Operation Hardwood II



Alabama basketball coach Mark Gottfried is in Kuwait this week, participating in the USO and Armed Forces' Entertainment's "Operation Hardwood II." A trooper himself, Coach Gottfried has been keeping a diary each day of his trip, waking up at 5 a.m. to start his day with the U.S. troops and continuing on full-court time press until midnight when he can finally take a moment to write the diary entry and email it just before he goes to bed. The Tuscaloosa News has been running Coach Gottfried's diary entries on the front page of its sports section. Here we share the entries that have run in the paper so far.

Day 1:We have arrived at Camp Arifjan.

We arrived in to Kuwait City about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night. We were met at the airport by Sergeant First Class Dwayne Miller who we call Will, and it’s great to see a familiar face.  What a guy.  A (armed) service attitude and our host for the next five days.    We had pretty uneventful travel...approximately 14 hours in the air...Went from D.C. to Frankfort, Germany...Coaches Tubby Smith (Kentucky), Rick Barnes (Texas), Gary Williams (Maryland), Rick Kell (who has organized this trip), Reggie Minton from the NABC, and Jim Crews from Army all met on Monday in (Washington) D.C. and had a fundraiser for the USO at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club where this year’s President’s Cup was just played. The auction and dinner raised over $350,000 for the USO, and it was a special night.  We were met at Dulles airport by coaches Kelvin Sampson (Indiana), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Billy Lange from the Naval Academy, Bobby Lutz (Charlotte) and Dave Odom (South Carolina).  Leean Tweeden from Fox Sports has also made the trip and will do a show for the "BEST Damn Sports Show Period" later in June.  

After the normal travel delays, we boarded and were off to Kuwait for the “Operation Hardwood II” at Camp Arifjan.  Upon arriving, the temperatures were rather mild at 101 degrees.  The troops are very excited and ready to start the tournament tomorrow.  We are scheduled to meet with LTC Platt and CSM Middleton at 0700 hours on Wednesday.  This briefing will be to tell us about the base and what is expected from the coaches.  We will then meet our teams at 0830 hours.  We will be assigned a team and everyone expects Tom Izzo to have the most talent as he did last year.  There has already been a lot of trash talking among the coaches early on.  Myself and Bobby Lutz are both hoping to get a win this year as last year we both went “0” for Kuwait.  

I will be coaching a team from Camp Virginia this year which is located approximately two hours north and on the Iraqi border.  I met a few of the guys tonight in the barracks.  There are 60 to 80 men sleeping on bunk beds in one room, and already it makes me think of how good we have it in the States.  The troops will be eager to have a few days break from the daily routines at Camp Virginia.
On the flight, Kelvin and I had a great visit about his new job at Indiana. and it appears the hot fiction book on the plane is “The Poet" written by Michael Connelly.  

We'll see how the day goes tomorrow because it is now time to go to sleep.  We are eight hours ahead from central time and my body says it is time to get some shut eye. Let’s hope Martin Newton from Nike doesn't snore too loud.  Because those who know me, know I don't snore.  

Coach Gottfried 

Day 2:What a great day! 

After a few hours of shuteye we awoke at 0530 hours which is 5:30 a.m. for the non-military people, and we were off to breakfast.  We did have one coach who has been getting ribbed all day long for oversleeping.  An alarm clock was given to him as a gag gift today. 
It was off to the DPAC, which is the mess hall, for breakfast.  The dining facility is terrific, but my favorite picture from a year ago is not on the wall.  There was a picture of the Pentagon the morning of 9-11 and a quote underneath that read, "Remember why we are here".  I don't know why they removed that one, but it sure was powerful.  

After breakfast we went to the command center and had a briefing by General Jim Kelly who explained to the coaches what is happening across the Middle East and how our troops are making a difference in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.  What a privilege for us to share a few minutes with him.  We then went to the gymnasium to meet our teams.  As we entered the gym, the troops gave us a standing ovation, and the excitement was absolutely terrific. 
I have been asked to coach the troops from Camp Virginia, and they are truly an inspiring group of people.  This base is the first stop for those troops that are leaving Iraq. They deal with our American soldiers and also Coalition troops as they are deployed out of Iraq. Throughout the day, I met a few hundred young men and women and it seemed as though everywhere I turned, I would run into people from Alabama: a young lady from Mobile's Blount High School, a mechanic who repairs the M-1 tanks from Anniston. I have met individuals from Tuscaloosa, Thomasville, Selma, Birmingham and Monroeville.  I also met a man today that has been deployed to Kuwait who works in our own City Hall in Tuscaloosa.  Amazingly, just a few weeks ago when our team was recognized by the City at a City Council meeting, I’d met this man’s three young children and hugged them for their father.  Today I met him, and he had me sign a picture of me with his children that we’d taken in his office back home in T-town before that City Council Meeting.
Our team practiced at 1300 hours and got to know each other a little better.  The format for the tournament is as follows:  a scrimmage game today followed by pool play of three games on Thursday and Friday morning.  We will then begin a single elimination tournament starting on Friday afternoon.  My team is named the Scorpions, and we won today’s practice game.  We are small, as I am taller than all the players but one, but they play hard and have fun playing.  

