Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A History of S&C programs

Under the heading of "stuff I meant to post a week and a half ago" comes this. John D. Lukacs writes on the 4-letter dot com, “Many college football dynasties have roots in strength training.”

Programs decades in the making
Boyd Epley is universally credited for his seminal role in creating the phenomenon of the strength and conditioning program in college football – and deservedly so. The first full-time paid strength coach in history, Epley is also arguably the single most important individual in the history of strength and conditioning in college athletics. ... literally lifted strength and conditioning – and all those who followed in his footsteps – out of the shadows and into the year-round spotlight that is the millennial, media-saturated, modern incarnation of college football.
In the opinion of Buddy Morris [at Pittsburgh], one of the most respected strength coaches in the business and an icon revered by former players, the thinking of old-school coaches and the myths concerning strength and conditioning could not have been more wrong. The weight room – not the film room, not the recruiting trail and not the huddle – was where preparation takes place and where championships were really won.
"If you look at the calendar year, 65 to 67 percent of your time is spent on preparation," Morris said, "and only about 3 to 5 percent on actual game time, the rest being other responsibilities, so if you don't enjoy the process, you're in the wrong sport."
Morris, like Epley decades ago, is on to something. Examples of both sustained and mini-dynasties in college football that have roots in strength training lore abound.
A great story, featuring such characters as Bob Devaney, PT Barnum, and Ara Parseghian. Meet Father Bernard Lange, Boyd Epley, Buddy Morris, Brad Roll, and Mike Gittleson. Go read it.

That percentage Buddy Morris gives above calls to mind what the Bronco's S&C coach said in A Few Seconds of Panic. As Fatsis relates it, the coach told him, “70% of your job is in here.”

70%? Could that be true? It's a side of sports that fans don't see at all, have almost no knowledge of. And it can make or break your team.

John Harbaugh first made his mark on the Ravens, within weeks of joining the team in January, with the offseason lifting program. I read on a message board recently that the Ravens had previously been a machine-based team, and Harbaugh had it all thrown out and replaced with free weights. I don't know if that is true; but that offseason there were quotes from him saying that the offseason program was going well: “weights are flying around.” Previously the team had lifted “by seniority,” whatever that means. Harbaugh changed it so they were lifting by position group – you can see how that would be competitive, guys lifting with their peers. There were also quotes from players about how Harbaugh was a little crazy, and “a strong dude” – he would lift with them sometimes. After Flacco’s first season, Harbaugh talked about how important it was to get Flacco into the offseason weight program, get more strength esp in his lower body.

Point being, here's a young coach who was hired by a team known primarily for its physicality, and for its lack of talent/execution in the passing game. And the first thing he goes after is the strength & conditioning program. The #1 priority. Some of that undoubtedly had to do with the timing of when he was hired: the offseason program was about to begin, and you can only start where you are. But does some of it have to do with how important S&C is? Remember Harbaugh was at Michigan as a child, when his father was an asst coach there; and around the program as a young man when his brother played there. And Mike Gittleson was there. Harbaugh must have absorbed lessons about the importance of the strength & conditioning system to the total football program, at a young age.

(You might wonder who Harbaugh hired to coach S&C when he came to the Ravens. The answer is, Bob Rogucki and John “Mother” Dunn. I know nothing at all about them. You can listen to them talk training here.)

Anecdotes about S&C run all thru sports, when the talk is about great teams and great players. Remember people used to talk about how Walter Payton ran in The Sand in the offseason. Paul Westhead’s basketball teams at Loyola Marymount used to run conditioning sprints on a sand hill. Those were supposed to be killer workouts; the point was that the Marymount players would still be running full speed late in the second half, when other teams had hit the wall.

I'm a Terps basketball fan, have been for a long time. I remember one year they lost a late-season game to rival Virginia, and the TV color guy (who was an ex-coach, it might have even been Terry Holland) described it as a game the Cavaliers won in the offseason in the weight room. In a later game, Maryland was bounced from the postseason by a St Johns team that simply out-physicaled them. Gary hired his ex-player Kurtis Shultz to run the S&C program for the Terps. Kurtis had been, shall we say, a power player on Gary's earliest Terp teams. A big powerful guy, not a guy with a lot of moves, an effort player, really a walking foul. He had gone on to be a S&C coach for 8 years, at nearby Loyola College and Johns Hopkins. He also worked with Ray Lewis some, as a personal trainer. Schultz coached with the Terps for ~3 years – and the Terps won the National Championship in 2002. Now, obviously Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter and Stevie Blake and Chris Wilcox et al had more to do with that than anyone else. But did an improved S&C program play a role? It almost had to, didn't it? Esp when you think about those particular players. Dixon and Blake were skinny, actually looked like Dickensian orphans. But they were wiry strong. Lonny was supposed to be too soft & pudgy to play in the ACC. He was credited with utterly transforming his body from his Freshman to his Junior season. And so forth.

