Sept. 11, 2013
For fans wondering how members of the 17th-ranked Wildcats are reacting to their early-season success, consider this: based on the words of their senior leaders, they've barely noticed. That's what Skip Myslenski surmises in his Wednesday report:
This is Tuesday morning, and the sun is searing and the thermometer says 90 and the practice, the near two hour practice, is just recently over. We are chatting now with defensive end Tyler Scott, one of the five 'Cat captains, one of the 10 'Cats on their Leadership Council, and here our discussion is constantly mottled by the thwack, thwack, thwack of a shoulder attacking a tackling dummy.
"I don't think so," Scott is saying now. He has been asked if, as a leader, he has to be especially vigilant this week, if he has to take special care to be sure those around him don't succumb to human nature and ease off on their work with winless Western Michigan visiting Ryan Field on Saturday.
"Guys like (safety) Ibraheim Campbell are over here doing extra tackling after practice," he then picks up, his head nodding toward the source of those thwacks. "He's very experienced. He's been out there for three years. He's a stud. Same thing with (linebacker) Damien Proby, all the older guys. They're out here really working. I think that's the mentality of the team this year and I think the younger guys understand that and are willing to do whatever they can to help us out."
We ask Pat Fitzgerald if this week's game against a winless foe will be a test of his team's maturity.
"I think every week is. I really do," he says. "I think this football team feels they're a good football team. I think they've understood for a long time how we have to go about our business, how we focus on us, how we have the utmost respect for everybody that we play and that we have the utmost respect for the game. And at the end of the day, the biggest thing I stressed at camp, is respecting yourself. If you respect yourself, it means you work as hard as you possibly can to improve every day. And if you don't do that, the person you're really screwing is your teammate and yourself secondarily. We can get paralysis by analysis. We're ranked. We're playing (a winless team). But I'm not worried about that at all."
We later ask wideout Rashad Lawrence, another captain, another member of the Leadership Council, if this week's game against a winless foe will be a test of the team's maturity.
"I think every week you're going to have a test of your maturity in different situations, different points of the game," he says. "Like last game (against Syracuse), we came out in the second half and didn't come as hard as we could come. That's a maturity test right there. We've got to be a mature team to go strong for four quarters. So every week you're going to get a test of maturity. This week is no different."
We hear this and remember what the Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight told us so many years ago. He told us that his best teams, his championship teams, always had at least one player who thought as he did.
On Monday, while discussing the specter of complacency, Fitzgerald said, "I'm looking forward to watching the way they work this week."
On Tuesday, after doing just that, he first says, "They really came to work today."
Then, later, he adds, "I think why we've been able to be pretty consistent in the past is the way our guys have embraced improvement, the way they've embraced the work that needs to be done Monday through Friday to get themselves ready for Saturday."
Finally, minutes later, Scott says, "I would definitely say (Saturday's) a huge test of our maturity and what kind of character we have on this team. From seeing practice today and the way guys came out and prepared, I think the character's right where we need it to be. We're here to get better and we're here to work on the things that we didn't do so well last week."
So there is one other `Cat whose thinking mirrors that of his coach.
Fitzgerald also said Monday that he and the Leadership Council had been discussing, since March, the possibility that the `Cats would confront the situation they now find in front of them. And his message was?
"It's being consistent," says Scott, who is renowned for his work ethic. "Approaching every game and every situation the same, with the same mentality, knowing we're going to work hard and give great effort. Lead by example. People are going to look to you as a leader and how you're working is going to set the tone for how everybody else is going to work. I think that's the big thing. Setting the tone for the team by the way you work."
"Nothing different. Basically, be ourselves," Lawrence says to the same question. "Make sure everybody's in tune, as they should be. Then just come out and do what we do every week."
But isn't that hard with an apparently-overmatched opponent ahead?
"I guess you can say that from the outside," he says. "But from the inside, we respect the game and we've got the mindset that we go into every game with the target on our backs. So we've got to come in, especially at home, we've got to defend our house. So this week is no different for us. I didn't even know their record, to be honest with you. I'm expecting it to be the Big Ten championship game every week. So we're coming hard, practicing as hard as we can every week.
"This team is pretty mature. We all know what kind of year we can have. We know what's at stake. We know all the potential we have. But potential is only that. We have to go out and actually prove what we can be."
All of this -- the talk of respecting the game; the emphasis on working each day; the need to transform potential into successful reality; the importance of having leaders willing to lead; the players sounding so much like their coach -- all of this resonates with the old basketball writer, and so we pull out our musty file on Bob Knight. Our relationship stretched back to 1976 and so it is thick. But finally, there it is, the quote we were looking for, the quote that shows the importance of all we have just heard. "The good teams that I've had over the years," it says here, "have had players on them, I'd just simply say, 'You better make damn sure Jones is straightened out' and, I mean, Jones would be straightened out in a heartbeat.
"The most difficult thing is getting kids to be tough on each other. They all kind of commiserate, sit around, kind of mope together, feel sorry together because practice was hard. But, boy, when you get a Mike Woodson (the current Knicks coach) ... I can remember practices when Mike Woodson just stuck the ball under his arm and said, 'Dammit, let's start playing a little bit.' This is horse(manure) what we've got out here. Let's start playing.'
"Obviously Mike Woodson is one of my all-time favorite players ... (but) the all-time greatest in that category beyond any comparison would be (Michael) Jordan. In Jordan you saw a guy who just made everybody else want to win."
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