As we left the gym to eat lunch, we noticed that one of the coaches had his team outside on the outdoor courts at mid-day in 110 degree heat getting some extra practice in.  That just shows how competitive the coaches can get!  

I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with these players and it is amazing how interested they are in the Crimson Tide.  It just goes to show that our University is watched all over the world and these men and women are hanging on every jump shot just as we are here in the states.

This evening at 1800 hours (6 p.m.) we had a "meet and greet" with all the coaches and all the participating players in the Chapel.  They asked great questions in a panel setting, and the coaches here did a super job of interacting with the troops.  All the coaches were awesome in sharing with the troops as to why they chose to make this trip happen.  Rick Barnes of Texas stole the show and use his stand up comedy talents to woo the crowd. Bobby Lutz explained to the young soldiers to dream big, as he was cut from his college team at Charlotte in 1974. Now he is the head coach there.  Gary Williams addressed the dilemma of recruiting young men who want to go straight to the pros after one year of college, and Tom Izzo talked about motivation and building leaders on his team.  

I had an opportunity to address the troops and explain to them how thankful we are to be here and to show them that we support them.  I told them of how at Alabama I dressed in my military uniform for our team after I arrived home last year and how I referred to last year’s trip many times throughout the season.  "Adapt and Overcome" is the slogan here, and, boy is it true.  These young people do their jobs without complaining and show what team work is all about!  They rely on each other and need each other, and it shows in how things get done.  They define team work and how to have a common goal and a mission.

We then had an autograph session and the basketballs were plenty to sign.  The PX made a killing tonight on the balls.  I don't know how they got so many basketballs to Kuwait, but they did!  Although the coaches were a hit, the real hit for the autograph session was Fox Sports personality Leeann Tweeden.  Somehow the troops liked getting her autograph more than the coaches’.  Go figure!  The lines were out the door and the young men and women stayed for autographs for three and a half hours.  Whew........

It is something to walk through the base and see the troops with machine guns knowing that this is the real deal here and also to know how grateful we are for the protection these people provide.  

It’s off to bed again as the day will begin early on Thursday.  Wake up is at 0500 and the bus leaves at 0645 hours for downtown Kuwait.  We will travel to Kuwait City on the same highways that Saddam Hussein used when he rolled into Kuwait in 1990.  We will perform a basketball clinic for 200 young Kuwaiti children and a make a special visit with the U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait.  After lunch, the games begin.  Let’s hope the Scorpions from Camp Virginia will play great!  We are looking forward to that. Remember, someone snores and it ain't me!

Coach Gottfried

Day 3...

When we walked out of the barracks this morning at 0600 hours, Jay Bilas from ESPN said, "Like the movie, "Groundhog Day." When it comes to the weather here, it’s always the same....hot and sunny and temperatures around 110 degrees.  Not much work for the weatherman here in Kuwait.  

We were up early and off to downtown Kuwait. The downtown area is much improved (from my last visit in August) and the Burger Kings and Starbucks are very visible.  Once we got there, we met 20 or so local coaches and did a coaching clinic for the Kuwaiti coaches.  Dave Odom of South Carolina led the clinic and did a fantastic job.  With the help of translators, we were able to share with the coaches the fundamentals of the game and answer their questions.  Afterward, we broke into groups to work with the young people and taught the game in camp format, with six stations of shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, defense and lay-up lines.  

We also had a chance to spend a few minutes with the American Ambassador to Kuwait, Richard LaBarone, who, interestingly, is married to a Mobile, Alabama native.  What a small world. Everyday I meet someone in Kuwait who is from Alabama.

