BATON ROUGE, La. — Years ago as coach of Tennessee, Phil Fulmer presented Tommy Moffitt with a proposition: remain the Vols’ associate head strength coach or join Fulmer’s staff as an on-field assistant. Moffitt didn’t need long to deliberate. “I was like, ‘Hell no,’” says Moffitt, now in his 20th year as LSU’s strength coach. “All I thought about my entire life is being a strength coach.”
Many in the strength coaching world hold similar feelings, their passion grounded forever in the art of sculpting athletes—not necessarily coaching them. That’s why Scott Cochran’s recent move sent shockwaves through a close-knit industry of weight-clanging gurus. Across the nation, strength coaches reacted to the somewhat unprecedented step: one of the country’s highest-paid and highly respected strength coaches leaving his high-profile job (at Alabama) for an on-the-field coaching role (at Georgia), while also taking a pay cut.
While many paint Cochran as the spoils in an on-going war between SEC coaches Kirby Smart and Nick Saban, the world of strength coaches is collectively scratching its head over such a stunning and rare shift. That includes those who know Cochran best here in Baton Rouge, where the man got his start under Moffitt.
“Big shocker to the industry,” Moffitt says. “For somebody that is a top-five highest paid strength coach in the country and is the face of Alabama football to some degree—there’s Nick Saban and then there’s Scott Cochran; Scott’s got commercials!—it was a shocker.”
Longtime strength coaching leaders call the move unparalleled in the history of the business. In the last four decades, during the boom of the strength and conditioning movement, there are few such moves that come even close, they say. Sure, there are examples of dozens of on-field assistants who got their start as low-level strength coaches, but a major college or NFL head strength coach shifting onto the field? That’s uncommon. Just ask the last man to do it: Bert Hill. Before becoming a defensive line coach, Hill was a 30-year member of the strength industry, leading programs at Texas A&M and Ohio State in the 1980s before spending 11 years as the strength coach for the Detroit Lions and then the Miami Dolphins.
He shifted onto the field in 2007, after the man who hired him with the Dolphins, Saban oddly enough, returned to the college game at Alabama. “I couldn’t find a (strength) job when we were let go in Miami,” says Hill, now an assistant for the XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers, his third different stop coaching a defensive line since his move away from the strength world. “For me it was a matter of being employed. People put a tag on you. I was a strength coach and not a football coach. Now I’m a football coach and not a strength coach.”
Hill wasn’t the first high-level head strength coach to make the move. That might go to Virgil Knight, heralded as one of the original leaders in the strength and conditioning movement. During his eight-year stint with the Green Bay Packers in the 1980s, Knight slowly transitioned from head strength coach to an on-field assistant, sharing offensive line responsibilities before working with the tight ends full time. “As long as I was in it, I don’t know anyone other than Bert and myself to make such a move—until Cochran,” says Knight, 72, who is now in construction in his home of Springdale, Ark. “It was a shock to some who have been in the strength world. ‘Why in the hell would he want to do that?!’ But (coaching) is always in your blood. There’s a lot of clanging that goes on in a weight room and you can get burned on it pretty quick.”
Those who know him best say Cochran craved an on-field coaching role for the last three years, with the long-term desire to be a head coach. Cochran’s former boss and mentor, Moffitt recalls a young Cochran being infatuated with football while serving as a graduate assistant at LSU in 2001-02. He’d spent long nights with then-LSU special teams coordinator Derek Dooley poring over film of punts, kickoffs and field goals. That’s why his role at Georgia—special teams coordinator—is a perfect fit.
“I think it’s a great move,” says Hill. “I just think it’s unique to have Scott Cochran work with special teams. Who touches all the players aside from the strength coach? The special teams coach.”
The biggest difference between the on-field staff and strength staff might be the time each group spends with players. Oddly enough, strength coaches get more time with them, specifically during the offseason, a pivotal time in the building of a team. NCAA rules restrict the amount of hours school staff members can spend with players. For instance, in the offseason, players are allowed to spend eight hours a week with coaches. At LSU, six of those hours are allotted to the strength staff.
While on-field coaches are often responsible for teaching scheme, instructing technique and game-planning, strength coaches oversee the improvement of a player’s physical shape and health. The gap is closing between the two fields, though, and Cochran’s move is maybe a precursor of a trend. “In the early days, strength coaches were not part of the football staff,” says Boyd Epley, Nebraska’s longtime strength coach and one of the men responsible for the industry’s boom in the 1970s. “They were there for the department, but in recent years, they’ve become a vital part of a football staff.”
While the NCAA allows a football team to employ 10 on-field assistants, the football strength staff is restricted to five full-timers, a rule that many in the industry speak strongly against. The origins of the restriction were in part to eliminate a loophole: Coaches were hiring strength coaches as a way to increase overall staff size. That continues to happen, with one change, says Epley. “They don’t call them strength coaches anymore. They’re called analysts.”
Chuck Stiggins, the executive director of the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, doesn’t necessarily believe more head strength coaches will follow Cochran’s lead. Strength coaches are often too passionate about their craft to leave it, and they have spent years qualifying through a rigorous certification program. “You might have something occasionally happen like Scott, but I think that’s less than 5% type of things,” says Stiggins, himself a former strength coach at BYU for years. “I’ve been in this business about 46 years. I haven’t seen a Division I strength coach leave the industry and go into a coaching position.”
They are few and far between, for sure, but it doesn’t mean it won’t work, Moffitt says. Some just aren’t cut out for it. “I think he’ll do a good job as a coach. Now it’s different,” Moffitt says. “You’re sitting down there watching football film. I love watching film on weight lifting and agilities, but about an hour a day is all I can do.”