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The De-Volution of Summer Football Camps

For college football June is high school football camp season, and what that means has changed from just 8 years ago, and is vastly different than what it meant when the first camps began in the late 1960s.

In the late 1960s Penn State was the pioneer of high school football camps hosting a multi-day overnight camp at a campground near the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. The campers were housed in “rustic” accommodations (cabins).

The camp was the first of its kind; designed to teach high school players the fundamentals of the game. There was no media coverage at the camp breathlessly awaiting commitments from top recruits.

In the 1970s the camp moved on campus. Other schools started their own camps. The priority was coaching anyone and everyone who came to the camp. The camps also served as a source of some extra income for coaches long before salaries escalated wildly into the stratosphere.

At the University of Virginia and other schools in the early 1990s, the camps were owned by the coaches, often including a camp store that sold t-shirts, hats and snacks. This included coaches taking turns getting hot dogs off the rotating hot dog roasting machine.

By the mid-1990s camp attendance exploded. Michigan and Penn State became the two most dominant camp destinations. Michigan had one large week-long camp, while Penn State had 3 5-day camps and a kicking camp.

The focus was on teaching players basic and advanced techniques over several days to improve blocking, tackling, throwing, catching and the building blocks of athletic skills that form the foundation of safe play. The camps also employed dozens of high school coaches who also learned from the instruction they saw.

The high school game was improved and made safer by these camps.

At their height of the camp craze Penn State and Michigan each hosted 3,000 players in their overnight camps. Revenues soared into the seven-figure range. University administrators loved seeing the hundreds of campers cycling through keeping dorms and dining halls open and generating money and work for the people who worked there.

Recruiting changed it all.

The big schools found great players in their camps. In just one week of the 1995 Penn State Camp in the rising senior running back group hosted six players who ended up at schools like Penn State (3), Ohio State (2) and Nebraska (1) and hailed from the states of Pennsylvania, Kansas, Washington, Virginia and Ohio.

As camps became a big recruiting tool, teams who felt they could not compete for week-long campers changed the landscape. Schools started one-day camps, marketing them as a chance to get seen by college coaches. These camps featured minimal fundamental instruction and were in essence a paid tryout for campers.

Now many schools have no overnight camps at all. Of the 1990s camp leaders Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame only the Fighting Irish still offers an overnight camp. College coaching staffs even take their camps show on the road, Michigan coaches were even guest coaches at USC’s camp.

What’s been lost? The college coaches’ service to the high school game through basics instruction is gone. As people look at the deteriorating techniques at the college level, and as more pressure is placed on the safety of the game the erosion of the camp’s purpose may be one of the culprits—but that is a subject for a future post.

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