Schultz reaped some professional reward. Marvin Lewis tabbed him to be an asst S&C coach on Lewis' first Bengals coaching staff. It was a pay cut, but “The NFL is a once in a lifetime shot,” the top of the world in the training business. Schultz moved on to be the head guy at Minnesota (I think under Mike Tice), before being pushed out when Brad Childress brought in a whole new staff. Schultz landed on Gruden's Tampa staff as an assistant. Raheem Morris later promoted him to be the head guy.

We've mentioned football, basketball. Obviously baseball has its own S&C culture. I can barely even imagine how central S&C must be to a hockey team. Even golf has been permeated with S&C, and you can thank Tiger Woods. Before Tiger, the conventional wisdom was that weight lifting would mess up your golf swing. But Tiger trained hard, and he forced the rest of the tour to train hard to stay in the game. Maybe that's a bit of an overstatement; but there's no doubt that Tiger trained hard.

What if the S&C program is the single most important thing your favorite team does? What if it's more important than whether they run a West Coast Offense, or a 3-4 D, or any of the other tactical considerations we pay all our attention to? Do you know who the S&C coaches are, of your favorite team? What kind of training do they use with their players?

Lukacs has a related little piece:
Follow these rules … or else
At Florida, strength coach Mickey Marotti runs his weight room like a Marine Corps base and has inspirational quotes from military legends and leaders such as Winston Churchill adorning the walls, is a stickler for uniform behavior, not to mention uniforms. One of Marotti's rules is that no one is allowed to train in his weight room wearing gear featuring the logo of another team, college or professional.
More on the importance of the S&C coach from Pat Forde, who writes:
Strength coaches doing heavy lifting
The fact that Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has an office, and that said office sits in a fitness complex that features more than 250 pieces of weight-training equipment, a 50-meter sprint track and a 45-yard artificial turf field, tells you what strength coaches mean to the modern college football program.
"It used to be that it almost was a boutique thing if you had a strength coach, a luxury," head coach Brian Kelly said. "It's now become a leadership position. The strength and conditioning coordinator is on parallel with the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator."
Because of NCAA rules, the strength coach spends more time in contact with players than anyone else on staff. Although the head coach and position coaches are limited in their dealings with players during the offseason, strength coaches have significantly greater access year-round.
With such a long list of responsibilities, strength coordinators now are paid like topflight assistants at most power programs. ... "After the head coach, the top three people in your program are the strength coach, the strength coach and the strength coach," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. "Because of the 20-hour rule [players can participate in football-related activities for a maximum of 20 hours per week during the season], that person quickly moves to the top of the food chain. They're the closest person to the head coach. It's almost like an associate head coach."
Bruce Feldman has a little related piece, ranking the Top 10 training facilities, for ESPN Insiders only.


  1. I'm sure that an effective S&C program can have an affect on players' mental states as well.

    In addition to the team-building aspect of it all (seeing someone puke from sheer physical exhaustion really makes you feel closer to your teammates), S&C builds confidence. Free weights, as opposed to machines, improve your balance and your other "stabilizing muscles" in addition to the muscles you're actually working.

    I agree with your thesis that it's a huge factor.

  2. Harbaugh probably also remembers that John Cooper did the exact same thing when he took over the Ohio State program from Earle Bruce. The Buckeyes were woefully weak and Cooper blamed this on resistance training. Cooper never did get a handle on Michigan but he otherwise put the thump back into Ohio State football, up til his last couple of years.

    During Bruce's 9 years they produced 4 first round draft picks - the best was probably Tom Cousineau who was good but far from elite.

    In John Cooper's 13 years the school produced 17 first round picks including Orlando Pace, Shawn Springs, Robert Smith, Joey Galloway, Korey Stringer, Dan Wilkinson, Terry Glenn, and Eddie George. Wilkinson and Pace went #1OA.

    Considering that Cooper and Bruce were drawing from the same pool of recruits it is obvious that Cooper was doing more with the same players. Your argument really rings true.

    Great article, Jim.

  3. In my senior year I took a weight lifting class at Penn State. I was trim and fit thanks to karate, but never very strong. The class was taught by the PSU football team S&C coaches.

    They taught us weight lifting techniques to bulk up and get very strong, very fast. Also taught us how to use cardio to continue to remain flexible and maintain endurance rather than sacrificing it for strength. The class lasted a semester, basically four months. I went from benching sets of 85 to benching sets of 195 in that span, and made similar ground on every other muscle group in my upper body, putting on about 15-20 pounds of muscle. Best shape of my life.

    I still use their lifting techniques when I decide to try to bulk up a bit, which is actually what I'm doing now...


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