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October 5, 2011

Food: College Football’s final frontier

A Nebraska player chooses his meal from various options at the training table.
by Kevin Clark

This season, dozens of top college-football teams are making the same expensive bet on one aspect of football that old coaches from the leather-helmet days never gave much thought to: sushi rolls, crab legs and hand-blended smoothies.

As college programs struggle to maintain their dominance in the face of increasing parity, the issue of how much the players eat during the season—and what they’re eating—has been elevated from a running joke to a serious matter that includes teams of chefs, dietitians and volunteers, and that’s becoming part of the way some teams prepare for games.

At Washington, four full-time chefs cook meals for the school’s athletes year-round, including the occasional feast of New York strip. Nebraska says it devotes around $1 million a year to feeding scholarship athletes—a process that starts with a breakfast spread at its training facility every morning at 5. As part of its beefed-up nutrition plan, Alabama says it instructs flight attendants on long trips to ply the players with Gatorade.

Before it takes on Stanford in November, Oregon says it will prepare for that team’s punishing running attack by trying to bulk up its defensive linemen. On the menu: chicken-noodle soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Florida, which started its program in 2003, may have taken the idea the furthest of all: It spends $58,000 each year just on pre- and post-practice snacks for the football team. Florida also provides five types of smoothies on demand and employs two full-time dietitians, a pair of interns and up to a dozen volunteers, with some staffers texting the players to remind them to eat lunch. To make sure they know what to buy, the school’s diet specialists take players on guided informational tours of the grocery store.

“It’s the last remaining edge,” said Chelsea Zenner, one of Florida’s nutritionists. “Every team at the top has a coach who deserves to be there and every team has great weight rooms and strength programs. The last edge is nutrition.”

NCAA rules restrict players to just one athlete-exclusive meal a day while campus dining halls are open. In the interim, all they’re allowed to do, besides provide fluids, is to offer fruit, nuts and bagels at any time.


Still, as with most things in college football, the system favors rich schools. The NCAA doesn’t limit how much schools can spend on that one daily meal. They’re also free to continue feeding them long after the season is over and when school isn’t in session. And there are no limits on the number of tests players can undergo or how often they can consult with dietitians.

Even at odd times when dorms are closed, such as during preseason practices or the winter break before a bowl game, schools are allowed to give players a per diem to cover the costs of food. Not surprisingly, there’s a gap between the haves and the have-nots: Major programs like Utah give $40 per day, while less-renowned ones like Florida Atlantic give only $25.

Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden told an alumni group over the summer that one of his priorities was to make sure his players ate three good meals a day. He also complained about the school’s per diem for athletes, which is around $16. Miami declined to comment.

Monica Van Winkle, the Washington Huskies’ team nutritionist, says a 280-pound lineman who is trying to maintain his weight will typically consume around 5,200 calories in a day. A wide receiver would eat 4,100. At Florida, the typical meal for a big eater consists of a steak, perhaps chicken teriyaki, three to five crab cakes, sesame chicken, a carbohydrate option like pasta with marinara sauce and a plate of sushi.

Nebraska’s nutritionist, Josh Hingst, says the school’s food game plan is “no different” than the game plan for offense or defense. When the Cornhuskers traveled to Wyoming last week to play at an elevation of over 7,000 feet, the team prepared a food plan like they’d prepare for a spread offense.

To accommodate for the lower oxygen levels, Hingst designed an “anaerobic” diet. Players were handed significantly more fluids on the flight. Then, starting one hour before the game, they were given orange slices, bananas and meal replacement bars to combat the low oxygen. The Cornhuskers won, 38-14. Hingst, who used to work for the Atlanta Falcons, said Nebraska’s training table is “a lot better.”

In case you’re wondering, most teams don’t try to ban fast food entirely. Florida aims for 80% of its players’ meals to be healthy. Oregon’s nutritionist, James Harris, said he patrols players’ Facebook accounts to make sure they aren’t holding unhealthy food. He said a clear violation of healthy living, documented on social media, results in an immediate call or text—which he said happens “every day.”

To encourage players to avoid undoing all the nutrition by chowing down on pizza and beer, Washington’s Van Winkle encourages players to cook their own meals—she estimates ten players from last year’s freshman class are doing so.

The big question, of course, is whether all this fussing over food pays dividends on the field.

Alabama considers the matter important enough to have Amy Bragg, a team nutritionist, on the sideline for most games. She said she’s responsible for feeding players time-released foods at halftime to ensure players won’t fade or cramp in the fourth quarter.

Dave Ellis, a former strength coach at Nebraska, said revered former coach Tom Osborne used to say that good eating helps a team perform 2% to 4% better—a huge margin at the top of college football.

“When you’re playing top games, it’s the team that can keep its starters in that will end up winning,” said Ellis. “So food might distinguish the outcome of the game when it’s late.”

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