Commentary

Offseason program has Wolverines looking, feeling different

Updated: March 16, 2008, 11:46 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It is the day before the opening of Michigan's first spring practice under coach Rich Rodriguez, and a coach who knows Rodriguez's career better than anyone predicts that the Wolverines will not merely struggle to learn the new schemes. This coach uses terms like "ugly" and "miserable" to describe the adjustment.

"I'm anticipating the worst," this coach said.

This expert's name? Rich Rodriguez.

The Big House has building cranes peeking over its walls. A new indoor facility is being constructed. Rodriguez stood on the balcony of his office in Schembechler Hall on Tuesday afternoon, looking down at a construction site where his new FieldTurf practice area will be.

"Y'all are doing a great job!" he yells to a couple of guys in hard hats.

Insert metaphor here.

A whole lot of renovation has begun on the south end of campus. Buildings and bodies alike are being broken down and rebuilt, brick by brick, muscle by muscle. While construction crews labor on Michigan's $300 million football plant , the new Wolverines coaching staff is giving the football players an extreme makeover in mind and body.

"It's like we're all freshmen again, coming into something new," senior corner Morgan Trent said. The mental redo begins in earnest Saturday. To this point, Rodriguez and his staff, with six of the nine assistants coming with him from West Virginia, have offered only the basics in the meeting room. One of the tenets of Rodriguez's no-huddle spread offense is to play fast. That begins on Page 1 of the playbook.

"Normally when you're new, you take your time, try to teach it slowly," Rodriguez said. "That goes against some of the principles we believe in. So we're throwing it all in quickly. That probably adds to the confusion a little bit. Put on top of it that you've got inexperienced skill-position players offensively, which we do."

Michigan is the fifth school at which Rodriguez has installed his offense. Every installation began with problems.

"I have learned not to panic," Rodriguez said.

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In the spring of 1997 at Tulane, Rodriguez's first shot at Division I-A -- as the Green Wave's offensive coordinator -- after seven seasons as head coach of NAIA Glenville (W.Va.) State, he thought his career had ended.

"If they had ever set a stat for spring practice sacks allowed, we would have broken it, and it would never be broken again," Rodriguez said. "I mean, I can remember our first spring game at Tulane. We had a little intrasquad scrimmage. It was so bad offensively that the defensive coaches let one of the female student trainers call defenses. And I still didn't get a first down."

The postscript is that in the second season, 1998, Tulane and that once-bruised quarterback, Shaun King, went 12-0.

The players can't wait for Saturday.

"We've learned the coaches a little bit, gotten to know them as they've gotten to know us," Trent said. "They don't know how we act when it gets tight. We don't know how they act. So we're going to learn each other. We're going to have a good time."

The players know they will be overwhelmed by the information. But they already have been overwhelmed once by the new staff and lived to tell about it, which brings us to the physical renovation that began in January. That is another reason Rodriguez waited to dump his playbook into his players' laps. He knew the discomfort they would feel at the hands of their new director of strength and conditioning, Mike Barwis, and the staff he brought with him from West Virginia.

"Total exhaustion," Trent said, recalling the first two weeks under Barwis. "There was a Tuesday. We do our speed and agility [work]. We weren't too focused and we had to run afterward. Not too much, three or four gassers across the field. We were just hurting. Mike was screaming, 'This is a warm-up! Y'all are hurting on this? Just wait.' We all just got this shock, like 'Uh-oh. If this is a warm-up, I can't imagine.'"

[+] EnlargeMike Barwis
Wolverine PhotoMike Barwis brought a whole new style to Michigan's strength and conditioning program.

"After every workout, we would just come into the locker room and sit like that," junior wide receiver Greg Mathews said, putting his head in his hands. "I can't believe we just ran 12 100s and 10 40s and two 120s and we're still alive. Man, I can't believe we just did that."

They did that running after they lifted and went through a progression of plyometric exercises. If you talk to Barwis, you will hear the word "progression" a lot. And you will hear a lot of words you've never heard before. Barwis talks fast, he works fast, and his players work fast so that they can play fast.

"The question is can they go long, be strong, be mobile, be explosive, change direction well, have great body control and be an effective athlete for four quarters? Or longer if necessary?"

Barwis rat-a-tatted. "With the way we play the game of football, you better be able to move to play football for Coach Rodriguez."

Ask Barwis what time it is, and he tells you how to body-build a watch. When asked to explain his conditioning philosophy "in a nutshell," Barwis spoke for nearly nine minutes. (Full disclosure: I did squeeze in one request for a clarification in that span.) There is an emphasis on flexibility and core strength, and on speed and explosion. Still, that nutshell holds one large nut.

"He'll use more medical terms for a crazy strength coach than anybody in the country," Rodriguez said. "He has enough education to get accepted into med school but instead became an ultimate fighter. That tells you how he's wired."

Staff and players at Michigan are careful not to step on the reputation of Mike Gittleson, who had been the Wolverines' strength coach dating to the Bo Schembechler days. And it is true that strength coaches, like chefs, all have their own methods of making omelettes.

Barwis is equal parts old- and new-school. The old part: He believes in "Olympic movements," so his players perform a lot of power cleans and squats. Another old part: Don't tell the energy drink industry, but when his players finish their workout, he has them drink -- I kid you not -- chocolate milk.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Weight Room
Wolverine PhotoRich Rodriguez made sure the Michigan weight room received an extreme makeover.

Barwis is happy to explain how milk is the best delivery system for casein and whey, the proteins your body needs after a workout. The chocolate syrup replenishes glucose. But he also can explain it in a way that any former kindergartener can understand.

"It's pretty simple," Barwis said. "What did you drink when you were a baby? When did you grow faster than that? Never did. Evidently, Mom and Dad knew right in the first place."

The new part: When Barwis arrived, he took one lap around the weight room, looked at Rodriguez and said, "I think we're going to need a whole new room."

"Over a million. Over a million dollars," Rodriguez said. "To [athletic director] Bill Martin's credit, he teases me about it. I had gone to the weight room after I got hired, and I said, 'There's probably going to be a few changes, a few new pieces of equipment.' He was probably expecting a hundred, hundred fifty thousand dollars worth. A million dollars later," Rodriguez said, laughing, "thankfully, we have the Big House."

The players who work out under Barwis come back to him. That's how former Mountaineer tailback Avon Cobourne, most recently with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL, and former Wolverine linebacker Victor Hobson, a free agent after five seasons with the New York Jets, came to be working out together in the Wolverines' indoor facility this week. Cobourne, the leading rusher in Mountaineer history (5,164 yards from 1999-2002), ran several 40s in a row, each of them nine seconds.

Maybe this is a good place to point out that Cobourne ran those 40s wearing a harness that dragged a wooden sled with a 45-pound plate on it.

After two months under Barwis, here's what's going on: The Michigan players look and feel different. Mathews went from being able to touch his toes to putting his palms on the ground. He had to buy size 36 jeans to accommodate his thighs. His waist remains a 34.

"I need a new belt, too," he said. "…We could see our bodies adjusting. Everybody is taking their shirts off, wearing tight-sleeved shirts."

The difference puts a smile on Rodriguez's face.

"They'll want to take their shirts off this summer," Rodriguez said. "The linemen even, which is kind of rare. They usually like to cover up. So that part is working well. I didn't want to break it to them, but it's going to get harder before it gets easier. It was pretty tough on some of them this spring, but it will get a little harder on them this summer."

But first, the ugly part. Spring training begins Saturday.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com