Bob Chmiel served as Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator, and then tight ends coach, from 1994-97, first under Lou Holtz and then under Bob Davie.
Chmiel was in his first two years as tight ends coach when Holtz took the Fighting Irish to Culver Military Academy (now known as Culver Academies) in 1995-96 on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee.
Chmiel reflects on the experience as Notre Dame prepares to return to Culver Academies for the first time in 18 years under current Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
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When Coach Holtz decided to go down to Culver, we took two vans - one for the offensive coaches and one for the defensives coaches - to look at the practice fields, the dormitory situation and everything else. The first impression was that the place was just gorgeous. I can't imagine a secondary school with a campus more gorgeous than that, especially with it being right on the lake.
The decision was obviously made by one person, and that was Coach Holtz. I think he thought the year before (1994) the football team wasn't as close as it could have been from a pure team standpoint. I think he thought they needed a place to get better and for it to be just us. There wasn't anyone else there, besides the immediate Notre Dame football family with the doctors and trainers and all that. We basically had no interaction with anyone else.
I don't think taking a team away from the campus for pre-season camp is a quick fix or an overall fix. It's just one aspect in the scheme of things. Obviously, I've never been to Camp Shiloh, and even not knowing anything about Camp Shiloh, I think the venue that Coach Kelly has selected this year is going to be really good for the team.
Again, I don't know if you can quantify the experience in itself. There were a lot of things that happened that seemed at the time uneventful. But when you take a retrospective look at it, I think it had a positive impact.
I remember when we were still on campus and the players were all set to go. They were expecting one of those over-the-road, custom-made buses to travel in. Coach Holtz said, 'No, we're not going to do that. I want the yellow school buses.'
All of a sudden, the team is standing out there waiting to leave and these yellow school buses pull up. Guys are looking at each other like, 'All we need are Fred Flintstone backpacks.' I can close my eyes and still see Bubba (Ryan) Leahy sitting by the window waving as the buses pulled away. You knew right away this wasn't going to be a vacation; it was going to be a business trip.
For the freshmen, it's a really good thing. For the guys that are juniors and seniors, it solidified relationships. But when you're thrown together in this type of an atmosphere, you have to deal with guys on a daily basis that might not be your closest friends on the team. It puts the underclassmen under a microscope because you're there, the varsity is there, and you're with the team right out of the gate.
Now things have changed with freshmen arriving in the summer. There was a time when you could bring the freshmen in four days early, and that was way too much time. You were looking for things to do. After a while, you can only do so much with them. Then they made it two days, which I thought was great. Then they eliminated freshmen coming in early at all, which I didn't think was a good idea, but now they have the summer to be together. Still, this is different because now it's all for real.
What happens when you go away like this is you're immediately integrated with the whole team, so the freshmen can see the work ethic and what it takes to be successful. It can be a bit overwhelming for a freshman. There's that element of homesickness. You don't have the comfort of the Notre Dame campus.
We had one situation where one player was unaccounted for and the word came down that he had 'escaped.' They didn't have laundry facilities there, and Chris Matlock, the equipment guy, had two laundry trucks that would go back and forth every day. Well, this player got in one of the towel bins in the laundry truck and escaped.
Coach Holtz grabbed me and said, 'He's a great kid. Go back to campus. You've got to go back and find him.' And he was a great kid who turned out to be a great contributor as a walk-on.
So I'm on the campus and I see him walking by the stadium. I pulled over and said, 'Get in the car. We're going back.' He said, 'No, I can't…' And I said, 'No, you've got too much respect and too much invested.' Well, he turned out to be a captain in the Marines, and he actually played a little bit for us.
We had a few setbacks at Culver. First of all, the coolest day temperature-wise I think was 88 degrees and we didn't have any air conditioning in the dorms. I remember the first night we got in the dorms and all the bedding was brand new. It had never been washed. Guys were getting up in the middle of the night looking like Superman because the bed sheets were sticking to them.
Having the lake right there with the temperatures the way they were was great. After practice, guys would take their pads off and jump in the lake in their gym shorts. I did too. We all did. We'd jump into the lake before we had to get ready for meetings in the evening.
The coaches stayed in the dorms, too. We stayed with the guys at your position. The room to my left, the room to my right and the room across from me were my guys (the tight ends). To try to beat the heat, we had everybody keep every door and every window open so the air would circulate through the building.
But after a while, Leon Wallace was one of my guys and he said, 'Coach, have you gone over to the ice rink?' I was like, 'Ice rink?' He said, 'Yeah, a lot of guys are going over to the ice rink.' So I checked it out. The ice was down and it was carpeted on the levels. They hadn't put the new seats in yet. So you took your bedding and stuff and slept on the floor.
Understand, even though it was cool because of the ice rink, it can be cool and humid at the same time, so you were cooler, but you were almost perspiring.
I remember waking up one morning and I heard something. There was Jim Russ, our trainer, ice-skating in a pair of Bermuda shorts, yelling and screaming for guys to get up.
Now Coach Holtz, he stayed at the chaplain's house while we were there. In the morning, he'd get out of his golf cart in a shirt and a sweater. I think he thought the message was, 'It's not all that hot.'
He was the master psychologist. Coach Holtz did nothing that was not planned. Absolutely nothing. Sometimes at the time, you don't realize it, but he was the master of psychology.
I remember him telling the story of the ancient Greek warriors landing on the shores of their enemy. The first order from the commander was to burn the boats they had arrived in. With no boats to retreat to, they had to be successful in order to survive.
So the last day we were there, we were on the beach and it was brutally hot. He gathered everybody up, and he starts reading this story of the general who led his troops to the shore of his enemy and then had them burn the boats.
All of a sudden, coming around the curve on a boat were our captains - Ron Powlus, Marc Edwards and Lyron Cobbins. They were paddling the boat to the shore! When the boat got to the shore, the captains got out of the boat and Coach Holtz threw a torch in there and burnt the thing. The boat went up in smoke and the whole place erupted!
Guys were jumping up and down. We sang the Fight Song…It was really amazing.
There was another day with this two-mast schooner. It was a big boat. They taught sailing at Culver on that boat. First the defense went out in the boat. The guy put it on diesel power and they sailed around the lake. Then the offense got on the boat. By that time the offense got in, it was dark and we couldn't see anything. Guys, to this day, talk about the schooner. I actually have a picture of it in my office.
Coach Holtz was really, really accessible during this time. We'd have a water or popsicle break, and he'd sit right in there and chat with them, which isn't something he ever did. But he did it there.
For me, personally, just getting to know him was a great experience. I spent a lot of time with him there because I did a lot of other things in addition to coaching the tight ends. It was an honor for me. I think we started to reap the benefits of Camp Culver as the season went on.
So I like the idea of getting away. I wouldn't want to go there for 11 days again. Eleven days was a long time to be there. Five days is good. You've got to be careful you don't make your players leg weary because if you recall in '95, we lost our first game at home against Northwestern. I think we were a little leg weary.
But the time away is good. There's no separation of players and coaches. You're with your guys at your position. It can be a great experience and I have no doubt that Coach Kelly will maximize the opportunity in Culver.