When legendary Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant dragged his men into the unforgiving desolation of Junction, Texas, for training camp, the only sounds you could hear were the dithering slithers of rattlesnakes and the ominous cries of circling turkey buzzards. The real men, the Texas A&M football players he wanted to mold at his famous practices, toiled in silence, save for the occasional snapped bone.
All the above was fine for 1954. But now?
"I go through a practice without music and I think that's really weird," says first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
It's a good thing that Andersen doesn't go through a practice without music, and he's not the only one. The past few years around college football, music has become increasingly popular at practice, blared to replicate crowd noise, to encourage non-verbal communication, to motivate players, and for the simple matter that, unlike running toward your deathbed in Junction, Texas, coaches believe music makes football fun.
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner, who played for the Nittany Lions in the late 1960s, says someone would have had to fashion a record player with a giant horn to provide music on the field when he played. Heck, if such a sound system had been around, Bryant probably would have pumped out the audio version of Chinese water torture, which is practically what coaches were doing 20 years ago.
As an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien remembers being introduced to white noise, the UHF frequency. They would play it at certain practices so players would be ready for crowd noise on Saturdays. O'Brien would go home with a headache.
Penn State linebacker Glenn Carson knows the feeling. Joe Paterno piped static through speakers at practice in 2011.
"It was a pain, man," Carson says. "We hated it when that thing came out."
Coaches did this for a reason. As the game has sped up in recent years through spread and no-huddle offenses, communication has become key. O'Brien says teams need to practice with this tempo in practice and with the distractions of a glass-shattering crowd. Proponents believe fast-paced music offers a solution for both, while also being viewed as a morale booster.
"I spent a week down at Disney World this year," says Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. "It's interesting. If you sit back and evaluate people when there's music that's being played, watch how they're acting. They're upbeat, bouncing around, they're dancing. When there's not music being played, their shoulders are down. So I think there's a lot to it."
Music has long been connected to feelings of contentment and even camaraderie. Dating to the Apollo space missions, astronauts have woken up to favorite songs rather than typical alarms as a way of promoting bonding among the astronauts and ground control.
Teresa Lesiuk, assistant professor and interim program director of music therapy at the University of Miami, completed a recent study illustrating mood enhancement for information technology workers who were able to listen to music at their discretion, which led to greater productivity. Though no studies have focused on football, she says that familiar music, played at the right time, likely could have an activating effect on the players' moods.
Hazell is one of the many believers in music in the Big Ten Conference, along with O'Brien, Andersen, Illinois coach Tim Beckman, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.
When Andersen was hired several months ago at Wisconsin, one of his first purchases was the Coach Comm tempo system. This expensive, portable gadget synchronizes practice with music or crowd noise. It allows a coach to program the system so that specific music mixes with specific drills, and times every aspect of practice. Andersen says his practices are now more efficient (one hour and 50 minutes long) and more productive.
"We wanted to have a distraction for kids to let them understand it might be music you like, it might be music you hate," he says. "It might be loud so you have to focus and learn and hear better and pay better attention. It forces you to pay attention. It forces you to coach in that environment on game day."
Teams such as Wyoming, Oregon, Utah, UCLA, Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette also use the tempo system, and others would like to get one if they could raise the needed funds. A rather envious Wilson desires the Coach Comm system so he can program his voice to make announcements about a change in drills at practice at the same time the music changes.
"It's just like you're at the club on Saturday night and the remix of the song comes on," he says.
Of course, you also could bring the club to practice. Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth has done that. Since last year, a student named Chris Hilliard (DJ Chris) has come to nearly every Louisiana-Lafayette practice and every home and away game.
At practices, he plays current music throughout. At games, he's in the locker room before the team, setting the optimal mood.
Hudspeth, 44, said his football coaches would never allow music when he played. He believes music promotes an environment of intensity and enjoyment. Every week they have a hip-hop day, Remix Wednesday and Throwback Thursday, when Hudspeth plays his favorite Run DMC and Sir Mix-A-Lot songs from the 1980s and early 1990s.
There is a danger to all this, though. Music isn't always a panacea for uninspired football or a catalyst for communication. The song, like any college football player, must rise to the occasion.
"We tried country one practice, but we had to start practice over," Hudspeth says. "It didn't resonate, even for the guys who like country."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published August 10, 2013 4:00 AM