say, ‘Guys we didn’t do this for nothing.’ Even though other teams may do it, it gives us a source of pride.”
With all the stories, memories and positive recollections, perhaps KU’s staff members, including Howard, would like to join the players in actual Boot Camp drills on Monday?
“You couldn’t pay me enough to go through another Boot Camp,” Howard said with a laugh.