Oregon coach Willie Taggart characterized the workouts his team conducted last Friday that led to three players being hospitalized as "warm-ups" designed to get the team ready for the more difficult tasks ahead during winter conditioning.
They were not, Taggart said, "military-style," treacherous and dangerous workouts that many painted them out to be after the story, first reported on Monday by The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, became a national topic of conversation and sparked discussion and conversation over player safety in college football.
Redshirt freshman tight end Cam McCormick, redshirt senior offensive lineman Doug Brenner and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sam Poutasi were sent to Springfield PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend last Friday evening after experiencing symptoms of Rhabdomyolysis hours after completing a 6 a.m. workout during winter conditioning.
The narrative left Taggart exasperated. The last thing, he said, that he and his staff would ever do is endanger players. What occurred, according to Taggart, was an unfortunate incident that has been blown out of proportion.
“People are convinced that we’re (dumb) and don’t care about our players,” Taggart said. “We want our fan base to know that we do.”
The controversy that found its way into newspapers and onto websites and television networks across the nation abruptly ended what for Taggart had been about as good of a first month on a job as anyone could ever hope for.
Taggart, hired on Dec. 7 to replace Mark Helfrich, hit the recruiting trail running by landing commitments within weeks, he assembled what appears to be a dynamic coaching staff, and he successfully rebranded the program, replacing "Win the Day" with "Do Something."
Then, in as much time as it takes to do a push up, Taggart found himself being forced to defend the workout regimen in question put forth by his strength and conditioning coach, Irele Oderinde.
Oregon on Tuesday suspended Oderinde for a month, and Taggart and UO athletic director Rob Mullens released statements in which Taggart took responsibility for the situation while Mullens emphasized that the University holds the well-being of its students in high regard.
All three players are expected to recover. Brenner has already been released. What happened was certainly unfortunate. The question is, was anyone at fault?
--- Introductory workouts
Oregon began winter conditioning last week. Workouts conducted by Oderinde were held last Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
The idea, Taggart said, was to ease the players out of winter break with workouts that didn't consist of running or weight lifting. Oregon missed a bowl game last season for the first time since 2004. That meant that returning players had an extra full month off from structured football activities that they weren't used to having. Their season ended with a loss at Oregon State on Nov. 26.
Typically Oregon's seasons end around the first of the year with a bowl game appearance.
“We knew our guys weren’t in shape so we didn’t put them in the weight room or run them, or anything” Taggart said. “We’re going to build up to that. It all started with pushups and sit-ups.”
Oderinde used the same workouts under Taggart at South Florida and Western Kentucky. Oderinde played at WKU when Taggart was an assistant there from 1999 through 2006. Oderinde later worked as a strength coach at WKU during Taggart's tenure as the Hilltoppers head coach. By the time Oderinde made it to USF under Taggart in 2014, the strength coach had nearly 10 years of experience, according to the Bulls' website, with previous stops at West Virginia, South Carolina and Notre Dame.
The workout sessions, which included planks, were designed to last 45 minutes with the team broken up into three groups with start times of 6 a.m., 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Workouts were extended if players didn't use proper technique and/or didn't follow directions, according to Taggart. Punishment involved up downs as a group even if one player botched the workout.
“The whole team is held accountable,” Taggart said. “Then they go back to pushups and sit-ups and do it right. It’s more about just teaching guys the details and how we’re going to do things the right way.”
During last year’s 4-8 season, which led to the firing of Helfrich, players slacked in some areas, namely preparation and attention to detail. Taggart has told the team that those days are over.
Reestablishing accountability, however, does not involve cruelty, according to Taggart.
Players, Taggart said, were given breaks and allowed to get water whenever needed. Then they could resume the workouts when they were ready to do so.
“No one expected everyone to make it and do them all,” Taggart said.
For that reason, according to Taggart, coaches did not order players to continue working past their limitations. Only vocal encouragement was involved.
“Coach O doesn’t even work that way,” Taggart said. “He’s not even that kind of guy. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t do any of that stuff.”
Many players, Taggart said, took advantage of the ability to take breaks when they reached their max. In fact, Taggart said, coaches knew that many players wouldn’t finish the workouts. Some assistant coaches and trainers were present for the workouts.
“We had some guys struggling,” Taggart said. “We had some guys sit out and not finish.”
--- Overdoing it
The scene involving Brenner, Poutasi and McCormick, Taggart said, did not involve the players passing out on the field and having to be rushed to the hospital.
According to Taggart, the hospitalized players participated in a 6 a.m. session on Friday (the fourth day of the workouts) then went to classes, and carried out the rest of their day before returning to the football complex for dinner.
It was then that Taggart said the three players complained about not feeling right and that their urine was dark, a symptom of Rhabdomyolysis. The condition, described on Webmd.com, is a rare and serious side effect caused by the breakdown of muscle tissue to the point where it could lead to permanent paralysis, and can cause serious kidney damage. Symptoms include muscle aches and dark-colored urine.
Extreme muscle strain can be a cause and it can become more dangerous if there is more muscle mass to breakdown. Brenner is listed at 320 pounds. Poutasi is 315. McCormick is 240.
Those suffering Rhabdomyolysis can experience muscle pain and have trouble moving their limbs. A product of muscle breakdown is creatine kinase, an enzyme found in the muscles. which can increase in the blood stream. Normal CK levels for a male over 18 is between 52 to 336 units per liter of blood. A marathon runner can reach into the low thousands. According to sources, the players hospitalized had CK levels well over 60,000.
Taggart praised head trainer Kevin Steil for recognizing the problem and responding the way that he did by examining the players and then having them taken to the hospital where they could receive intravenous fluids. Taggart visited them at the hospital.
