At eight o'clock sharp on the second morning in June, three
dozen Michigan football players trudged from their dressing room
at Schembechler Hall into the cloudless morning light and formed
a circle around a tall, bespectacled man standing on the
manicured grass of the Wolverines' practice field. It had been
five months since Michigan's last football game, a Rose Bowl
victory over Washington State for a piece of the national title,
and three more months would pass before the Wolverines played
again. A day like this would qualify as the Death Valley of
college football's off-season, if there were an off-season.
The man in the glasses greeted the players, "Good morning, men."
"Good morning, Mike."
The tone was less the I can't hear you!...Sir! Yes, sir! of the
drill sergeant and his troops, and more the Hello, children....
Hello, Mrs. Jones of the nursery school teacher and her
students. The players, in their gray T-shirts and blue shorts,
soon broke their huddle and jogged in the direction of Michigan
Stadium, where a quiet agony awaited.
July 26, 1998
There 51-year-old Mike Gittleson stood in the empty stands, and
with a quick chirp on his whistle he had the players commence a
series of sprints from the first row to the 72nd, two steps at a
time. Formless conversation among the athletes gave way to
labored breathing, which gave way to tortured, involuntary
yelps. Three young players, unaccustomed to the strain, vomited
on the concrete. Only Gittleson knew how long the session would
last. "If I tell them how many they're doing, they'll pace
themselves," he said. "How long will a play last? How long will
a drive last? I train them for the unknown." Without warning,
Gittleson held one index finger in the air, signaling the last
sprint, and soon the players were finished and jogging back
toward the practice field.
They closed with two more conditioning drills before Gittleson
gathered them in a tight cluster, told them to take a knee and,
in a firm, gentle voice over the panting, read to them a letter
from a former Michigan player who praised the worth of punishing
summer training. The players were rapt. "Everything Mike says, we
listen to," says senior linebacker Sam Sword. "Mike knows what
he's talking about."
At precisely nine o'clock, they dispersed as they had gathered.
The title is always some variation of strength and conditioning
coach. Right. And Benjamin Franklin was a publisher. Florida
State's Dave Van Halanger has a good laugh whenever he is
introduced as the Seminoles' "weights coach." In a way strength
and conditioning coaches have become the most powerful men in
college football, and not just because many of them can squat a
VW Beetle. The best of them are second only to the head coach--a
close second--in the influence they hold over the players and
the role they play in steering a program toward a national
championship. They are, to various degrees, trainers,
dietitians, spies, counselors and surrogate parents. Strength
coaches are responsible for the fitness of a school's athletes
in all sports, but it is the football machine that consumes
their time and measures their worth. "If you're going to win
big, you've got to have a special guy in that role," says
Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann.
While the NCAA continually shrinks the amount of contact between
football coaches and their players at various times of the year,
strength coaches, who aren't technically members of the football
staff, fill the gaps. Most pointedly, from the close of spring
practice in April to the beginning of two-a-day sessions in
August, coaches are not allowed to coach, but strength coaches
are permitted to train, and almost all scholarship players stay
on campus during that time. Summer vacation doesn't exist. "From
here on, they're his," Texas coach Mack Brown said in April,
gesturing toward his handpicked strength and conditioning coach,
Jeff (Mad Dog) Madden.
What Gittleson was doing with Michigan players on that clear June
morning, his counterparts are doing across the country. Summer is
their most vital time.
It is not, however, their only time. The strength and
conditioning coach sets up and administers the winter program in
January and February (coaches may assist in those months).
During the season he stretches the players at the start of
practice and runs them at the end, and he meets them for predawn
lifting sessions. When a player is hurt, it is the strength
coach who rehabilitates him. "I see the strength coach more than
anybody else in the program," says UCLA senior defensive tackle
Jayson Brown. While at Tennessee, quarterback Peyton Manning,
who grew from a spindly 200-pound freshman into a 230-pound No.
1 draft pick, would arrive bleary-eyed at the weight room 90
minutes before his 8 a.m. classes and be greeted at the door by
strength coach John Stucky or one of his assistants.
On game days the strength coach is often the first adult to speak
loudly in the dressing room, ostensibly to conduct stretching
drills and monitor the countdown to kickoff, but often to get the
adrenaline pumping. In some programs he is the loudest of all. At
Michigan State, where coach Nick Saban is disinclined to give
fiery speeches, the most strident voice in the locker room
belongs not to any of Saban's assistants, but to strength coach
The strength coach's influence reaches far beyond the weight room
and practice field. His office is a confessional, his couch like
Freud's. No dumbbell-toting grunt, he is the players' counselor
and the coaching staff's mole. "He's the one guy in the program
whom every player views as having his best interests at heart,"
says Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. "The strength coach isn't going
to cut you, he isn't going to demote you to second or third team
or chew you out on the practice field. He's going to make you
You can measure the evolution of the strength coach's importance
like this: Thirty years ago there weren't any. Now you find them
high on a coaching candidate's list of demands. Brown said he
probably wouldn't have left North Carolina for Texas without
Madden. Among Paul Hackett's first hires at USC last winter was
strength coach Matt Schiotz from the Kansas City Chiefs.
