Tuesday was the middle of August, but, still, there was a hint of a chill in the air during mid-morning, when the University of Utah's freshmen football recruits assembled on the immaculate grass northeast of the Huntsman Center.
"It feels like football," said Jim Fassel, the Utes' head coach. Of course, to people like Fassel, anytime feels like football. You could be standing in the middle of Waikiki Beach on the 4th of July, and those who Truly Love the Game would say, "feels like football."So that's what the coach was saying Tuesday morning as 30 or so green recruits lined up for introductions and the beginning of 2-a-days - three words that provide a chill in the air all by themselves.
The coach told the new guys to loosen up, to relax, to enjoy this introduction to major college football high in the Wasatch Mountains - where oxygen is scarce and about to become more scarce by the day.
He told them to "have fun," as if this were an amusement park ride.
Fassel's approach is in marked contrast to the drill-sergeant type indoctrination, as made famous by Bear Bryant when he was at Texas A&M and would take the team to a remote part of Texas and sleep in tents; and by many other hard-nosed coaches, like Frank Kush, who, while at Arizona State, created an August camp in the mountains outside Phoenix, where instead of running laps for misconduct you had to climb the mountains.
Part of it is that the survival-camp mindset is somewhat out of vogue these days, but mostly Fassel takes it easy with the new guys because that's his personal style - developed because he can remember what it was like when he first went off to play college football.
"I went 50 miles away, to USC," he was saying Tuesday, "and that's all I could handle. I couldn't imagine being mature enough at that time of my life to go a long ways away to school. Here (at Utah) we've got a lot of kids who have come 800 miles and more to play football. We want them to feel at home. When the veterans show up this weekend, the first thing we tell them is `treat the new guys with respect, and make them feel welcome.' "
There's a double motive, too. Not only does the coach have a soft spot for rookies, but he doesn't want to lose any of them. "The average program will lose a player or two every August, because of homesickness," he said. "We want to avoid that if we can."
It takes a lot of work to get them signed up in the first place.
"If you don't care about kids, then you shouldn't be in this business. You shouldn't be working at a university," said Fassel.
Sometimes that care and concern can bring with it disappointments - as was the case for Fassel this summer when three members of his football team were arrested for drug dealing.
The coach had worked overtime, in particular, with one of the accused, running back Martel Black, on his personal problems - and had let him back on the team after earlier problems.
"I'm scathed a little by what happened," he admitted. "I definitely tried to help Marel. Now I feel responsible for embarrassing the university, and the football team.
"My biggest disappointment is that now the public has this perception that there's some kind of a rampant drug problem at the U. I know that's not the case. I may miss a few things, but not in that area."
When the veterans join the freshmen this Saturday, Fassel said he will address the issue head-on. "I'm going to hit it hard, talk it out, not make it seem like we've got anything to hide," he says.
In the meantime, there's this freshman class to orient, and get in shape, and keep relatively happy. Thursday night the coach will have all of the new guys at his home, for a backyard barbecue.
But that doesn't mean the workouts themselves will be anything less than spirited. No sooner had the freshmen been welcomed to Utah Tuesday morning, and made to feel right at home, than the punt-blocking drill was under way. Freshmen are always prime candidates for the suicide roles on special teams. The punt-blocking drill identifies those most proficient at the technique.
Time after time, the new Utes took their turns at rushing the punter and trying to smother the punt.
"We're looking for the guys who have timing, can keep their eyes open, and catch the ball with their mouth," says Fassel.
Even on your first day, it should feel like football.