At the rim of the Grand Canyon, well before 4 a.m. in the mid-May darkness, Eric Kapitulik barks out instructions.
“We can talk about it or we can do it,” he says. “Let’s do it.”
If you’re a Nebraska football fan, you’ve probably seen the video by now. The former Marine and founder of The Program, Husker head coach Scott Frost and several others are setting out on a grueling rim-to-rim hike of the canyon, an expedition ESPN reporter Marty Smith and his crew captured for his show "Marty Smith’s America."
“I’ll tell you what, I don’t care who you are or what kind of shape you’re in, by the time you’re at hour nine and you start hiking up the North Rim, it’s a good gut check,” Kapitulik told the Journal Star one month later, after bringing his leadership development group to Lincoln to work with the Nebraska football program.
In and of itself, the two-day training session with the Huskers is not exactly unique. The Program now works with more than 150 clients spanning college and professional sports and the business world.
The friendship between Kapitulik and Frost adds something to the mix, though, and means this is certainly not the last NU fans hear of "Kappy" and his merry band of badasses.
Kapitulik served eight years in the Marine Corps, including as a company commander in the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, where he led special forces groups on covert missions.
He earned his MBA from Northwestern in 2005 and founded The Program in 2008. A former Navy lacrosse player, Kapitulik knew he wanted The Program to be athletics-related, but didn’t know exactly the direction to take.
A former lacrosse coach of his had just arrived at Harvard as the head coach and needed some help.
“He called me up and he said, ‘Kap, I just took over the softest team in the softest sport at the softest university, can you come down here and wear these guys out?’" Kapitulik recalled. “So I went down to Harvard and I worked out with the team for two days.”
An observation along the way spawned an idea.
“I would call the captains out to lead some of the exercises with me and they just weren’t very good at it,” says Kapitulik, who is quick to insist The Program would be out of business without his teammates there. “Their commutation was poor. Their ability to stand up in front of their teammates and demand a higher standard out of them, their ability to hold each other accountable, they were challenged.
“From there I started to develop our experiential training.”
Two years later, The Program worked with its first college football client: Chip Kelly’s 2010 Oregon Ducks, bringing Kapitulik and Frost together for the first time.
They’ve been friends since, linking up for work and for adventures like hiking or jumping in the water — in a cage, of course — with great white sharks.
“One of the first lessons you learn in the Marine Corps is don’t ever ask your Marines to do something you’re not willing to do yourself,” Kapitulik said. “Coach Frost is going to ask them to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and I hope those players appreciate that he’s not going to ask them to do anything he’s not willing to do himself.”
Frost hired The Program promptly upon arriving at Central Florida in early 2016. He and the NU staff talk extensively about culture-building, and Frost’s ideas about culture and attitude seem to fit snugly with Kapitulik’s.
“They went 13-0 last year. They also worked with The Program. Those two things are mutually exclusive,” Kapitulik said. “They went 13-0 last year because of Coach Frost, his staff and the players on that team. … We can help a coaching staff reinforce a culture that they want to have, and that’s exactly what we do. It’s so powerful with Coach Frost and his staff because we speak the same language.”
Up until 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Jerald Foster fancied himself a good swimmer.
The second day of working with The Program was just beginning with a pool workout.
The task: Jump into 14 feet of water with a baggy sweatshirt on and start treading. Then, remove the sweatshirt, exchange it with a teammate, and put on a different sweatshirt. Then synchronize it and time it.
Good swimmers in the middle, weak swimmers near the wall.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine with it, let’s do it,’” the senior left guard said. “We make our way into the water and that sweatshirt fills up with water and I was like, ‘OK, this is a little different.’”
Shortly thereafter, the churning surface of the water and overhead lights shimmered above him before a teammate pulled him up.
“It’s definitely about not only trusting your teammates, but it’s trusting the process that those guys are there for you and they’re not going to do anything to put you in harm’s way,” Foster said. “It felt like, once everybody bought in with that, we were able to make strides.”
“It was an uncomfortable situation for a lot of guys and you really see guys' true colors when you’re in a situation like that,” senior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said.
Kapitulik calls it “shared adversity,” but it’s not just suffering for the sake of suffering.
“You can teach people to be better leaders and better teammates in the classroom, but you don’t become one until the first bead of sweat hits your forehead,” he said.
Put another way, one month earlier at the rim of a 5,000-foot canyon: You can talk about it or you can do it.
The Huskers aren’t done with The Program just yet. Representatives will meet remotely with team leaders at certain points over the year, and they’re slated to be back in the fall to see a game.
Kapitulik, of course, is not exactly an unbiased observer. NU football is a client and, simultaneously, led by one of his close friends.
Leadership is the guy’s domain, though. He knows it when he sees it.
“We have the opportunity to work with a lot of coaches and a lot of great coaches, and Coach Frost is at the top of that list,” he said. “Coach Frost just went 13-0, but he’ll still hire us because he will do anything within the rules to get better.”
Essentially, the former special forces commander feels the same way many Husker fans do.
“You land in Omaha and the first thing we see is T-shirts that say, ‘In Frost We Trust,’ right?” he said. “Well, you should.”