You always remember your first, and so it is with Rex Ryan. The head coach can't wait to start his sixth training camp as Jets head coach and his fifth camp at SUNY Cortland, but he still looks back fondly on his first year with his new team and taking them all to Central New York.
"We go up there and we're just going to do a little walkthrough the week before camp started, make sure everything's where we want it, where the meeting rooms are, just a little once-over," Rex reminisced with me recently. "And I'll never forget, I get to the fields, and it's like oh, my goodness. They looked great but they were uneven. And I was like, 'We've got a major problem here.' "
The NFL is a tough enough game without uneven footing lying in wait to swallow an ankle, a hamstring or a quad. Ryan had wanted everything to be perfect for his first "home away from home" and the practice field was not.
"I was like, 'Oh, shoot. Rookie coach, I made a huge mistake here,' " he recalled thinking. "But it ended up being great."
The fields got fixed when Rex said owner Woody Johnson "never flinched" when he asked what it would take to get things right. So Blake Hoerr and his grounds crew resodded the fields that week before camp. Then, because of a rainy start to that first Cortland stay, a helicopter was flown in to hover over the field and dry the wet sod so that the players could get off the stadium turf and onto their new footing as soon as possible.
"That was the kind of commitment that Mr. Johnson had, and I was blown away by it," Ryan said. "Ever since that time, we have two practice fields when we go to Cortland that are just outstanding, the facilities are fantastic, Cortland's been great to us."
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The great treatment carried over to 2010 and "Hard Knocks." The 2011 season was spent at home, then it was back to SUNY Cortland for 2012 and last summer.
Has the summertime on the road paid dividends? Cynics could point to our composite regular-season records of 34-30 after the last four Cortland camps and 31-33 following the last four stay-at-home camps and argue that Cortland has averaged less than one more win per season.
On the flip side, the only two playoff seasons of the past seven Jets campaigns — both AFC Championship Game forays — came after two Cortland summers.
"We have to have it. We have to have buy-in," he explained. "It's tougher to let go of that rope when you've got your friend next to you, you've got people you really respect and have grown close with. And that's what it's all about. It's hanging in there and fighting together as a team, and the more you learn about each other, the closer you get, it seems like."
Rex makes sure he does all he can to enhance that spirit. Training camp on the road, after all, is one three-week team-building event. And within that event will be at least one mini-team-building activity such as the bowling outing he took the players on before the full-squad minicamp or the movie nights or the paintball sessions.
Ryan said he never runs out of ideas for things to surprise his guys with, "since there's such a wealth of knowledge with all the guys we have in Dave Szott, the coaches, John Idzik, Rod Graves, so you always have some pretty good ideas."
"The players really don't know when any of this stuff is coming," he said. "We're blessed that we have Clay Hampton and Aaron Degerness. Those guys do a great job for us, and Bobby Mastroddi with security. I kind of get a sense for what we're going to do, a feel for it, I talk to other guys as well, then basically turn it over to Clay and things get done."
Sometime around noon on Aug. 14, the last practice at Cortland will conclude and we'll be heading home for the rest of our preseason preparations. The plan is once again to get things done in Cortland and ride the experience hard toward the regular season. The road trip begins with Wednesday, with the first practice of camp set for Thursday at 10 a.m. See you there.