COLUMBIA — It takes a pickup truck, four speakers and the click of a button on a CD player.
A routine red zone drill then becomes something else. James Franklin hollers futilely at Travis Ruth. T.J. Moe looks through the gap in his face mask and deciphers the hand signals. Henry Josey squints because he can’t use his hands to cover his ears.
The Missouri offense is enveloped in the deafening din of Sun Devil Stadium or Owen Field or even Texas A&M’s 12th Man.
Or something like that.
Using what it calls a crowd noise simulation system, the Missouri football staff basically desensitizes its players to hostile away game environments. Projected over high-quality speakers, the noise matches and can even exceed decibel levels in which the offense will have to perform. Depending on whom you ask, it may or may not sound like a crowd. Regardless, the players learn how to communicate without using audible signals.
They also learn to execute plays despite the feeling of being jarred awake by an obnoxious alarm clock.
"It simulates the psychological unnerving that comes with a really loud crowd,” said David Bartlett, the athletic department's director of production. “It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
The department is careful to follow the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the football team likes to keep the decibel level around 105 — as loud as a power saw at three feet. The staff members who operate the system measure the noise with a decibel meter.
A more descriptive gauge, though, is the expressions on players’ faces.
“Mostly you just get looks,” said David Bartlett, the athletics department’s director of production. “The, ‘wow, it’s really loud!’ kind of look.”
Missouri (3-4, 1-2 Big 12 Conference) has lost all three of its road games this season. It will have another challenge when it plays at No. 16 Texas A&M on Saturday.
The offense has had its problems, but according to offensive coordinator Dave Yost, opposing crowds have not been one of them.
“Knock on wood, the noise has not been an issue for us,” he said.
Chalk it up to practices on Wednesdays, and sometimes Thursdays, before road games. That is when Bartlett gets a phone call from Dan Hopkins, the director of football operations, requesting the speakers. Bartlett will then direct two of his men to take one of the department pickup trucks and gather the speakers from their storage location at Hearnes Center.
Each of the four Meyer Sound speakers is about the size of a dorm refrigerator — about e-feet high, 2-feet wide and 2-feet deep. Each weighs 130 pounds.
If the team is practicing on Faurot Field, the truck will park adjacent to the 20-yard line on the asphalt path surrounding the field. At the Kadlec practice fields, the truck parks behind the baseball field scoreboard at one end of the stadium. Though they need to be plugged into a main power source, the speakers can be arranged in an “array” outside of the truck. The production employees control a separate CD player with the crowd noise loop.
When Hopkins gives the signal, typically when the offense faces the scout team defense in red zone situations, they will press the play button. A sudden wave of sound strikes the players.
“I don’t know if crowds can turn up as loud or turn down as fast as this system does,” quarterback James Franklin joked.
None of the players doubts that the system matches the sheer loudness of a stadium crowd. But whether or not the loop actually sounds like a crowd is up for debate. Most say it is more high-pitched and consequently, more annoying.
“The first time I heard it, I thought it was, like, cars crashing,” wide receiver T.J. Moe said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Defensive starters practice at the opposite end of the field, but they evidently hear the noise simulator, too.
“It doesn’t sound anything like what a crowd actually sounds like,” defensive tackle Terrell Resonno said. “It’s weird.”
The players don’t know how good they have it. When Yost joined Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel's staff at Toledo in 1996, the coaches used less advanced methods. At times, they would have drummers come out, stand behind the quarterbacks, and go all Todd Rundgren on them. Other times, they would blast Bruce Springsteen tunes over the stadium loudspeakers.
Bartlett said the team has used the current sound system for at least five years. When Pinkel first got to Missouri, though, the department couldn’t find equipment that was both portable and good enough to handle the crowd noise loop. Yost remembers having three staff members equipped with bullhorns surround the offensive huddle.
“I think back at it now, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Yost said.
The crowd noise system forces the offense to communicate in different ways. Working out of no huddle, offensive linemen can’t hear Franklin unless he yells into their ears, and receivers can converse with the quarterback only through hand signals. Staying alert for signals and making sense of them when it’s too loud to think is not easy.
Coaches consider the simulator most useful for the younger players, who they say need to practice with the noise before experiencing the chaos of a road crowd for the first time.
“Those guys need to be exposed to the situation,” Bartlett said. “When they get there, they can concentrate on the task at hand and not just react to all the crazy new stimuli in less-than-friendly confines.”
Most team members say they get used to the noise, but as a first-year player it can be rattling. Incidentally, the coaches forget to mention the simulator during the recruiting process.
Take tailback Henry Josey, a true sophomore who leads the Big 12 in yards per game (122.1) and yards per carry (8.6). Mature beyond his years, right? Well, the speakers still annoy him.
“It’s worse than the crowd,” he said. “Those speakers will drive you crazy. You can’t really describe the sound, and it makes your ears feel like they’re about to explode.”
Or your defensive coordinator, according to safety Kenji Jackson. Even on the opposite end of the field, coach Dave Steckel gets noticeably annoyed.
"Coach Stec hates them," safety Kenji Jackson said. "I think it puts him in a bad mood because when they come on, he starts yelling at us more, it seems like. He’s all upset, more so than he is already. So that’s kind of a lot."
The Tigers' poise during a 30-9 win at Texas A&M last year cannot be attributed solely to their experience playing in noise, just as their three road losses this season cannot be linked to an inability to do so.
But Josey and Franklin both agreed, somewhat begrudgingly, that the noise simulators serve a beneficial purpose, especially before trips to places like College Station and Kyle Field.
"We work in the most extreme atmosphere," Franklin said. "When we go down there, it’s not as bad as it is in practice."
What happens at practice is truly extreme.
"People don’t stand in front of it, let’s put it that way," Bartlett said.