The best strength coaches are also businessmen and budding
celebrities. Nebraska's Boyd Epley is a paid consultant to two
weight-machine manufacturers for whom he has helped design
apparatus, and he estimates that he has drawn blueprints for
"thousands" of weight rooms. Madden operates a lucrative side
business training college players--not just from his school--for
the annual NFL combine. In the winter of 1997, wideouts Reidel
Anthony and Ike Hilliard of national champion Florida, to name
just two among many, trained with Madden in Chapel Hill.
Strength coaches devour theory like football coaches study film
of opponents. Some strength coaches espouse high-intensity
weight training, in which an athlete repeats an exercise until
he reaches the point of excruciating, vomit-inducing failure.
Some are committed to Olympic-style powerlifting, with greater
weight and fewer repetitions. Some force-feed controversial
supplements, like creatine, a naturally occurring organic
compound. Nebraska has been dispensing the stuff for years.
Florida State's Van Halanger has an agreement with a supplement
company, whereby he barters endorsement for supply. At Michigan,
by contrast, Gittleson says he has never given supplements.
"These players are somebody else's children," he says. "They're
not chemistry sets."
Strength and conditioning coaches have little precedent to
follow. There is no Bear Bryant of strength coaches, no
authoritative manuals. Before UCLA's Kevin Yoxall entered the
profession as an assistant strength coach at TCU in '87, he was
a 27-year-old special education teacher in Houston who just
happened to have a powerlifting background. No such career
existed when most of them were growing up. Yet here they are,
almost by accident, inventing a profession from scratch,
changing the way games are won and lost.
In the winter of '69 Epley was a junior at Nebraska, an injured
pole vaulter who spent a lot of time in the Cornhuskers' tiny
weight room. Football players began approaching him for
weightlifting advice, and one day he got a call from an assistant
coach named Tom Osborne, who had gotten approval from head coach
Bob Devaney to pay Epley--$2 an hour, five hours a week--to perform
what was then a radical service: teaching football players how to
lift weights. "Even then, weights were supposed to be bad for
you," says Osborne. A stern warning from Devaney came with the
job. "If anybody gets slower," the coach told Epley, "you're
Nearly three decades later, Epley's title--assistant athletic
director and director of athletic performance--barely fits on
his door. From an office larger than most head coaches', perched
above the Cornhuskers' palatial 30,000-square-foot training
complex, Epley oversees 35 employees charged with keeping all
Nebraska athletes in supreme condition. Nebraska football
players lift according to the principles of Epley's "performance
pyramid," and when they are finished, they eat at his
"performance buffet," the most extensive training table in
college football. Influence? When the Cornhuskers needed a
motivational theme for what became their 1994 national
championship season, it was Epley who had them run an extra one
minute, 16 seconds at the end of every summer training session,
emblematic of the time remaining before Florida State started
its final drive toward the winning field goal in the previous
season's title game. The walls surrounding Nebraska's weight
room are peppered with awards and records for strength and
speed, the product of Epley's turning strength and conditioning
into a sport of its own.
To be sure, Nebraska players didn't get slower under Epley, who
turned 50 on June 2 but looks 35. They got bigger, faster and
stronger. The Cornhuskers won two national football titles in
Epley's first three years on the job, and soon other schools
began looking to add weight-training experts. That usually meant
finding a powerlifter from a local gym. "They were looking for
Joe Weider types," says Dan Riley, who was hired by Army in
1974, Penn State in '78 and the Washington Redskins in '82.
"They assumed that if you knew how to lift, you knew how to
coach lifting. In the '70s if you were a weightlifter, you could
probably misspell dumbbell on the application and still get a
job as a strength coach."
Gittleson and Van Halanger were powerlifters but not muscleheads.
Gittleson, a Navy aviation mate, served three years in Vietnam,
returned home to Manchester, N.H., and promptly flunked every
course he took at New Hampshire in a misguided stab at college.
By his own admission, he had no focus. He wound up in a textile
mill, toiling away at a job that finally drove him to give
education another go. He went back to college and graduated first
among physical-education majors at Plymouth (N.H.) State in '77
and then, three years later, first among master's candidates in
exercise science at Michigan, where he met football coach Bo
They were an odd match: Schembechler, the hard-boiled Midwestern
coaching legend, and Gittleson, a long-haired war veteran in
countercultural clothing. But Gittleson could lift, and he was
smart, and in the winter of '78 Schembechler needed somebody to
make his players strong. "I told him, 'You don't look the part,'"
recalls Schembechler, "'but I'll give you this job on a trial
Gittleson is short on fire and brimstone and long on tough love.
