Extra Points: High-Tech Heels

Extra Points: High-Tech Heels

by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com

CHAPEL HILL - When Bill Dooley was named head coach at Carolina less than a week before Christmas in 1966, one of his first orders of business was to communicate with his players, who had scattered to points across the Eastern Seaboard for semester break.

"Because of the timing of my selection as coach at Carolina, I was unable to meet with the members of the squad before you left for the holidays," Dooley said. "I plan to hold a squad meeting Jan. 3. I will look forward to seeing you then."

And his method of communication?

Why, telegram, of course, dispatched by Western Union, a company that for more than a century had focused on the worldwide transfer of words and messages delivered on small sheets of yellow paper.

"A telegram was how you sent a special message in those days," says Dooley, today retired and living in Wilmington. "It was important to reach out to our players and their families as soon as possible. That was the only way to do it."

Today Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora sends messages to his coaching staff and/or his entire roster with some swift keystrokes with the thumbs and a click of the SEND button on his smart phone. His coaches communicate with recruits by email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even Skype. One assistant coach literally has no land-line telephone in his office, so wed is he 24-7 to his smart phone.

Long gone are days of 16mm film shown in darkened meeting rooms, of a young basketball coach like Roy Williams earning extra money by delivering tape of the football coach's Sunday morning TV show to stations in Charlotte and Asheville. Today after a road game a Tar Heel showers, dresses, boards a bus to the airport and by the time the flight departs, team video and computer chief Chris Luke can hand him an iPad with sideline and end-zone angles of the game just completed 90 minutes earlier. A player in 2013 can log onto the team's private internet website and view tape from a practice, a game or of an opponent from any laptop or desktop computer with an internet connection.

And though offensive coordinator Blake Anderson edits and compiles an old-fashioned playbook with the Tar Heels' offensive system cataloged in three-ring notebooks at the beginning of each season, he doubts that many of the copies handed out to players have been cracked.

"We still do it, I guess we're a little old-school," Anderson says. "But hardly anyone uses their physical playbook."

Anderson looks at senior running back A.J. Blue. "You ever opened yours?" Anderson asks.

"Nope, don't need to," Blue says. "It's all on-line. I've not touched mine since the beginning of last year."

"The day is coming," Anderson says, "when we can put our entire playbook in PlayStation and play a 3-D version in the off-season. I'll bet that's the next step."

There's no telling what's coming in the wild wild west of technology and athletics. Tape study, recruiting, equipment and medical care have all been affected as has the world at large with digital technology, the cloud, advanced fabrics and the World Wide Web.

"I'm not a real tech savvy guy, but I understand the importance of it, so I forced myself to immerse myself in it and learn it as much as I can," Fedora says. "This is the future. If you want to be successful, you'd better learn it."

Carolina's first thrust into the computer age came in the early 1970s when student manager Chris Schleter began using a program designed, ironically, by an NC State professor, to catalog opponents' tendencies by down, distance, position on the field and other variables. Schleter spent several hours every Sunday night during the season punching cards into a mainframe computer that took an entire room in the basement of Phillips Hall.

That process evolved gradually over the years, film morphing to video and that to digital images and now to high-definition digital. Luke loves that within 90 minutes after a home game the entire game is edited and uploaded to a site shared by ACC opponents and is available to the Carolina coaches and players, a process that in his previous jobs at Missouri and Texas A&M took well into the night.

"I love the speed and efficiency," says Luke, who came to Carolina in 2008. "But you lose some of the camaraderie you used to have with other video guys at other schools. When I was at A&M, the week of the Texas game, I'd meet the Texas video guy at a bar in the middle of nowhere to have a beer and exchange film. Today you hit a few keys and punch a button."

"If I'd had anything like this 40 years ago," Schleter said upon returning to Chapel Hill in 2012 and seeing the modern computer operation, "or even 16 years ago when I left Carolina, perhaps I would have more hair and what I have would not be so gray."

The football office under Butch Davis's direction bought 10 iPads in March 2011, originally as a recruiting device for the coaches. The more Luke researched the device's capabilities, the more he saw they could be used for watching game and practice film. He bought an application that gives users the ability to easily start, stop and rewind the tape, taught the coaches how to use it and then expanded it to the players. If a player has a personal iPad, he can bring it to Luke and have film cut-ups downloaded. Beginning this year, the player can access a service provided by DragonFly Athletics that houses tape of every game and practice and not bother with having to have the film downloaded to the iPad.

