Commentary

Strength coaches doing heavy lifting

Updated: June 24, 2010, 9:27 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The only thing on the walls of Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo's office is a reminder of how far his profession has progressed since the dark ages.

[+] EnlargePaul Longo
Notre Dame Athletics Media RelationsPaul Longo has worked with new Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly since 2004.

It's a framed, black-and-white photograph of Father Bernard Lange and a few Fighting Irish football players gathered around a bench press. The iron-pumping priest is shirtless and wearing khaki pants, pot belly protruding as he works with the players. The picture, a gift from Longo's boss, Brian Kelly, was taken in 1955.

The fact that Longo has an office, and that said office sits in a fitness complex that features more than 250 pieces of weight-training equipment, a 50-meter sprint track and a 45-yard artificial turf field, tells you what strength coaches mean to the modern college football program. They no longer entrust this year-round-crucial position to priests with a dozen other campus responsibilities.

"It used to be that it almost was a boutique thing if you had a strength coach, a luxury," Kelly said. "It's now become a leadership position. The strength and conditioning coordinator is on parallel with the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator.

"Really, he brings a different perspective than the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator or position coach. They sometimes only see what their units are doing. He sees the 105 [players on the roster] like I do as a head coach. I can talk to him about the whole program."

Strength coaches like Longo are the new coaching rock stars of college football. First it was the playcallers -- the offensive and defensive coordinators -- whose salaries and profiles soared. Now it's the strength coaches, armed with palatial facilities, who are valued more than ever because of their constant contact with all the players on the roster.

Because of NCAA rules, the strength coach spends more time in contact with players than anyone else on staff. Although the head coach and position coaches are limited in their dealings with players during the offseason, strength coaches have significantly greater access year-round.

"In the offseason, the strength coaches are pretty much the only coaches we interact with," said star Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph.

For months at a time -- especially during the summer -- they are the eyes, ears and mouthpiece of the head coach. They're also the voice of reason, admonition and encouragement to the players. And that's in addition to the original job description: making everyone stronger, faster and tougher.

With such a long list of responsibilities, strength coordinators now are paid like topflight assistants at most power programs. That includes Notre Dame, where Kelly says Longo's compensation is comparable to his coordinators. (As a private school, Notre Dame doesn't have to make salaries public.) According to media reports, that's the case at most national championship contenders, whether it's Jerry Schmidt at Oklahoma ($244,000), Mickey Marotti at Florida ($240,000), Scott Cochran at Alabama ($210,000) or Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden at Texas ($209,803). They've come a long way since Boyd Epley, considered the godfather of modern strength training, was being paid $3.50 an hour at Nebraska in the early 1970s.

Even at schools that lack the budget of the top powers, strength coaches are commanding big dollars. Louisville, which is coming off three straight seasons without playing in a bowl game and hired Charlie Strong to remedy that, is paying new strength coach Pat Moorer $180,000 this season.

"After the head coach, the top three people in your program are the strength coach, the strength coach and the strength coach," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. "Because of the 20-hour rule [players can participate in football-related activities for a maximum of 20 hours per week during the season], that person quickly moves to the top of the food chain. They're the closest person to the head coach. It's almost like an associate head coach."

[+] EnlargeND weight room
Notre Dame Athletics Media RelationsThe Notre Dame weight room is a state-of-the-art facility, a sign of the modern game.

Nowhere is the association between head coach and strength coach tighter than at Notre Dame. Kelly and Longo aren't just colleagues; they're friends, confidantes and competitors.

This is their third stop together -- Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame. They're former hockey players turned golfing buddies. They own lake homes near each other in suburban Cincy. And they both came up the obscure way, far from the bright lights of the power programs.

"You've got two small-college grunts running the thing who would rather compete than do anything," Longo said with a smile.

The second of three rough-and-tumble boys growing up in Detroit, Longo arrived as a 155-pound running back/wide receiver at Wayne State University in Michigan. By the time he graduated, he was hooked on the gym and the idea of being a strength coach.

He first worked as an assistant strength coach at Wisconsin before moving on to Iowa, where one of his pupils was an undersized walk-on defensive tackle named Bret Bielema. He helped put 100 pounds on Bielema, now the head coach of the Badgers.