After we finished the clinic, it was back to the base and the opening ceremonies. Just like last August when I made the first tour here with “Operation Hardwood,” the tournament’s opening ceremonies will be among the highlights in my memory. The National Anthem was sung a Capella and it was beautiful.  The gymnasium was silent---you could literally have heard a pin drop-- as she sung the anthem. What a thrill for us to be in Kuwait, with the troops, and signing the National Anthem.  It brings to life the reality of how great our country is.

The games were great today and the coaches are having a blast coaching the troops.  They’re playing hard, not complaining, and competing hard in every game. Our team opened the tournament playing Tubby Smith’s team which is the home team from the home base Camp Arifjan.  Our troops from Camp Virginia were a little overmatched as we fell behind early and lost in the first game.  Our young men and women played hard but just didn't have the offense for the home team.  They may be sending us reinforcements: I am hoping that we will add a player who we’ve heard has game who is supposedly on his way from Iraq and was unable to play in the first game.  I have been told he is trying to get here, but we all understand if he doesn't make it. We are in pool play, so tomorrow (Friday) we have two games and then we will be seeded for the tournament.  

As we went to dinner tonight the convoys to Iraq were lining up and many of the troops were on their way in.  We have been told that our military sends 800 to 3000 vehicles a day across the Iraq border and all those vehicles are coordinated from here at Camp Arifjan.  What organization!

I was on a satellite feed back to Birmingham on WBRC Fox 6 today and talked about the trip.  The communications center here is unbelievable.  The news that comes from Kuwait comes from this communication center.  The soldiers here at the 3rd Army, Patton Zone, are productive, resourceful and very efficient.

I'm off to bed now, knowing one thing for sure: the weather tomorrow will be the same as it was today, same as the way it was the day before.  Hot and sunny and somewhere around 110 degrees.  With the weather here, it’s just like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day" where he always knew exactly what was coming the next day.  Wake up and get ready for the heat! 
It’ll be another early wake-up call. I've scheduled an outside early practice at 0730 hours on the outdoor courts to see if I can get this group ready to play for our 0930 game.  We play twice tomorrow and the players want to get it done. I love their attitude.

We coaches are nuts but the troops love it. 

Until tomorrow, no snoring aloud!

Coach Gottfried

Day 4....

The song from “Groundhog Day” is on our minds as we step out of the barracks at 0600 hours....It’s already 105 degrees and hot. Sound familiar?  Does it ever change? 

We had a full day today of games and with the pool play action beginning early this morning.  The first thing we had to do was meet at 07300 hours on the outdoor courts and have a walk through practice.  Our team needed to get organized and they did just that.  We played at 0930 hours and played well.  The soldiers played hard, together, and with a lot of emotion.  They were ready to play.  The result was a 15 point win over Camp Buering team coached by Tom Izzo of Michigan State. 

As you may know the games are not the reason we are here and the next stop was proof of this. 

At 10:30 a.m. a group of us visited an area called Zone 6.  Coach Izzo, Coach Jim Crews from West Point and head coach at Army, Coach Billy Lange who is the head coach at the Naval Academy, and Rick Barnes from Texas all visited Zone 6 together.  This is where most of the enlisted men and women live on a day-to-day basis.  What respect we have for these troops who mostly live in tents with up to 60 people sharing the space with bunk beds organized in rows, with not much space.  The combination of dust, heat and sand that envelops these living quarters is brutal.  If these people need to use the restroom at night or any time of the day it is a walk outside into the desert air to the latrine. 

We visited a number of young men and women and simply wanted to say to each and every one of them how much we respect them and how much we appreciate their sacrifices.  It is still amazing how many people I shake hands with that are from Alabama.  I met some remarkable people who are fulfilling their mission and making America a safer place.  For instance, men from the Alpha 31st Forward Support Battalion from Northport, Alabama are here and serving their country.  Senior Staff Sergeant Lloyd Curry, who actually works at the University of Alabama, and 1st Lieutenant Curtis Sampson from Northport as well.  These men are running convoys into Iraq and putting themselves in harms way for our country. 

What is amazing to me is that none of the people here ever complain.  How fortunate we are in our comfortable lives to have men and women like these that do what they do every day.  It makes me appreciate all that I have even more than ever!  My prayers are with these men and women as they go about their jobs.

