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 kick-off, 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 Ken Mannie.
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 better."
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 done."