Longo spent 15 years at Iowa, where his ability to build relationships began to take root. Longo ended up being the best man in star tight end Marv Cook's wedding. The son of former Iowa quarterback Chuck Hartlieb is coming to Notre Dame's camp this summer. And Longo worked with a pair of players now on the Fighting Irish coaching staff: defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks.

"That's why I've been in it this long," Longo said. "The relationships are what keeps you going. Sometimes you're the heavy, sometimes you're the go-between. But it's a great thing to be a mentor."

His work at Iowa caught the attention of Kelly, who was building a Division II powerhouse at Grand Valley State in Longo's home state. When Kelly got to the Division I level at Central Michigan, he and Longo began what has been a wildly successful partnership.

The stat you will hear quoted often in the fall is this: Kelly's Central Michigan and Cincinnati teams were 42-1 when taking a lead into the fourth quarter. The credit for that late-game toughness goes to the Longo Method.

"The fourth quarter," Long said, "is where it really shines."


Watch the short, bespectacled 51-year-old with the salt-and-pepper crew cut work, and one thing stands out: the sound of silence.

The Haggar Fitness Center comes with a state-of-the-art sound system, satellite radio and multiple flat-screen televisions. None of them was on when the Fighting Irish players reported for the first day of summer conditioning earlier this month.

[+] EnlargeND weight room
Notre Dame Athletics Media RelationsThe players know Longo's track record: His teams are 42-1 since 2005 when leading after three quarters.

No thumping music. No ESPN. No distractions or artificial stimuli. And no barking by Longo.

This runs counter to the Screaming Wildman strength coach stereotype and to the reputation of the weight room as a den of noisy intensity.

If anything, the atmosphere in the Haggar Center is almost cerebral.

No wonder assistant strength coach Jake Flint calls Longo "The Professor."

On this day, The Professor raises his voice only to be heard, never to motivate or berate. He weighs in the players after they've been home for about a month doing weight work on their own. ("They had a month away," Longo said. "Not a month off.") He distributes cards to each player to log their lifts. He explains the plan for the day.

The pep talks are left to the players.

It's the same later on the practice fields, when Longo sends the players through sets of 350-yard sprints. Other than blowing his whistle and calling out time intervals, Longo doesn't do much talking and does almost no exhorting.

"I want them to run on their own gas," Longo said.

According to the Irish players, Longo doesn't have to do much to prove himself or sell himself. They know the fourth-quarter stats. They know that he has a direct line to the head coach. And they know that they came up short several times last year in the fourth quarter under Charlie Weis.

"Last year they did their best to prepare us with their philosophy," sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o said. "Coach Longo has the record to back his up. I don't want to degrade the other coaches, but it's more efficient now. It makes sense."

The players are making the effort by being in South Bend this summer. When Longo was at Iowa working under Hayden Fry, he'd have 55 out of more than 100 players on campus for summer conditioning. This summer at Notre Dame, attendance by scholarship players is 100 percent.

That's another sign of the changing emphasis on strength and conditioning. Offseason work is nowhere near as voluntary as it's billed.

"There's a very short window of your life you're able to do this," Longo said. "Why not do everything you can to be your best?"

Part of the Longo Method of being your best is unconventional. Notre Dame just finished installing Longo Beach -- an 80-yard-long, 10-foot-wide sand pit on one of the practice fields for players to run sprints through. He's also having a 30-yard hill built for running sprints at an incline. And he'll have players flipping giant tires or carrying heavy weights, like a World's Strongest Man competition.

The methods are effective -- but more than that, they're unconventional enough to break up the monotony of grueling offseason work. Players see those drills as more novelty than drudgery.

"They're still young guys -- 18- to 22-year-old guys in massive men's bodies," Longo said. "You have to keep it interesting."

Twenty-three years into it, the entire profession remains interesting to Longo. And not just because he's now compensated and celebrated on levels that strength coaches never could have imagined back in the dark ages.

"I could do this forever," he said. "It's never work."

It wasn't work this first conditioning day of summer. After putting the Irish through their paces, Longo walked off the practice field sunburned, sweating and smiling.

"One coat of paint," he said. "Lot more to go."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.