Originally created 09/06/97

Coaches still believe in pep talks



SOUTH BEND, Ind. - A few minutes before this afternoon's kickoff, George O'Leary will stand at the front of a hushed visitors locker room at Notre Dame Stadium.

Every Georgia Tech player will look straight at the silver-haired head coach and wait.

For instruction.

For inspiration.

For motivation.

Thus will continue one of college football's hoariest traditions - the pep talk.

From Rockne to Bowden, Heisman to Spurrier, college coaches have used words and emotion to whip their players into a pre-game frenzy. When it works, it's the stuff of legend. When it flops, well, there's always next Saturday.

"Every head coach tries to get to some hot button of a kid that will get him to the point where he needs to play," says O'Leary, beginning his third full season atop the Yellow Jackets program. "You have to know your players. Certain players need a prodding, others will stare right through you."

The trick is finding a way to serve the greater good. The challenge is finding the right tone at the right time to reach the greatest number of players and produce maximum performance.

All of which sounds great, but is it even possible any longer? This, after all, is the age of the cynical athlete. Far too typical is the kid who has been celebrated for his sporting gift from pre-pubescence forward and who really doesn't care to have a fire lit beneath his seat.

This is to say nothing of the ever-dwindling attention span of our nation's MTV-addled brain.

"I think you still can excite young people," says Clemson coach Tommy West. "As a head coach, that's your responsibility to make sure your team is excited about playing every Saturday. It all goes into your personality.

"The bad thing about that is it's pretty easy to excite them for the big games, but you don't need to excite them for the big games. It's the other games, the ones you're supposed to win, that you want to excite them, and that's when it's the hardest."

North Carolina State coach Mike O'Cain played quarterback at Clemson in the mid-'70s. He admits that Red Parker's talks rarely did much for him in his playing days, but as the Wolfpack coach, he still tries to live up to the old motivational ideal.

"I think yes, you can still give a rousing pre-game speech," says O'Cain, whose club stunned Syracuse on the road last Saturday. "How much does it help? I don't know. Two minutes after you give that speech, you ask any player on that sideline and they couldn't tell you a word that was said."

South Carolina linebacker Shane Burnham says last year's road upset of Clemson was due in part to a stirring locker-room speech from offensive lineman Travis Whitfield.

"That kind of struck a chord with all the guys," Burnham says.

And what were the highlights of Whitfield's sermon? Burnham goes blank.

"Well," he says, "Travis kind of said, `Let's go out there and beat Clemson."'

That's not to say pep talks never register. Wake Forest players readily recall the story coach Jim Caldwell told before last year's season-opening upset of Northwestern.

As a young boy of perhaps 10 or so, Caldwell came home from a schoolyard scrap looking disheveled. His mother asked what happened to him, and when he told her he'd just lost a fight, she grew angry.

"His mom kicked him out of the house," Demon Deacons senior receiver Thabiti Davis says, growing wide-eyed at the memory. "She told him to go back and win the fight."

Caldwell stopped by his cousin Junebug's house, and with his help avenged the beating. The lesson: When a family sticks together, any fight is winnable.

"That's the only story that really sticks out in my mind," Davis says. "Of course, I've heard it every year, at least once. It works good. It gets everybody worked up. We know we're in a fight."

Fostering that us-against-the-world mentality is the hands-down favorite of pep talk themes. Coaches arrive at that point in all different ways. Some prefer the evangelical approach. Others tend to get a bit profane.

There's also the disdainful approach, which builds a prove-the-coach-wrong rage in the dullest of locker rooms.

None of the above is a substitute for sound coaching from Sunday through Friday. It merely provides the cherry atop the sundae. Or, if you prefer, cranks the amplifier one notch louder to 11.

"Your preparation during the week is what builds confidence," says South Carolina coach Brad Scott. "A more prepared team is a more confident team, and they'll go out and play that way. But I never send our football team out without trying to spend about 2-3 minutes with them and share some last-minute thought that might not pertain necessarily to X's and O's.

"It may just be about hard work and where we've been to get to this point. It may just be about `oneness' and `team-ness' and commitment to each other and the way we're going to play today. Every game is different and every challenge is different. I don't think there's one central theme or message you can rely on week after week."

Like many aspects of college football, the pep talk is something that persists despite widespread doubt about its merits. It's almost a vicious cycle. Coaches were once players who heard pep talks from their coaches. They almost feel compelled to continue the process, all in the name of tradition.

"If you've got to get your players ready five minutes before the game, something's wrong," O'Cain says. "But that doesn't mean you don't say some things to generate some emotion. There's a tradition there.

"One thing you don't want is those guys walking out of the locker room acting ho-hum. Maybe it only lasts 15 seconds. Maybe it only gets them out of that door to the edge of that tunnel where we come out on the field. But when they come out of that locker room, yes, you want a spirit of excitement with the players."