Odd couple: Bulls come together in Vero Beach
VERO BEACH -- Skip Holtz does not mind that traditionally, this is a baseball facility.
USF's second-year football coaches is specifically choosing to have his football team running routes and delivering tackles in an outfield 135 miles away from campus.
For decades, this was Dodgertown, the training ground of Koufax and Drysdale, the starting points for O'Malley and Lasorda. So if the Bulls and the Vero Beach Sports Village seem an odd match, well, Holtz loves odd matches.
Take the rooming here at Vero, where 105 players are sorted out into the same villas where Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider once stayed, and Holtz is careful to pair one offensive and one defensive player whenever possible. The traditional social circles of position or class are gone in Vero, where the primary goal is bringing players closer together.
"A lot of thought goes into it," Holtz said. "We look at it from a leadership standpoint, from a camaraderie standpoint. We put some sophomores with some seniors. We try to cross as many lines on this football team as we can."
So the line of scrimmage is an invisible one, and Holtz will routinely quiz players in meetings in Vero about their roommates -- Does he have any brothers or sisters? What high school did he play at? There are football benefits to sharing a room with someone who approaches the game from the opposite perspective as well.
"It's nice to have someone on the other side of the ball you can talk to about football, but also to get to know personally," said senior cornerback Quenton Washington, who is paired this fall with redshirt freshman receiver Deonte Welch. "You see them on a daily basis, but you don't always get a chance to talk to. This is really my first time really hanging out with (Welch)."
Last year, when Holtz first brought the Bulls to Vero, it was a more fractured team after the offseason firing of longtime coach Jim Leavitt, so two weeks here was as much about healing as anything. A year later, that's not an issue, but Holtz wants to quickly forge a bond between his returning leaders and the young talents who will have to step up if USF wants to win its first conference championship.
The trip comes at a cost -- USF pays $150 per person for night for lodging, food and use of the facilities, for a total of about $250,000 over 12 days -- but athletic director Doug Woolard said he was convinced of the difference it could make for the Bulls again this fall.
"We want to try to put our football team in the best position possible to be as successful as we can," Woolard said. "Our goal is to win a Big East championship ... it felt like that experience last year was so valuable to them that we wanted to provide that same opportunity for them again this year."
And while 11 football practices are the obvious means toward building a better team for USF's Sept. 3 opener at Notre Dame, Holtz is careful to mix in other things that have nothing to do with football. Last year's camp featured an informal Olympics, with a home-run derby in historic Holman Stadium, free-throw shooting, golf-chipping, even hula hoops.
The goal is that when the team returns to campus on Aug. 18, with a full two weeks of preparation still remaining for Notre Dame, players have friends all over the locker room, and Holtz has a chemistry that would have been tough to create in a normal on-campus training camp.
"It's a great idea. It forces you to basically bond with a person you're not used to seeing on the defensive side of the ball -- the so-called enemy," said junior receiver Evan Landi, who is paired with another junior, linebacker Sam Barrington. "It's good to learn about them, and you get out of your comfort zone a little bit. We're going to need everyone on offense and defense, so it's good to come together as a team like that."