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A field guide to the strength coach

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Myth, memes, and Muscle Milk: studying the leaders of the pack, with the help of several FBS specimens.

The stories about them aren’t all the same, but they hit a lot of the same notes. Strength coaches drive up to the football offices at 4 a.m. in F-850s, trucks so large they’re only legally sold to men who can deadlift more than 500 pounds. A full barbell power cage and a Ford Mustang GT sit in the back. They carry both everywhere, sometimes without the truck.

Their height: somewhere between five and seven feet tall. No matter the height, they all weigh 400 pounds of rock-solid, creatine-fueled muscle. The physique might not look like 400 pounds; cracks in the sidewalk are the proof. They wear weightlifting shoes with raised heels in the shower, drink steaming black coffee from rain barrels they carry in one hand, and spontaneously appear with scowls behind linemen about to pick fried food off buffets.

Strength coaches eat steaks from bison they caught themselves with nothing but knives and loincloth. The thrill of the hunt would be enough by itself, but lean protein in bulk is too much to resist.

Observers report yelling — different yells for different occasions, some positive, some very positive, and some a specific kind of agitated, but still positive. The strength coach’s call is a hoarse one, starting around 4:30 a.m. and continuing until nightfall, sometimes over ear-splitting Metallica.

Strength coaches reportedly bench your max for a warmup. They wear heavy coats in July to show the power of the mind over matter, or wear shorts and an undershirt on the field in November. Strength coaches headbutt players wearing helmets and pick up entire assistant coaches like bags of mulch, to keep them from getting penalties.

They have been seen fretting in spreadsheets over bar speeds and plateauing power clean numbers.

The reports agree on one thing: strength coaches do a lot of the heavy lifting, literal and figurative, in making a team stronger and faster. They often do this when no other coaches are around. They run workouts, track totals, count steps. They do this all with the help of a loyal pet wolf.

Some of these things might be true. Somewhere between myth and meme, the strength coaches are often appreciated, but proper documentation is lacking. There needs to be more study.

Here is an in-progress field guide. Fortunately, the subject is not an elusive one. (No one that huge is.)

I. SPECIES ORIGINS/NATIVE ENVIRONMENT/EVOLUTION

The strength coach emerged recently, first appearing in the Midwest. Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney hired Boyd Epley — a scholarship pole vaulter, albeit a ripped one — in 1969 at the urging of future Cornhuskers head coach Tom Osborne.

Devaney agreed to let his players lift weights, but with one caveat: “If anyone gets slower, you’re fired.”

So Epley started Nebraska’s strength program alone in an un-air-conditioned shed and used paint cans as weights. No one got slower.

Strength programs popped up pretty much everywhere. Everyone eventually started doing what Nebraska was doing.

Fifty years later, strength coaches manage weight rooms the size of Nebraska’s old practice facility. They manage their own staffs. When NCAA rule changes limited the amount of time position coaches could spend with players, strength coaches became the staff members with the most rule-sanctioned player contact.

That change did not escape the notice of head coaches, who pumped up the position to become more swole with responsibilities than previously imagined. Their organizational importance bulked up beyond proper squat technique. Strength coaches now talk about being “culture drivers,” have gameday duties, and yes, still teach 18-year-olds how to be physically uncomfortable in the name of becoming a better athlete.

They are the front-line evangelists from the program to the players. Their voice is often as loud as the head coach’s and heard just as often. (If not more, and at much greater volume.)

Ask Mike Gundy. He’s a head coach.

“Rob (Glass) is such an important part of what we do at Oklahoma State in terms of setting the culture and in developing our players as men. His impact goes far beyond the weight room.”

Dwight Galt is the head of strength and conditioning at Penn State, so he is obviously biased on the topic. But he is also in his fourth decade of making players stronger and faster — see Vernon Davis’s legendary combine or Penn State’s recent tear through the NFL’s meat market for proof — so he might know what he’s talking about: “If you mess the strength coach hire up, you’re in trouble.”

II. PLUMAGE: BEARDS, SHAVED HEADS, AND SPECIES VARIATION

That all strength coaches have beards or shaved heads is unsupported by observation.

For instance, Galt rocks the bald head/goatee combo. Gus Felder at Miami wears the same, minus goatee. Glass is old school like Epley, clean-shaven with a perfectly normal haircut. Adam Smotherman at Clemson has a goatee because his beard is “patchy,” and also because his wife has forbidden him from growing a mustache.

Smotherman singles out fellow strength coach Rhett Brooks at Arkansas for facial hair excellence:

“He has a great red beard. It’s just a hard, awesome beard.”

LSU’s Tommy Moffitt has no facial hair or trademark haircut. However, “I had a mean mullet back in the day.”

Matt Hickmann at MTSU wears a true combo-breaker, proof that there is much variation in the species: just the beard, sans mustache.

Rob Glass
Oklahoma State

III. BIORHYTHMS: DIURNAL OR NOCTURNAL?

Definitely diurnal. Barring some early or late film study, strength coaches are usually the first in the building.

The general rule: The strength coach’s day starts 30 to 90 minutes prior to the players arriving.

At Miami, Felder gets in at the crack of 4:25 a.m. He guides the day’s workouts while wearing a necklace with a miniature, gold version of a 45-pound plate hanging from it. Each member of his family has one. His is engraved with Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Galt gets in the door most days around 7 a.m. He describes himself as “right in the middle” of the standard schedule. Smotherman gets in earlier, especially during the summer, when his alarm goes off at 4:45 a.m. for a 5:30 arrival. (“I’m a morning person.”)

Moffitt gets in at 6:30 a.m., and checks his email and plans for the day. For summer drills, Hickmann peeks in around 5:30 a.m.

Glass is in the lot at 5:30 a.m. He says being up that early has one significant benefit: “We don’t have to worry about getting a parking spot.”

IV. LIFE CYCLE/MATURATION

There isn’t one exact path to growing into a mature strength coach. But there is no substitute for experience. No one ever really stops training, ever, because everything changes a little all the time.

This is especially true for veterans. Galt graduated with a business management degree from Maryland, then volunteered for six years in the gym. In the interim, he worked as a meat cutter, for the Washington Capitals as an assistant strength coach, and as a framing carpenter.

In 1989, eight years after he graduated undergrad, Galt was making $15K a year and still working at the grocery store.

Glass began around the same time, as an assistant football coach with a business administration degree. Glass has now been around Oklahoma State since 1985, so long that he trained his current boss, Gundy, when the mulleted coach was a Big 8 quarterback.

(Glass’s summary of Gundy as an athlete: “His competitive fire was off the charts. It wasn’t like he was a real gifted guy, but his competitiveness was astronomical.” Also, the first version of the Gundy mullet? It had “a little perm” to it.)

Glass knew he wanted to go into coaching, but wasn’t sure where he’d land. He found strength training when Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones asked him to run “the winter program,” i.e., what schools called their offseason conditioning.

Glass fell in love with it. Unfortunately, he had no real training, a common dilemma in the ‘80s, when the profession was still in its infancy, something strength coaches still take care when discussing. Glass took graduate courses in kinesiology and working (in his own words) “in scramble mode,” traveling to other programs to bring proven ideas back to Stillwater.

A lot of strength coaches do have relevant undergrad degrees. Moffitt majored in health and physical education. (“I’m a gym teacher!” he texts when I ask him for his major.) Felder majored in kinesiology. Felder and Smotherman have master’s degrees.

Their resumes come with long chains of acronyms: CSCS, SCCC, SSN. They denote types of certifications, something the NCAA has required full-time strength coaches to have since 2015. The NCAA’s definition of what makes up certification is broad, and the requirements can vary.

For example: The Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association’s offers the SCCC, the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified Certification. It requires a 640-hour practicum/internship program, a written exam, and a practical exam done before a panel of certified strength coaches. A certification offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association— Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist — requires a college degree or enrollment as a senior, a CPR certification, and passage of a written exam.

Experience matters most, though. That’s gained the hard way, through interning, volunteering, and hustling until full-time work comes. From 2008 to 2010, Hickmann lifted in the morning, mowed lawns, trained MMA in the afternoon, worked in a bar, and slept when he could. Somewhere in all that, he volunteered at Cumberland College until they brought him on full time in 2010.

Sometimes coffee helps.

Adam Smotherman
USA Today

V: SPECIES CORRELATION/RELATIONSHIP WITH CAFFEINE

Hickmann’s tastes are more particular than most. He prefers Kimera, a brand describing itself as “amazing artisan high-altitude coffee with powerful vitamins proven to boost cognitive function.” Felder drinks black coffee, no cream, no sugar. Clemson’s Smotherman is a fan of gas station coffee.

Coffee isn’t as big a thing as one might think, though. Galt has gotten through three decades of getting up early without regular caffeine. Glass also makes his 5:30 a.m. without caffeine.

Consider the terror in that sentence alone. Some strength coaches just wake up like that at 5 in the morning.

Then, if you’re Scott Cochran of Alabama, you rub Icy Hot in your armpits. You know, just for a little edge on big days.

VI. ENVIRONMENTAL ORIGINS

What gets them there? Moffitt believes the job found him.

“As far back as I can remember, I was enamored by the strength game. I think strength training found me, not the other way around.”

His upbringing helped. His family was both obsessed with hoss-level strength and blessed with it. Moffitt’s father was strong enough to grab support poles in the basement of their house and hold his body in a flag pose, his legs parallel to the floor. His brothers broke bricks in their hands for fun. Tommy grew up reading about strongmen like Paul Anderson, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childhood idol Reg Park, and O.G. iron fiends within football.

There were more practical reasons for being strong. Growing up in rural Springfield, Tennessee, most of the jobs involved some kind of heavy labor.

“It paid to be strong. If you were strong, you got good work,” Hickmann says.

