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Power Play
Tim Layden
July 27, 1998
Size matters, and so does speed, which is why strength and conditioning coaches are more and more vital to a program's success—and sometimes get the blame for its failure
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July 27, 1998

Power Play

Size matters, and so does speed, which is why strength and conditioning coaches are more and more vital to a program's success—and sometimes get the blame for its failure

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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 Tallahassee too.

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 6'1½" 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 pound.

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.

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