It's time for UC football's annual trip to Camp Higher Ground in West Harrison, Indiana. After practice Thursday, the team boarded the buses for their trip west on I-74 to a secluded wilderness camp that happens to have a pair of football fields, some dorms, cabins and a dining hall large enough to feed the big, burly guys that don the pads each afternoon (along with the smaller, feisty guys).
Camp Higher Ground dates back to the Rick Minter/Bob Goin days when the program was looking for a getaway from campus for bonding and good ol'fashioned "smashmouth" football a la "The Junction Boys". Initially, it was a couple of nasty cow pastures with a much smaller dining hall.
Now, it's a sprawling complex with wireless and state of the art fields that allows a team a getaway and a place to practice where no one can hear the yelling but the surrounding mosquitoes (and participants).
After Rick Minter, Mark Dantonio embraced the concept and enjoyed the "forced togetherness" that such a retreat holds.
When Brian Kelly came in, he initially wasn't gung-ho on taking the "field trip" and cut back on the number of days spent there. However, he apparently enjoyed his periodic "nature walks" and began to appreciate the value of the property, eventually adding more days to the August schedule in Indiana.
Fast forward to Butch Jones, who like Kelly before him, is new to the practice of moving your college team away from familiar surroundings.
"When I was in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers would train at the University of Tampa," said Jones. "But, in terms of college, I'm looking forward to it. I hear people do an excellent job out there."
Much like they had to do with Brian Kelly, the Higher Ground staff will be eager to please Coach Jones. My guess is once Jones sees the off-field benefits of the camp (team building, camaraderie, etc.) he'll jump on board. Especially given the "family" message that is preached daily to the Bearcats.
"I'm a big believer that change is good," said Jones when asked about evaluating Camp Higher Ground. "But, you just don't come into a program that's winning and change everything. It's my job to look around and if it's helped us win in the past, we're going to do it. Talking to a lot of people, it's aided us in coming together as a team. I'm looking forward to it."
Jones will evaluate the process at year's end, but don't look for the relationship to end anytime soon.
"My first inclination is that it's going to be tremendous," said Jones. "You talk about total concentration in football--there's no distractions. The facilities are great, the food's outstanding and the living conditions are good. It's a chance for your team to come together."
Plus, as mentioned before, there's two fields, not one. Rather than being cramped at "The Nipp", drills for both sides of the ball can be spread out and done on a wider scale.
"That's the other thing--the space," said Jones. "You've got two full-length practice fields, which are critical."
The only downside to Higher Ground that I can see is the mosquito population appears to be heavier in West Harrison, Indiana than in the Corryville area of UC's main campus. Not to worry, the equipment and training staff is normally well prepared with plenty of Deep Woods Off for the evening workouts.
"We'll do some night practices, which is what I like to do from an intensity standpoint," said Jones.
If they can withstand the bites and the bruises and the heat and humidity, the trip to Fresno State should be a picnic for Jones and his Bearcat outdoorsmen.