His office walls are lined with hundreds of books, from Gray's
Anatomy to Clockers to The Perfect Storm to Nam: The Vietnam
Experience 1965-75. He declines to talk about his tour in
Southeast Asia, but as he and junior linebacker Grady Brooks ran
a lap in June, they had the following conversation:
Gittleson: "Class today?"
Brooks: "Yup. Communism."
Gittleson: "Fought it."
His staff is only about one tenth the size of Epley's, and his
work is hands-on. "He knows the pulse of the team," says
Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr. "He knows every player's problems."
His program (high-intensity, if you're scoring at home) works not
because the players fear him but because they believe in him.
Says Sword, the linebacker, "Mike would never hurt us."
The Florida State players' connection to Van Halanger runs even
deeper. It is not uncommon for an athlete to lift with him in the
morning and pray with him in the afternoon. "He builds a man
physically and spiritually," says Peter Boulware, a defensive end
at Florida State from 1994 through '96 and the NFC's defensive
rookie of the year in '97 with the Baltimore Ravens.
Van Halanger, 44, played for Bobby Bowden at West Virginia from
1973 through '75 as a 6'6", 270-pound tackle, and after a brief
turn with the Atlanta Falcons he returned to Morgantown in '76 as
a graduate assistant coach. Two years later Bowden made him the
school's first strength and conditioning coach. In '83, when
Bowden took the Florida State job, Van Halanger relocated to
In addition to the duties in his job description, Van Halanger
leads Florida State's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian
Athletes, arranges summer jobs for football players and sets up
individual and group tryouts with professional teams. And he
prays. It is axiomatic that Florida State attracts spectacular
players, but can it be raw talent alone that enabled 35
Seminoles to run 4.5 or faster in the 40 last spring and five to
bench-press at least 500 pounds?
If Epley and Riley gave life to the strength coach position, and
Gittleson and Van Halanger gave it legs, it was Madden who
infused it with personality. A hulking 36-year-old who played
tackle for the Memphis Showboats of the USFL, Madden fills a
room with self-confidence, and at 6'1 1/2" and "well over 300
pounds," he just plain fills a room. He was a staffer on Bill
McCartney's national championship Colorado team (1990) and a
crucial part of Brown's outhouse-to-penthouse rebuilding at
North Carolina, which went from late '80s mediocrity to
contention for the 1997 national title. Madden wears a gold
chain with a MAD DOG pendant and a visage that alternates
between a cold, intimidating stare and a warm, gap-toothed
smile, depending on the situation. His credentials appeal to any
variety of player: an inner-city background (Cleveland), a
first-rate degree (Vanderbilt) and a staggering bench press (602
pounds, in '87). "He's got the size to make people listen and
the knowledge to keep them listening," says Brown. "He's more
valuable to me as a counselor than as a strength coach, and he's
a very good strength coach."
Madden sells himself unabashedly. "Players want to train with
the best in the business," he says. "I've got over 100 players
in the NFL, and they all come back to me in the summer. I can
take players where they can't take themselves." Because he wants
a hand in making Longhorns senior running back Ricky Williams
into a Heisman Trophy winner, Madden tried to persuade him to
skip his customary summer of minor league baseball. Williams
passed, adding with good humor, "I've got to play baseball. If I
stay around Austin, Mad Dog will kill me with his workouts." In
early July, Williams quit baseball and returned to Madden's dog
The strength coach is now viewed as so essential to a successful
program that he can be made the scapegoat for too many losses
and get canned in a heartbeat. Notre Dame and Miami, fallen '80s
titans, both replaced strength coaches last winter, without
changing head coaches. In February, Notre Dame hired Mickey
Marotti, a boyish 33-year-old who spent the past seven years at
the University of Cincinnati and who is typical of the latest
generation of strength coaches: He has never held a job that
wasn't in strength and conditioning, and he accepts without a
blink that if Notre Dame doesn't get stronger and faster, he
will be gone.
Marotti's weight room is a temple of discipline. No sitting down.
No yawning. Offenses are punishable by push-ups on the spot. The
conditioning program includes flipping 150-pound tractor tires,
carrying 100-pound blue-and-gold sandbags and walking laps while
gripping a 100-pound dumbbell in each hand, a brutal exercise
that Marotti calls the Walk of Doom. Says senior tackle Mike
Rosenthal, "You drop one, he's right on top of you."
On a warm afternoon not long before the start of Notre Dame's
summer conditioning program, Marotti stood alone in the weight
room, one foot on a bench, the other on the rubber floor. "Think
about it," he said. "Not too long ago my job didn't even exist."
Soon the building will fill with football players in desperate
need of strength, speed and support, so that distant Saturdays
might end in celebration.
"The strength coach is the one guy every player views as having
his best interests at heart."
"In the '70s you could probably misspell dumbbell on the
application and still get a job as a strength coach."