Weird weather day
Early morning thunderstorms – and the threat of worse – made for an unusual practice for the Texas Tech football team on Tuesday in Houston. In less than 90 minutes, the Red Raiders experienced dark clouds, rain, bright sunshine, calm, high wind, cold wind and then more sunny warmth.
Running back Eric Stephens said mother nature couldn’t make up its mind.
“I thought it was kind of confused,” Stephens said. “It didn’t know whether it wanted to rain or be hot. It kind of calmed down toward the end of practice, but at the beginning it was pretty confused, I thought.”
Tech (7-5) is preparing to play Minnesota (6-6) at 8 p.m. Friday in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. As Tuesday’s 10:30 a.m. workout started, several Tech staff members were standing in the Rice Stadium tunnels checking their cell phones for weather radar showing storms bearing down on Houston.
“We thought we were going to get out of practice early,” defensive tackle Kerry Hyder said, “but the sun came out and we got a good practice in.”
Interim head coach Chris Thomsen said the Red Raiders practiced better on day two than on day one, maybe because the constantly changing conditions aren’t new to them.
“It reminds you a little bit of West Texas, but it was good,” Thomsen said. “Our guys are used to that, and they handled it well.”
Though the weather varied, Tuesday was a second warm day in a row for the two teams. Minnesota had 70-degree temperatures and sunny conditions for its afternoon practice at St. Thomas High School.
Bowl preparation meant Tech and Minnesota spent Christmas Day working. Running back Eric Stephens had to miss the first Christmas with his baby daughter, Erin, who was born March 29.
“It’s not the best thing in the world,” Stephens said, “but if I had to (be away) with anybody, I’d rather it be with these guys.”
Players from both teams had an evening Christmas dinner scheduled at their respective hotels. Golden Gophers players got a special treat a few hours before.
After their mid-afternoon practice, Minnesota players were treated to burgers, sausage and hot dogs – a total of 450 pieces cooked up on a barbecue trailer by their St. Thomas High School hosts and Minnesota senior associate athletic director David Benedict.
“It’s an adjustment,” Golden Gophers coach Jerry Kill said, “but we talk about all the time, this is your extended family. I think that’s part of the sacrifice to get to a bowl game, but I think if you ask anybody, this is what you want to do.
“When you’re not in a bowl game or you’re not in the playoffs in the NFL or whatever level you’re playing, if you’re not busy this time of year, then you’re usually not very happy or you don’t have a job.”
Texas Tech interim coach Chris Thomsen gave players a curfew of 1 a.m. today after the Red Raiders’ second day of practice, and Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said his team’s curfew was midnight.
Neither coach said he’d busted a curfew violator yet.
“They’ve done a good job making sure they’re doing the right things off the field,” Thomsen said. “That’s the main thing. We want them to have fun, get out and experience the city of Houston but also understand why we’re here: Get a win.”
Both teams have players who didn’t make the trip to Houston because of suspensions. Minnesota announced that freshman wide receiver Andre McDonald, who has 10 catches for 121 yards, is not on the bowl trip because of a team rules violation. Tech is without cornerback Cornelius Douglas, defensive tackle Leon Mackey and linebacker Chris Payne.
Flip-flop: Stephens’ story
The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas will feature a key player on each team who originally committed to the other school. Tech running back Eric Stephens was pledged to Minnesota for almost four months, including nearly his entire senior season at Mansfield Timberview.
Stephens said he had a good rapport with then-Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster and running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who recruited him for the Golden Gophers. Also, Minneapolis was appealing to a Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex kid.
“It wasn’t like Dallas, but it was the city and it was the city life,” Stephens said. “Lubbock, of course, was not that at all compared to Dallas and Minnesota.”
Stephens ultimately decided not to go so far from home. In four years at Tech, Stephens has 4,409 all-purpose yards, 25 touchdowns and all the significant school records involving kickoff returns.
“Overall, I committed to Minnesota because of the coaching staff,” Stephens said, “and I made the choice to decommit because my mom loves to come to games and she would have never been able to make it to Minnesota. Texas Tech is close to home, so that had a big part in what I did.”
None of the coaches that recruited Stephens to Minnesota or Tech is still in place. Brewster was fired midway through the 2010 season and now is a Mississippi State assistant. Hammock is now running backs coach at Wisconsin. And Seth Littrell left Tech for Arizona right after he persuaded Stephens to sign with the Red Raiders.
Minnesota linebacker Keanon Cooper did the opposite, committing to Tech but signing with Minnesota and having a productive career.
“Me and Keanon, we still stay in touch to this day,” Stephens said. “It’s kind of ironic that we’re playing each other in our last games.”
Compiled by Don Williams