University of Miami football coach Mark Richt made it clear Sunday, just minutes after stepping foot onto Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Lake Buena Vista: “This is not a bowl trip for us. This is like going away to camp prior to the season beginning.’’
About 35 Hurricane athletes, 25 of them football players, and coaches and family members and administrators, hopped on one of three buses the night of Thursday, Sept. 7, to make the 10-hour, overnight trek to Orlando amid horrible traffic to flee Hurricane Irma.
By this past Friday night, the rest of the more than 100 football players had joined them to get ready for their first practice on Saturday since Sept. 5 – a 10-day storm-related layoff.
Though Saturday’s practice was closed off limits to the media, and technically, Sunday’s as well, Richt and UM deputy director of athletics Jennifer Strawley addressed reporters before Sunday’s practice.
“Once we knew campus was evacuating we gave all our student-athletes in every sport the opportunity to get on the bus and go to Orlando,’’ Strawley said. “We left with about 35 student-athletes in a variety of sports. We ended up with over 80 who came through Orlando at some point between Thursday and Friday. And then obviously, the entire football team came in on Friday.
“We had football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, swimming, golf, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, track, all who were here in Orlando at some point; coaches, staff…”
Credit to Florida Citrus Sports, who helped the 14th-ranked Hurricanes (1-0) get lodging at very fair prices, Strawley and Richt said.
As for the football players who originally chose to go to Orlando with Richt and the others, Richt said he let the players choose.
“When we decided to break camp,’’ Richt said, “we wanted everyone to have time to get with their family and make decisions on what’s best for them. The same thing with coaches, the staff – we waned our coaches to be with their families and help batten down the hatches and make decisions on what they wanted to do.
“Some kids did stay in South Florida. Some went all over the place – whether it was home or maybe [with] their family up north somewhere. There was one that went to Puerto Rico, one or two went to California and Mississippi. They were all over the place…
“Our number one goal was safety of everybody. That’s why we made the decision early not to play the game. Could we have snuck out just in time to play that game [against Arkansas State]? We could have, logistically, but in the meantime, if you’re a coach and you’re putting in 12-hour days and the time that it takes to prepare for a game like that, to show the respect that you need to show to that game, then who’s helping your wife get things done?
“The thing that was kind of the deciding factor for me was, I didn’t want to have a team in Memphis or Arkansas while all heck is breaking loose with everybody’s family. I didn’t want my players to look at me like, ‘Coach, why are we here?’ What are we doing here?’ Or even my staff saying, ‘What are we doing?’
“I said, ‘That’s it. We’re out. Let’s break camp early. Let’s let everybody make arrangements.’’’
The Canes practiced for about an hour Saturday, much of it conditioning, and will increase slowly today, with a lot of conditioning as well. Richt will give the players off from actual practice on Monday, but they will meet and watch film and concentrate on football. On Tuesday, they should be back to contact. They will practice again at the Disney complex Wednesday as well, and return Thursday in time for the Saturday game against Toledo at Hard Rock Stadium.
“Look at this place,’’ Richt said. “We have a beautiful place to work out, a great place to house our players and feed our players…They needed rest. They needed nutrition, so we were going to make sure we fed them good…It’s dangerous, to me, to play football if your mind is somewhere else.
“…Now we have to start up all over again. There’s a difference between running conditioning and playing football conditioning. Contact is not necessarily a natural thing. We have to get used to tackling again, blocking again. We have to get used to being in the kind of condition you need to play in the heat and humidity.
“That’s kind of where we’re at.’’