One potential cause of what happened is that the players were not properly hydrated before the workouts. Also, the players, pushed themselves too hard.
“A lot of that comes with wanting to impress the new coaches,” Taggart said. “But all of the trainers were out there. It wasn’t like coach ‘O’ was out there just beating them down. You’ve got certified trainers out there with them.”
Trainers are required by the NCAA to be beholden to the department and not a specific team. This prevents coaches from hiring their own trainers and then influencing them to overlook workouts or injuries that might put an athlete’s health at risk.
One veteran player, speaking anonymously, said he enjoyed and completed the workouts. He added that they were clearly designed to test the will of the players but stated that there was no pressure to complete the tasks beyond one’s limits. If a player reached their max, they could stop.
Taggart said it was made clear to the team that players were not going to win starting jobs in January and to take care of themselves as they push through a new regimen of workouts they were not used to.
“We want you to go hard but not to a limit that you’re going to kill yourself,” Taggart said.
While some players backed off, Brenner, Poutasi and McCormick did not.
“These guys were tough guys and wanted to show the coaches,” Taggart said. “That’s probably what was part of the problem. They didn’t want to be the guy that quit. There were other guys that quit and they didn’t want to so they probably pushed themselves to a limit that they shouldn’t have.”
Moving forward, Taggart said his staff must do a better job of making sure players are properly hydrated, something he said was routinely emphasized, and explaining to players that they shouldn’t feel pressured to push themselves too far beyond their physical limits.
A narrative floating around that the hospitalized players were too “soft” or "out of shape" bothers Taggart.
“Those guys finished the workout,” Taggart said. "Others did not. The fact that those guys finished like that, it says lot about them. I hate that they had to go to the hospital, but it says a lot about them.”
Some fans on social media have stated that the hospitalization of players following the first week of winter workouts further proves that Ducks were slacking under Helfrich. Taggart doesn’t agree.
“That’s a bunch of baloney,” Taggart said. “People are going to have their opinions. It’s just different philosophies on workouts. I hate it because when they call our guys ‘soft,’ they are calling me soft too.”
Nobody, Taggart said, is being labeled as anything other than trying to get in shape for a long season ahead.
Taggart said players seemed to enjoy the workouts and were excited to get back out there for more. That statement is supported by their reaction to the controversy through social media.
“They are ticked off because they were enjoying the workouts,” Taggart said. “Even the guys that were in the hospital.”
Several players took to Twitter to support Oderinde, whom some refer to as “Coach O," and started a #FreeCoachO hashtag.
Junior cornerback Ugo Amadi Tweeted that the workouts weren't nearly as difficult as the media made them out to be.
The workout was not even what the media is portraying it to be 🙄— U.Amadi (@UAmadi14_) January 17, 2017
Redshirt junior safety Mattrell McGraw also defended Oderinde.
3 out of a 112 players .. it's not 90 or 100 😑.. what about the 109 that's still working ?!— Button (@mattmcgraw_) January 17, 2017
“The response that they have given, to me, says a lot,” Taggart said. “They wouldn’t say that if it were someone that didn’t have their best interest at heart and was trying to kill them. He’s one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. He’s not military. He’s just a good dude.”
Taggart has gotten good results from Oderinde in the past.
“I trust him,” said Taggart. “I love what he did with our football team at South Florida and I know what he could do with our guys here. But now a good guy, a good strength coach is being portrayed as somebody just whipping our kids’ butts and that’s wrong.”
Former USF players certainly appear to support Oderinde, according to a recent report in the Tampa Bay Times.
Players said that nobody they ever played with under Taggart and Oderinde ever ended up in the hospital after a workout.
Former Bulls offensive lineman Mak Djulbegovic said to the Tampa Bay Times that Oderinde isn't “gonna make you do something that's not reasonable."
"Sure, it'll be very difficult," Djulbegovic continued, "but if you don't take the right steps to be ready for these things, you might wind up in the hospital as these kids found out. Hopefully they learned their lesson."
The goal is to make the team bigger and stronger beyond what they have been used to at Oregon. It’s not that the Ducks didn’t seek size under former football strength coach Jimmy Radcliffe, but the emphasis at many positions had been more about speed and stamina given the pace of the offense under former coaches Chip Kelly and Helfrich.
Many UO players, sources say, are excited about the prospects of getting bigger, which could help increase their NFL potential.
“Guys are saying they want to get bigger, they want to get stronger,” Taggart said.
Taggart, who declined to discuss the details surrounding Oderinde's suspension, said his workout philosophy is no better or worse than what was being done under Radcliffe, it’s just different. Clearly Oregon experienced great success in the recent past.
While a couple of player parents wondered if the workouts might have been over the top since three players went to the hospital, some told CSN, anonymously, that they and their sons didn’t have a problem with them and were excited to continue working with Oderinde.
A department source said there is no doubt in his mind that the coaching staff cares about the players and their well-being. He said that they talk about it as a group.
The ridicule, Taggart said, has come up on the recruiting trail. Taggart said parents of recruits have asked assistants about what happened and he believes opponents have used the hospitalizations as fodder for negative recruiting.
“All they hear is a ‘military-style workout,’" Taggart said, "and so now everybody is saying ‘they don’t know what they’re doing, they are hurting the kids, they don’t care about the kids’ welfare,’ and it’s not like that. And again, that’s why our players were so upset because they are putting a negative spin on it.”
In the end, Taggart believes that the players will perform better after going through his staff’s plan, just as players did at Western Kentucky and South Florida.
"We believe in what we're doing," Taggart said. "It’s one of those unfortunate situations that we all can learn from."