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CNU's Kelchner: D-III football model a more realistic approach in summer

On a mid-July morning at Christopher Newport University World Football Headquarters, activity and energy levels were set to medium.

Coordinators finalized playbooks and coaches met informally to discuss terminology and techniques. Other coaches were due in that afternoon.

The first full staff meeting of the 2014 season was almost two weeks away. Players don't report until Aug. 13.

Head coach Matt Kelchner marveled that at Division I football programs all over the country, the majority of players are already on campus.

Upperclassmen are enrolled in summer school. Freshmen have arrived for orientation. Organized workouts, now permitted by the NCAA, are underway.

"My own heart, my own opinion, I hate the way it is now," Kelchner said. "I think kids should have a summer break. I want them to live and get jobs and have some fun and recharge. In Division I, particularly at the BCS level, their life is consumed with football. There's more things they need to do than their sport. That's my philosophy."

Understand that Kelchner is a Pennsylvania native, where males are born with a latent football gene causing them to believe that true north is in the direction of State College, Pa. He loves the game more than most. When he is doing his taxes or discussing travel plans with his wife, his mind will wander toward blitz pick-ups and leverage against the run.

Yet in 14 years at CNU, Kelchner has embraced the Division III model of athletics, particularly football.

"For athletes, coaches and the people involved, I think it's a better quality of life," he said. "It's more of what I think education should be. Athletics can be an important part of education, but I think too often for scholarship athletes the situation is flipped, where education is just a part of the athletic experience."

Division III athletics do not have scholarships. Football coaches aren't permitted to have organized football-related activities with players in the summer until they report for preseason camp. No film study, no meetings, no coach-supervised workouts.

"Marcus Morrast can come in and talk to me about academics or living arrangements or meal plans," Kelchner said, referring to CNU's returning senior quarterback, "but we can't talk football."

Division III players are allowed to lift weights or study video or work out, but it must be voluntary. Kelchner said small groups of players routinely work out in the weight room or on the field in the evening, usually after a summer school class and/or a summer job.

The NCAA this summer permitted Division I players to participate in up to eight hours per week of required weight training and conditioning in an eight-week period. Up to two hours per week can be spent on film study. The new rule mirrors what was allowed for men's and women's basketball players over the past couple of summers.

Even before the NCAA permitted required football-related activity during the summer, many Division I players participated in summer workouts and training sessions that were every bit as voluntary as breathing.

"Money does not totally control what goes on in Division III like it does at the big schools," Kelchner said. "Money's important at every school, but not as much in athletics at our level."

Kelchner said that CNU president Paul Trible's message to athletes, indeed to the entire student body, to engage in the life of the university resonates more to him with each passing year.

"A lot of D-I kids are engaged in the life of the athletic program," he said, "but the university is something on the way to or from the practice field or the weight room.

"I think our kids end up with a more realistic sense of what college life is about than D-I. I can't speak for field hockey and volleyball, but for football players, it's more realistic than D-I."

Kelchner was quick to say that football isn't simply an extracurricular activity at CNU. It's provided him with a livelihood and an opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps as a teacher and coach. The Captains compete for championships and take pride in their nine NCAA appearances in 13 seasons.

"We take football seriously," he said. "We put a lot of time and effort into it, but we don't want you to be consumed by it."

Kelchner is consumed enough for everyone. He said that his energy level has begun to ramp up, buoyed in part by a recent session at Tabb High with oldest son, Grant, a kicker on the Tigers' football team. He took a lap through the Tigers' weight room, where he chatted up Tabb coach Matt Lawson and some of Grant's teammates.

"It's like that cold vehicle that's been sitting in the garage all winter," Kelchner said. "The first time you start it up, it might take a little longer and have to warm up before it gets going. Once we get to the first full staff meeting and the players come back, I'll be ready to go."

Fairbank can be reached at 757-247-4637

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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