"The system is incredibly convenient," safety Tre Boston says. "I woke up early this morning and put on tape of South Carolina. My girlfriend wanted to watch Law and Order on TV the other night. So she watched TV and I watched practice tape on my iPad. At the end of the day, you've got to know your opponent, and this makes it so efficient to call it up and have it at your fingertips."

There's always a new challenge or question. One day last fall a player brought in his Samsung Galaxy device, a popular new phone with a larger display than the iPhone. With a screen size of just under five inches, the Galaxy is large enough to display viewable images of football plays.

"He wanted to know if we could download tape on it," Luke says. "We tried one app and it didn't work, tried and another and it did. So every week the rest of the season, he brought his Galaxy in and we downloaded about 20 plays for him to watch."

Just as Luke rides herd over the massive computer and video operation on the fifth floor of Kenan Football Center, so too does Walt Bell, the youngest member of the coaching staff, spearhead the recruiting operation and its use of modern technology down on the fourth floor. Bell, 29, is the Tar Heels' tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator and serves an important link to a staff with a head coach 50 years old and six assistants 45 and older and the 16-, 17- and 18-year-old market of potential football players they're recruiting.

"Walt is so far ahead of us on a lot of this technology stuff," Fedora says. "We all jump in and he takes the lead on it."

Bell doesn't have a landline in his office anymore. If someone calls his office number, it forwards to his cell phone. Every coach on the staff has his phone in his pocket and is just a text, call or email away. That's important because NCAA rules severely limit the number of times a coach can call a recruit. A recruit can phone the coach at any time, but the coach can't call him back.

"I don't want anyone to have to leave me a message," Bell says. "A high school coach calls me, I don't want it to go voice mail. I want to answer the phone. I tell the kids I'm recruiting and their parents, 'If I see your name on the phone, unless I'm in the shower, I'm going to answer it.' It's really important that it not go into voice message, especially in recruiting since we can't call them back. If their name's on that phone, I'll find a way to answer it."

The Carolina staff uses regular mail and hand-written letters in its communication with recruits and their parents, but the old stand-bys are taking a back seat today to wireless communication. Text messages are not allowed by NCAA rules in football, but email, Twitter and Facebook are fair game.

"You have to be able to master technology," Bell said in mid-August. "It's basically the only way you can communicate with recruits right now [prior to Sept. 1, when one phone call per week is allowed]. Tweets, email and Facebook, that's it. How do you get into their pocket? Their phone. Everyone has one."

One of the first questions to answer in evaluating a potential recruit, Bell says, is what is his favorite form of communication?

"He is a Twitter guy? Facebook? Instagram? What do his parents like?" Bell says. "It's important to identify the ways they communicate. Kids might like hand-written letters at first, then those might get old. The parents, who grew up on letters and snail-mail, they appreciate the hand-written letters. It's a generational thing."

Assisting Bell and the on-field coaching staff with recruiting communication is director of player personnel Rory Pommerening, who coordinates the blizzard of email that goes out to recruits on a regular basis.

"Social media has changed everything because it doesn't cost a dime to put out a graphic and reach recruits, high school coaches and fans," says Pommerening. "You are able to communicate with recruits instantly and promote your program without communicating with them directly by them just following you on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram."

Technology has cut a wide swath in sports medicine and equipment as well.

Sixty players most likely to see game action each Saturday have six sensor pads called accelerometers installed between the lining and shell of their helmet that measure the magnitude, location and frequency of each impact and sends them to a machine on the sideline that collects the data. Collisions that register a certain threshold trigger alerts to the pager of head trainer Scott Trulock, who can be on watch to see if that player exhibits any symptoms of a concussion.

Tar Heels now wear shoulder pads made of carbon fiber that is lighter but just as sturdy and protective as earlier plastic models, and innovations in fabric manufacturing in recent years put players in lighter, tighter uniforms. The Tar Heels' jerseys have a tight, shrink-wrapped fit, minimizing the grab point that opponents can clutch and hang onto. The material for both the pants and jerseys is lighter in weight and will "wick"-that is, dry quickly from sweat.

That's quite a contrast from the road game at Texas in 1947 played under a broiling sun and made more miserable for the Tar Heels by the fact they were wearing navy jerseys made of thick cotton that got heavier and heavier the more they sweated.    

And by the way: Western Union quit delivering telegrams in 2006.

"There will be something new between now and the end of the year," Fedora says. "It's pretty crazy right now, and it's not going to slow down. It's not going backwards." 

Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (leepace7@gmail.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.


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