OAKLAND, Calif. — Prior to Indiana’s first practice on the West Coast, Tom Allen referenced the calendar.
“Guys, you realize this is Christmas Eve?” the IU coach said to his charges. “The sun is out and we’re in pads. We’re playing football.”
In football parlance, it doesn’t get much better. Even with a busier schedule than usual.
After a month-long layoff between games, Indiana’s season finale against No. 19 Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl is now within sight. The Hoosiers returned to the field for a physical, hard-hitting practice Saturday at Laney College, their temporary home base ahead of Wednesday’s primetime postseason contest an hour down the road in Santa Clara.
IU has been eager to slip back into the routine of game week, albeit this particular week is anything but routine. For one, the Hoosiers are surrounded by unfamiliar territory in the Bay Area, chartering a handful of busses to travel from their team hotel to their practice location and back again.
Then, of course, it’s Christmastime — and Saturday was the first day of Hanukkah.
All bowl games require a delicate balancing act between enjoying the experience and all the extracurricular activities involved, while also staying focused on the game ahead.
Christmas weekend adds a different layer to it all.
“I challenged them,” Allen said. “Great teams understand how to stay focused with all the distractions of the holidays, the bowl, the hotel in a major city, and those that want to do something special can do that. That’s our goal.”
On a sunny Saturday morning, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees in the heart of Oakland, the Hoosiers treated their first practice in California like they would any normal Tuesday session.
That means plenty of intense, one-on-one battles and team exercises designed to prepare IU for a Utah team that is tough in the trenches.
“It’s good to get back out there because you had that long flight and your body needs to get used to the three-hour time change and all,” Allen said. “I think that’s real critical that you get that first one out of the way. It was extremely productive, I thought. There was a lot of hitting, a good physical practice for us — the normal Tuesday.
“… Tomorrow will be a normal Wednesday and we’ll have that same structure for practice. The kids are used to that. We kind of got that tone set last week of getting us in that mode. You really get out of that (routine) over the bowl season. That’s one of the biggest reasons you get a lot of teams that have a lot of mistakes, or look rusty when they start the game. That’s something you’re trying to prevent right now.”
After Saturday’s practice, Indiana returned to its team hotel to set aside time to enjoy the holiday with teammates, coaches and families of the program.
A team dinner was planned, as were optional Christmas prayer services that members of IU’s traveling party could attend.
This week, on top of taking time to celebrate the holiday as a team, the Hoosiers will volunteer time feeding the homeless in San Francisco, tour Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary and enjoy a pep rally staged for both IU and Utah, among other events.
They’ll balance all that with the real reason for the West Coast visit — the opportunity to claim the program’s first bowl victory since 1991.
“The bottom line is it’s a whole different set of focus that you have to have,” Allen said. “You have to balance whatever holiday it is — the New Year’s, New Year’s Day, sometimes, or it’s gonna be the Christmas Eve, Christmas Day combination (this year), so you got to make sure that the schedule is as normal as possible, if that’s possible, while you’re trying to celebrate Christmas and not forget it’s such an important holiday for us. You have to make sure you’re very, very mature in how you handle the process. The guys are doing a good job so far. We just have to keep them rolling.”