May 20, 2010

Strength coaches key to a team's success

Pitt strength coach Buddy Morris is ready to go. Heck, he's wound tight and ready to go all the time.

"We always are in what I call a 'state of being wired,' " Morris says. "Don't get comfortable."

With spring practice over and the school year winding down, now is the time when Pitt's players become Morris' project. The players will start getting bigger, faster and better. And Morris will become even more wired -- if that's possible.

Actually, that scenario will play out all over the nation, highlighting the importance of strength and conditioning coaches -- who might be the most vital members of a coaching staff. During the offseason, the strength and conditioning staff serves as the eyes and ears for the rest of the coaching staff. Even during the school year, players have more contact with the strength coach than they do with any other assistant.

If you have a good program, then you have a good strength coach. And he does his best -- and perhaps most important -- work in the offseason.

"After the spring game, our guys came in for recovery and restorative workouts three times a week," Morris says. "After restorative work, we have finals. We then come in twice a week. We have a two-week break, and then the summer program starts."

Teams are made from now until the start of training camp in August. And it's up to the strength coach -- the lone link between the players and the rest of the staff during the summer -- to lead the way. During the offseason, players can work out on their own, but position coaches are not allowed to be present. Instead, under NCAA rules, only strength and conditioning coaches are allowed to be at the workouts.

"They are with the players more than the position coaches and even the head coaches because of the NCAA rules," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin says. "He sets the tone for ... work ethic and general attitude of your program."

During the season, schools are limited to 20 hours of practice each week; there can be six days of workouts, with no more than four hours on any given day. Outside of the season, schools can have only eight hours of work per week. And in the summer, all work is "voluntary."

"Once spring ball is over, the assistants head out and recruit," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt says. "Most of May and then the summer, who is with these kids? The strength coach. He has as much impact from a time standpoint on how they do things as anybody."

The relationship between player and strength coach often goes beyond bench-presses and squats. The strength coach at times becomes a confidant and a friend.

"If there is a situation that we think is adversely affecting the athlete's education and personal life, we will discuss that with 'Coach Wann,' " Morris says.

A player may have girlfriend issues. There could be problems at home, troubles in the classroom, issues adjusting to school.

"I am with these guys year-round, in the fall, winter, spring and summer," says Houston strength coach Larry Jackson, who also worked with Sumlin at Texas A&M and Oklahoma. "I am with them when they are working with their coaches and when they aren't working with their coaches. We end up the most important coach because oftentimes, I'm the coach who is going to be with him the most and the one who is most likely to not leave the staff. His position coach may move on."

When Wannstedt arrived at Pitt, one of the first things he did was hire Morris, an alum who had been at the school two previous times and is considered one of the top strength coaches in the nation. Former Panthers raved about Morris when Wannstedt was looking for a strength coach.

"And when those alums come back, the first person they go see is Buddy," Wannstedt says. "There is a bond there. He was the guy I had to have."

While the bond between a player and a strength coach can be strong, there may be no closer relationships on a coaching staff than the one between a head coach and his strength coach. While other members of a staff often are looking to move to a "better" program or to become a head coach, a strength coach already is at the top of his profession and often remains glued with the head coach.

"I have worked with Mike [Stoops] since 1999 at Oklahoma," Arizona strength coach Corey Edmond says. "Mike doesn't bother me with anything that has to do with this. He trusts me. When you have that type of relationship, he doesn't have to worry about what's going on down here. He knows that when we get into summer camp, he's going to get a finished product.

"When that team gets on the field, if you are a painter, that team is your portrait. You never want to see your team get out-physicaled. You take that personally as a strength coach. I don't need Mike to say that we need this or that; I can see it."

There often is constant communication between a head coach and a strength coach. Wannstedt and Morris talk every day but Sunday, and Wannstedt also spends a lot of time in Morris' office.

"He's always around," Morris says. "He works out, too. He's a very visual coach. He's very accessible; we all see him. He doesn't avoid the weight room. I've worked with some guys who have avoided the weight room. He'll come in and ask how things are going."

Wannstedt wants to know the players doing the extra work -- and who isn't doing enough work.

"I talk to Buddy as much as I do my offensive and defensive coordinators," Wannstedt says.

Wannstedt says he believes that the devil is in the details that go beyond just hoisting iron and running sprints.

"When they are running, is their hand on the line?" Wannstedt says. "Are they finishing the drill? Is everyone showing up on time or missing sessions? These little things are the same things we are trying to get done on the football field.

"You can better your program and team if you have a strength coach who believes in the little things that make a football team successful."

Before Pitt breaks for training camp, Wannstedt will meet with Morris to get a synopsis of the entire offseason program, going over every position and every athlete. Sumlin has a similar meeting with Jackson.

"He has a good feel for the team year-round, about guys and their work ethic, how the players feel about certain people, who are the leaders, because he's with them every day," Sumlin says. "I can communicate with him where our team is at physically during the season and offseason.

"He can communicate with me the general feeling of what is going on who is getting better, who is being a leader. Really, he's the eyes and ears of our program in the offseason."

And a program's most important assistant coach.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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