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 power-lifter 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 power-lifters 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 Schembechler.
They were an odd match: Schembechler, the hard-boiled Midwestern coaching legend, and Gittleson, a long-haired war veteran in countercultural clothing. But Gittieson 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 basis.' "
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."