Five yellow buses pulled into the Saint Vincent College campus yesterday morning on the final day of training camp for the Steelers.
They could mean only one thing: School's out early! At least that is what some players thought because in the past the sight of school buses at a scheduled practice meant that the coach planned to take them to a movie or bowling instead.
As that awestruck '60s TV sitcom character Gomer Pyle might have said, "Surprise, surprise, surprise!" The buses remained parked and their drivers watched practice. Coach Mike Tomlin, conspiring with place-kicker Jeff Reed, had pulled a fast one on his players. Tomlin put them through the scheduled morning practice, then held a final one in the afternoon before signing off on his third training camp with the Steelers.
What some called Camp Cupcake ended with some gamesmanship.
"Just a little mental warfare," Tomlin explained. "Sometimes, people have to be horribly disappointed, then asked to perform."
Reed made the suggestion to Tomlin, who put it into play. Perhaps Tomlin, too, had heard the Camp Cupcake talk and wanted to send a message.
"That was a very cruel joke," said tackle Max Starks.
One concocted by their kicker, who does not do much at practice anyway.
"It was actually a joke, my idea," Reed said of his suggestion to Tomlin. "He wanted to roll with it because he wants to see where your mentality is all the time. If it's your last day of camp, are you going to show up with two good practices or get ready to get in your car and get out of here?"
The team will do that today, breaking camp after a morning walk-through, then heading to Washington for its second preseason game tomorrow night, against the Redskins. After that, it's back to the Steelers' South Side training facility and the end of two-a-days.
The three-week training camp in Latrobe for the reigning Super Bowl champs has been anything but easy. But with the rosters now limited to 80 players in camp, the Steelers do have their share of over-30 veterans, as well as 20 of 22 starters back. Tomlin pulled back somewhat on the veterans, especially compared to his first training camp in 2007.
"He's taking care of us," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "He had to put the hammer down his first year. If he had to do it backwards, it kind of would not have made any sense toward like what he wanted to do.
"So he established himself the first year. Even though a lot of guys didn't like it, we didn't have any choice."
The Steelers responded to Tomlin's first camp by winning the AFC North Division in 2007 and then the Super Bowl last season.
"Practice hard, play hard, play smart, coach takes care of us," Taylor said.
Yet other players noted that all real practices this summer were in real pads, not the lighter shells or the shorts-and-helmets practices that have been held in the past.
"I think he has a better feel for his players on the team," tight end Heath Miller said. "I think his first year he was maybe testing us, if you will, to see what guys he had and what buttons he needed to push. As in any relationship, it grows and develops and you learn more about each other. He kind of knows when to push us and when he can back off of us."
The diverse weather during the three-week camp also contributed to a sense that things were easier. It was mostly cool and cloudy early in camp before two or three days of heat in or near the 90s. Camp ended in rain the past two days.
"Everything seems easier when it's a cloudy or rainy day," Starks said. "You can almost push through it better."
The work, for the most part, was accomplished, most agreed.
"We're really getting after it," veteran nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "It's an older team and you have to take care of the older guys.
"He knows when we get in the game, the lights go on and the whistle's blown we're going to play physical, tough football. He knows that, he's learned that over the last two years."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .