This story appears in the April 8, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Aaron Feld wants to multitask. "Do you mind if I finish this?" asks Oregon's strength and conditioning coordinator as he points to a squat rack where a 45-pound Olympic bar sits loaded with four 45-pound plates on each side. Feld has an interview scheduled, but he also has a set of squats and a set on the incline bench press remaining in his workout. As he settles under the squat bar it is suggested: This might be the first time an interviewee has ever answered questions with 405 pounds on his back. "There's a first time for everything," Feld, 31, grunts in his Alabama twang before sucking in a deep breath and heaving the weight off the rack.
Oregon pays Feld $200,000 per year, but that number is likely to go up before long. Iowa pays its strength coach $725,000 per year—the most in the nation—and Clemson pays its $600,000, up 20% from last season's $500,000.
The catch for this new breed of very well compensated assistant? In addition to the 405 pounds on his back, Feld carries the weight of Oregon's program. He and his peers are judged on W's and L's, not just bench-press LBs. In other words: If things go wrong for the Ducks, it's his thick neck.
Feld knocks out two deep squats, racks the bar and pumps out a few reps at 315 pounds on the incline. Then he retires to his office to answer the question he knows is coming: Dude, what's up with that mustache?
That was the first thing Oregon coach Mario Cristobal asked in December 2017 when he called Feld, then a Georgia strength staff assistant, to set up a job interview. It's the question almost everyone asks the former Mississippi State long snapper, because his is no ordinary 'stache. It covers the entirety of the area between his upper lip and his nose, and then spirals out into two points that can, depending on his mood, curl gently or stick straight up like a pair of horns. It is a piece of facial artistry that says, It's 1887 and I want to sell you some miracle tonic. It started as a joke, but when Feld and his wife went to New York City for their first anniversary, in 2017, he noticed everyone else noticing. "It's a triple threat," Feld says. "My wife hates it. Strangers give me compliments. And my wife hates that, too."
Add a fourth threat: Cameras love it. During Oregon games the TV shot inevitably cuts to Feld prowling the sideline, treating him like an offensive or defensive coordinator.
That, however, is entirely appropriate. In today's college football, a strength assistant is the most important hire that a head coach makes. He matters more than either coordinator because he spends more time with players than any other staff member. The NCAA strictly limits how much contact head and position coaches can have with players, but there are fewer restrictions on strength coaches, who run workouts almost year-round. Many of these workouts are officially voluntary, but coaches tend to say “voluntary” with air quotes the size of the Goodyear Blimp.
From the start of August practices through the season's last game, strength coaches have the same access to players as do other staff members. But it's in the offseason where their value escalates: While other coaches are limited to two hours per week with players, they're allowed eight.
Depending on the day, a strength coach must be a taskmaster, motivator, mad scientist or trusted counselor. For better or worse, they are perhaps more responsible than anybody else for building the culture of a program. “The strength coach and the head coach have to be like this,” Cristobal says, locking his index and middle fingers tight.
Like the rest of the staff, strength coaches receive credit when their team wins and blame when their team loses. But, specifically, their job is to manage players' bodies. They must balance the duty to produce a winner—to push those bodies to their limits—with a duty to protect the safety and well-being of the 100-odd players on their rosters. Last year, Maryland lineman Jordan McNair died following an offseason workout, prompting intense scrutiny of the role of the Terrapins' strength coach, not just in the incident itself but also in establishing the culture of the program.
The difference between challenging a player and pushing one over a physical or mental cliff can be razor thin. It is the task of Feld and his highly paid peers to very carefully manage that line.
One day back in 1969, Tom Osborne, then Nebraska's offensive coordinator, noticed his injured players following the lead of a rehabbing pole vaulter named Boyd Epley. Those players tended to return to the field stronger and faster, so Osborne hired Epley at $2 an hour to train the whole team. "For about 100 years [players] just showed up a couple weeks before the first game and had two or three practices a day to get themselves ready," says Epley, who spent the next 35 seasons trying to change that mentality, and who is now regarded as the father of sport-specific strength training.
Epley's approach was relatively enlightened, especially for his time. In 1991, for instance, he asked Osborne that the strength staff not be used solely to punish players, worried it would make them hate training. Many of those who followed Epley, however, took a more brutish approach, requiring endless lifts with trash cans positioned strategically nearby.
Those days are now, mostly, long gone. The best strength coaches have come to realize they need motivations suited to the modern age, when players might be more responsive to how they'll look on Instagram than to a hard-ass coach's barking. So, sure, Feld can yell during a workout, but he also makes sure his players celebrate every Flex Friday and join him in a social media campaign to #FillTheSleeves.
Great strength coaches also follow the science, and they have a little Thomas Edison in them. For instance, there's a $12,000 exercise machine that Feld likes—it utilizes a belt around the waist and a well beneath the foot plate to allow lifters to get the benefit of a squat without carrying the weight on their backs. It's especially helpful for players with back injuries, or for targeting the muscles below the waist.
But Feld didn’t have enough of these machines for his liking when he arrived at Oregon. So he figured out he could get the same movement by rigging a $50 weight belt and some straps to another weight-room contraption.
“I love biomechanics,” Feld says. “I know everyone thinks I’m a big, dumb meathead. It’s fine.”
Feld is regarded as one of the best, but there are other strength coaches out there like him, give or take some facial hair. Cristobal has an eye for them—though that's not always enough in the cutthroat world of college football staffing. After he was hired to lead Florida International in December 2006, he offered his head strength coach job to a 27-year-old on the then–New Orleans Hornets strength staff who had previously worked with LSU football. The only problem? Nick Saban took the Alabama job a few weeks later and liked the same guy. So Scott Cochran went to Tuscaloosa. “For like five times the money,” Cristobal says, laughing.
Thirteen years later, Cochran is still in Tuscaloosa—and remains a ball of energy. His trademark Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is so popular that Alabama plays videos of him screaming during games to pump up fans. That's mostly sizzle, though. Cochran's most valuable traits are these: He can deliver Saban's message verbatim and push players near their physical and mental limits ... only to have them hug him later. It's no accident that in spite of massive staff turnover at Alabama (including four offensive and four defensive coordinators since 2015), Saban has made sure to keep Cochran around.
Partly for the same reason, Ohio State stayed internal, tapping offensive coordinator Ryan Day to replace the retiring Urban Meyer in December. Buckeyes AD Gene Smith calculated that hiring from within would increase the likelihood that strength coach Mickey Marotti, who has worked for Meyer at Florida and Ohio State, would stay in Columbus.
But hiring the wrong strength coach can damage a program: When Jim McElwain coached at Florida, between 2015 and ’17, some players paid out of their own pockets to work with gold medal Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery, who runs a speed training program in Gainesville, because they didn't feel they got enough from the team workouts. That all changed when McElwain, after going 22–12, was fired and replaced with Dan Mullen, who brought strength coach Nick Savage along with him from Mississippi State.
Savage, who had started working as a strength coach for his old high school while just a freshman at Youngstown State (an injury kept him from playing football), changed the atmosphere quickly. “I’ve been working like I haven’t before in college,” Gators defensive end Jachai Polite said in an October interview. “Our previous strength staff wasn’t all that good.”
Polite also began playing like he never had before. After slimming from 270 pounds to 245, he finished eighth in the nation with 11 sacks. “He’s more demanding,” Polite says of Savage. “Everything is more intense.” As if to prove his point about Savage’s team, Polite has struggled during the pre-draft process. He was apparently at his best when working with Savage.
While that may be exactly what you expect to hear from a player after his team's strength staff changes—The old coach made us do a Jane Fonda VHS tape three days a week; now we bench-press Volkswagens every day!—at Florida and Oregon, the results on the field have backed up the words.
In October, Mullen beamed after his team's 27–19 win over LSU because it reminded him of a drill Savage had put the Gators through the previous summer. Florida led by one when LSU got the ball at its own 12-yard line with two minutes remaining. Previous Florida teams might have given up a game-winning drive, but this outfit “held the rope,” in Mullen's parlance. That summer, in the sweltering Gainesville sun, the Gators had literally held ropes. Savage divided them into teams and made them race around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium—up the bleachers and around the concourses—while holding a rope together.
To win, every player on a given unit had to maintain his grip. The fastest players couldn't simply race away from their slowest teammates; they had to find a way to make them run faster. Against the Tigers, the defense didn't collapse. It held together. Brad Stewart intercepted Joe Burrow and returned it for a touchdown to seal the win.
By the same token, Oregon improved from 7–6 in 2017, Cristobal's first year, to 9–4 after Feld’s hire. How much credit does Feld deserve? In October, when Oregon faced Washington—the Pac-12’s best-conditioned team, by reputation, which had made the Ducks look pillowy soft the previous two seasons—Oregon certainly looked like the fresher squad in overtime. That's when its offensive line blasted open a massive hole on third-and-goal from the six-yard line for running back C.J. Verdell to punch in the winning score.
Still, Feld and Cristobal need only visit their university general counsel’s office to see what happens when coaches, strength and otherwise, aren't careful. Oregon is currently being sued by two former players who were hospitalized in 2017 with rhabdomyolysis—a condition related to kidney damage—following a workout run under Feld's predecessor, Irele Oderinde, working for then coach Willie Taggart.
What happened at Maryland was much more dire. The death of McNair, a 19-year-old lineman who collapsed during a run last May from heatstroke and died two weeks later, prompted a university investigation, which found that trainers and medical personnel didn't adequately diagnose and treat his symptoms. The school then empaneled an outside commission to examine the culture of the football program under head coach D.J. Durkin and strength coach Rick Court.
That group interviewed players, parents, coaches and university personnel before releasing a 192-page report describing a culture of fear that kept players from voicing concerns. Court, who resigned under pressure and was paid the balance of his contract in August, had supporters and detractors among those interviewed—the report noted that he “did have the best interests of the players at heart.” But overall, the findings were damning. The commission found that he regularly crossed the line from hard coaching to verbal and mental abuse. According to those interviewed, he would use homophobic slurs to challenge a player's manhood.
“Additionally, Mr. Court would attempt to humiliate players in front of their teammates by throwing food, weights and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit, all behavior unacceptable by any reasonable standard,” the commission reported. “These actions failed the student-athletes he claimed to serve.” After the Maryland Board of Regents initially recommended keeping Durkin as the Terps' coach, Maryland president Wallace Loh abruptly reversed course.
Feld himself acknowledges being a hard-ass early in his career, working with the football and women's basketball teams at Alabama-Birmingham. “I was a hammer before,” he says. In his early 20s, Feld screamed, and he took any sign of disrespect as a personal challenge, responding accordingly.
He says he has changed—and understands that each player is motivated differently. He also has learned that using negative speech tends to produce negative results. Feld had to retrain himself so that, for example, he now tells a player, “Foot behind the line,” during wind sprints instead of, “Get your foot off the line.” The former, he has found, sets an expectation. The latter provides a reminder of the negative behavior that makes it even more difficult to eliminate.
The mental aspect of training is as important as ever, according to Manny Diaz, the former Miami defensive coordinator who was hired in December as Temple's head coach. Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Diaz took a FaceTime call with a group of nine Temple players. They pleaded with him to retain strength coach David Feeley, who had been hired by the previous head coach, Geoff Collins, in late 2016. Diaz was so impressed that two weeks later, when he bailed on Temple to take the newly opened head position at Miami, he took Feeley with him to Coral Gables.
The way Diaz sees it, Feeley can do something that position coaches can't, especially now that fears of concussions, subconcussive hits to the head and other injuries have led to a reduction in hitting at practice. "The best way now that you can create toughness on your team is by creating adverse situations in the weight room," Diaz says. "When you have a bar on your chest or on your back and you've never lifted that weight before and that little guy in the back of your head is saying, 'You can't do it'—and then you do—you begin to realize that little guy in the back of your head is a liar. And that is, in essence, courage. That's toughness."
Feeley agrees, but he bristles at the popular notion that 18- to 22-year-olds can't be coached hard anymore. “Kids are the same as they were a couple hundred years ago,” says Feeley. “They want to feel love, they want to feel value and they want purpose. And they want someone to get them from point A to point B.”
Feld believes a critical part of his job is to teach players to motivate one another when no coach is around. Players, like coaches, need to know how teammates' minds work. “I can’t have a kid go destroy [another] kid who has a fragile psychology,” says Feld, “when we need that kid to make a play.”
Strength coaches differ on exactly how to motivate players, but most agree: Limit-pushing is tolerated—even embraced—by players who believe their coaches see them as more than instruments for winning. “It’s a fine line of knowing when to push and when to pull, when to turn up and when to turn down,” says Savage. “That’s why you’ve got to have some sort of relationship. You’ve got to know your players.”
A previous version of this story attributed the firing of Maryland coach D.J. Durkin to the school’s Board of Regents. Maryland president Wallace Loh fired Durkin.