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 tide, 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.
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, gende 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.