We then ate lunch at the Zone 6 D-FAC with the troops and had a great time.  One thing the military does well is feed our troops.  The food is excellent.  We met hundreds of our serviceman and women and signed autographs for the troops.  It seemed as though every third or fourth person was from Alabama.  I met a young women who has a nine year old in Tuscaloosa named Matthew and boy does she miss him. And I met another man who is running convoys into Iraq and just last week lost two men under his supervision.  What a story to share. It brought to life how real this is.

We returned to the gymnasium and got ready for game number two.  Our team, from Camp Virginia lost a tough one at the buzzer as Billy Langes’ team from Camp Ali Ah Saleem, made some great plays down the stretch.  Again, our team plays hard, and plays together and I couldn't be more proud of them.  We are now awaiting the pool play to finish so we can determine who we play in the single elimination tournament. This begins Saturday afternoon and will end Sunday midday.  These men and women are giving their all as they do everyday and soon it will be back to their normal routine at Camp Virginia.

It’s off to bed for tonight knowing that tomorrow morning we are off to drive some M-1 tanks at 0600 hours.  That will be a treat!  The day starts early every day with the sun out and ready to bear down on the desert.  I don't need a weather forecast because we all know what we will see tomorrow.  It will be hot!

Until tomorrow, Roll Tide!  

Coach Mark Gottfried

Day 5:

Saturday morning was again an early start.  At 0600 hours the temperature was again over 105 degrees and sunny.  Sound familiar? Today were off on a journey around the base here at Camp Arifjan and, as usual, were amazed at all we did and all we witnessed. 

The first stop was to an area where the military trains its troops on Humvee operations.  It’s called "Heat,” which stands for “Humvee Egress Assessment Training.”  This was fascinating. We learned a little about what our troops go through when a Humvee is turned over on its roof during an attack.  I think that all of us have a new appreciation for what our troops go through after being loaded up with equipment, helmets, flack jackets and full armor. We only had to do it for the simulation. They do it everyday...  We then entered the vehicle where a simulator shifts you to a 30 degree angle and then proceeds to turn you over as if you had been flipped on its roof.  The amazing thing is that you have to learn how to stay oriented, unfasten a seat belt, open the door and fall out of this vehicle that is turned upside down. 

All the coaches participated and all of us learned that this is not an easy thing to do.  Keep in mind that we were in a warehouse in a controlled environment during this simulation.  Imagine our troops, first riding in these armored vehicles for hours at a time.  If they happen to get attacked and somehow this vehicle rolls over an embankment, our troops must "egress" from the vehicle.  I learned this means get out!   Now imagine, being under fire while performing this or being in submerged in water trying to get out of a vehicle turned upside down with gear on and trying to exit through the doors of the vehicle which weigh over 240 pounds each.  Try to get one open under water while hanging in your seat belt upside down.  It goes to show again how impressed we all are with these young men and women and what they do.

After all of us immobile old people went through the drills, we then headed to where the army trains the troops on driving the M-1 and Bradley tanks.  Yes we did drive these tanks and nobody killed themselves during the exercise.  Imagine a Bradley tank that can travel up to 75 miles an hour over any terrain and, while doing so, the machine gun in the turret never moves off its target.  The technology is unbelievable!  We went full speed in these tanks and it was exhilarating.  Most of the troops who travel in the tanks sleep in them for days at a time in beds under the back of the tanks.  Think about that for a minute.  Wow!

After the tank exercise, the staff here at Camp Arifjan had us visit the Kuwait Naval Hospital which is the closest thing to the "MASH" television show you will ever see as far as set-up.  It is made up of a series of tents, and it provides unbelievable health care for the troops.  This hospital serves as the main hospital for all the troops in Kuwait and Iraq, and while we were there we visited a number of young men who need care from their time here in the Middle East. 

The helicopters fly over at different times of the day whenever they are bringing someone in.  I met a young lady today who flies "Black Hawk” helicopters and she told me she flies into Iraq daily.  I asked her if she has ever been shot at and her reply was "everyday".  Amazing!

After lunch the basketball games began and my team from Camp Virginia had to play another team from Camp Virginia.  Both these teams are very close and work together on a daily basis at the camp.  Coach Bobby Lutz from Charlotte coaches the Vipers.  It was the Scorpions which is us, versus the Vipers.  The Scorpions won and the Vipers were knocked out.  W played well this afternoon and the team was happy. 