He likes the job — the training, coaching, and friendly yelling — but he also enjoys the connection.

“We’re here to do a job, and it’s to make sure athletes are safe and strong and can perform. But we’re also here to serve as examples. These guys are maturing. I didn’t have a lot of direction growing up, so coaches always served that role for me.”

There are benefits other coaches can’t have: the year-round impact on players, the hands-on job, the slightly fewer meetings, and the satisfaction of taking powerful athletes and approaching monster status.

Even over the phone, every strength coach sounds at least a little giddy when telling someone about a player with a gigantic power clean or back squat. Strength and power alone do not pay the bills, but they are a narcotic that comes with the job.

Those bills do get paid now. The rise in coach salaries came twice as fast for strength coaches. The USA Today NCAA Salaries database shows the lowest-paid Power 5 strength coach in 2017 still made $150,000, while Chris Doyle at Iowa made $675,000 as the highest-paid in the nation.

Like almost everything else in the amateur game, strength salaries look increasingly professional.

Which is a long way from Moffitt’s first college job. When Tennessee called in 1994, Moffitt was coaching at John Curtis Christian High School in River Ridge, Louisiana. The school had won three state titles during Moffitt’s time as a strength coach and assistant. And until television money beefed up college football’s payrolls, the move was not the bump in salary and benefits one might assume.

“Financially, at the time, it was a lateral move.”

Tommy Moffitt
LSU

VII. RANGE AND MIGRATION METHODS

The strength coach may be found in the wild, commuting from home to the weight room. Spotting them is easier than sighting other wildlife, because strength coaches usually drive vehicles proportional to their size. Most of them drive — and this is the correct word — big-ass pickup trucks.

Moffitt is demonstrative about it. “I drive a King Ranch. And I LOVE it.”

Smotherman drives a smaller model. (“The other guys make fun of me for it.”) Glass drives an F-150 because “it’s good for hunting.”

Felder drives an F-150, too. He owns a couple of motorcycles, too. Felder is 6’3 and weighs somewhere around 300 rock-solid pounds. The Harley might look proportional. There is no way his rocket-fueled Suzuki Hayabusa does, however.

Hickmann has the other option: a muscle car, in his case a 2005 Mustang GT.

Galt might be the most strength-type. He has a Shelby GT500 and a big Ram pickup.

Dwight Galt
Penn State

VIII. CHANGING ENVIRONMENT AND EVOLUTION

Twenty-four years ago, when Moffitt arrived at Tennessee, a lot of players went home for the summer. They got jobs, hung out, and fell off the workout wagon. Fall camp really wasn’t for refining technique. Fall camp existed for getting players back in shape.

Summer workouts are all but standard now. Early enrollment is more common, too. More training equals players staying in shape year-round; less time spent on conditioning means quicker installs and more efficient practices; more efficient practices are said to equal fewer injuries.

Counterintuitively, staying in shape year-round creates a novel problem for coaches like Moffitt: making young players rest.

“Before, you looked for opportunities to get them into the weight room. Now, you’re looking for ways to give them rest.”

More has not necessarily been better. At Oklahoma State, Glass and his staff have to balance the demands of conditioning with the realities of competing in a power conference, one where a team from Stillwater has to go four quarters in Norman and Austin. That requires a flexible coach like Gundy.

“He’s totally carte blanche with me, which lets me do a lot. We may not have the roster depth that other people have. We’re getting better as coaches, and we used to overdo stuff. We really work together with Coach Gundy on that, with tracking.”

Moffitt uses GPS tracking at LSU, along with other apps, to track player readiness, output, and distance covered in practice. There are ways to test hydration, sleep, or anything that can be measured within reason, and maybe a few things well past it. This means instant feedback on an iPad, later pored over in the offices.

Other coaches admit the challenges of keeping up with technology.

“Me, I’m an older guy, and the technology is kicking my ass,” says Glass. “The younger guys help me with that. If I had to do that by myself, I’d probably fail now.”

As for working with millennials — whether they need to be coached differently, and whether millennial athletes question methods too often — opinions vary. Hickmann thinks they need answers because they get so much more information than previous generations did. Moffitt worries about motivations, whether they play football because they love it.

Felder has no problem with athletes who ask questions.

“I actually like the ‘Why?’ guys.”

According to Felder, there’s another issue:

“Millennials just aren’t used to being pushed as hard. It’s our job to work with them, to push them.”

There are new techniques, programs, and fads. No one is immune to them, but strength coaches agree on a few principles:

  • Players are nothing without effort.
  • Effort starts in the weight room.
  • The weight room requires commitment and attention to technique.

Smotherman speaks for everyone when he reiterates that the work has to be done, and the weights can’t be light.

“I heard a preacher one time say, ‘If you want to get strong, you gotta pick up something heavy.’ That’s kind of the foundational piece of it.”

And if it all the gear had to come out of the gym except for one thing, what would be left is obvious.

“Nothing will ever replace the barbell,” Moffitt says. He pauses for emphasis. “Nothing.”