After the game, both teams went to the D-FAC which is the dining hall and had a great meal together.  These people are really a family as they work together everyday and truly care for one another.  There were some funs jabs made to one another and it was a lot of fun.  It is really something to be a part of all of this, just an incredible experience.  They know they aren't great basketball players but they pull for each other and cheer for each other.  It’s too bad they had to play against each other and one team had to be knocked out.  The win puts us against Dave Odom’s team from the Kuwait Naval Base tomorrow (Sunday) at 0830 hours.  They may be the best team in the tournament so we have our hands full with this one. 

The games were good all day today and the competition is terrific.  The troops are playing hard, playing together and have great attitudes.  Did you expect anything different?  Not me.  They are awesome. 

Today I handed out Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirts and caps, and our team wore them during warm-ups.  They were very proud to have the Crimson Tide Basketball T-shirts and it was cool to see them so happy to wear them.  We have a few more Alabama fans after this trip!

Tomorrow will be long day as the tournament begins early and the games will run throughout the day.  We will leave the base around 2000 hours (10pm) and begin the long journey back to Birmingham. It was fun to hear "Roll Tide" throughout the gym tonight.  Wish us luck for tomorrow!

Coach Gottfried

Day 6---and 7:

Sunday morning was the hottest day of the week. I think the temperature before 8 o’clock in the morning was already at 120 degrees minimum. Our team, the Scorpions, had the first game of the day at 8:30 against one of the better teams in the field. It was Dave Odom’s team from the Kuwait naval base. Our kids played hard. They played terrific but they came up on the short end.

After the game I had the privilege of spending some more time with the team and got kind of emotional. You come to develop a bond being there for a week or so with these guys. They are very appreciative of the coaches of the coaches coming over, very appreciative of me being there, and that meant a lot to me. Even though we didn’t win the tournament, that wasn’t the purpose altogether in winning it, but they wanted to make sure that I felt good about how they felt toward me coming over there. That was special.

Games throughout the day were terrific as the tournament came to an end. The final game was between Tubby Smith’s team and Kelvin Sampson’s team. Both teams were from the home base, Camp Arifjan. That game actually came down to the last minute. I sat with Major General Jim Kelly during the championship game, and he re-iterated as well how thankful he was with the coaches for taking time out of their schedules to come and how much it meant for these young men and women to have people support them in what we’re doing.

The closing ceremony, similar to last year was a very special time for the coaches. The military provided us with desert fatigues. Each coach’s name was in scripted on his left chest with “Operation Hardwood II” on the right chest. The 12 coaches marched out on to the floor. Again, like last year, it was received with a standing ovation from a full house of troops. There was probably 1,000 or so in attendance. The 12 of us stood lengthwise, basket-to-basket lengthwise across the court. They played the National Anthem. It was completely silent except for the music. It was really moving to be a part of that.

I think the coaches who didn’t go with us last year and were first timers on this trip experienced something that we all did a year ago---a moment in time they’ll never forget.

My team ended up 2-2 and I was excited to win two have gone “O” for Kuwait last year. Tom Izzo’s team won the championship last year and this year he got the egg and went “O” for four. He experienced life on the short end of the stick as far as the talent pool goes, but that didn’t keep him from having a great time.

As the ceremonies ended and the final game was played, there were lots of hugs. Even though you are only there for less than a week, you still develop some great friendships and bonds with the people that are there. You build relationships. When you get back, you trade emails with a lot of these young soldiers. And it’s emotional. It’s your hope that they will all return safely.

We actually had a barbeque, believe it not outside under a tent in the sweltering heat after the championship game. It was really nice. They had a cake made that was three feet by four feet. It was huge. And it had pictures of all 12 coaches in color on top of the cake. So we ate cake together and then we had to hurry off and get showered up. We left the base at 10:15 p.m. heading to the Kuwait City airport on Sunday night. It’s kind of a strange feeling when you leave. You’re excited to leave, to be coming home to your family, but at the same time you’re looking at the convoys lined up along the road full of troops that are heading to Iraq as you’re heading to the airport to come home. That hits home real quick when you can see them all lined up, ready to do what they’re supposed to do.

We left Kuwait City at 10:15 p.m. there, which was 2:15 p.m. Sunday Alabama time because they’re eight hours ahead, and I got to Birmingham at 6:00 p.m. (CT) on Monday evening. I’ll get to Tuscaloosa about 7:00 p.m... That’ll be about 29 hours of travel, 29 straight hours from door to door. But it is absolutely worth every minute. I would do it again. Knowing how much it means to our young men and women, I think all the coaches would feel the same way.

Coach Gottfried