Commentary

Programs decades in the making

Originally Published: June 22, 2010
By John D. Lukacs | Special to ESPN.com

In the contemporary college football world, where strength and conditioning has become a subset of religion and strength coaches command cult-like followings, the mere thought is heresy, a violation of a sacred commandment: Thou shalt not blaspheme Boyd Epley.

Nebraska Training Facility
Courtesy of Nebraska Athletic CommunicationsNebraska is widely considered the birthplace of modern-day strength and conditioning.

Contrary to accepted canon, Epley, the legendary University of Nebraska strength coach, did not create the universe in Lincoln, long considered the mecca of college strength training, over the course of seven workouts in 1969. In truth, the genesis story of strength training in college football starts roughly around 69 B.E.: Before Epley. As in before the Big 8 and the Blackshirts. Before the Big Six. About the time that Nebraska's grid teams were still called the Bugeaters -- shortly after the birth of the game itself.

Nevertheless, Epley is universally credited for his seminal role in creating the phenomenon of the strength and conditioning program in college football -- and deservedly so. The first full-time paid strength coach in history, Epley is also arguably the single most important individual in the history of strength and conditioning in college athletics. He pioneered training techniques and lifts; developed exercises, equipment and evaluation tests; organized strength coaches; and, in doing so, literally lifted strength and conditioning -- and all those who followed in his footsteps -- out of the shadows and into the year-round spotlight that is the millennial, media-saturated, modern incarnation of college football.

Before Epley was hired by celebrated Cornhuskers coach and athletic director Bob Devaney in September 1969, strength and conditioning on a team and program-wide level, as well as the concepts of in-season workouts and summer conditioning, was non-existent. For years it had existed largely as an underground movement at a handful of schools, Knights Templar-esque secret societies of individual, fitness fanatics, rusty squat racks and universal machines crammed beneath bleachers in the dingy bowels of stadiums and field houses.

In essence, a scene almost unrecognizable from what one sees at the ol' alma mater today: scores of student-athletes training together in grand, gleaming, campus cathedrals encompassing tens of thousands of square feet and filled with state-of-the-art weight and cardiovascular equipment, tons of plates customized with the school's logo, giant flat-screen televisions, all staffed by an army of assistants and more difficult to gain access to than NORAD -- in other words, multi-million-dollar complexes that make Ivan Drago's vaunted Russian laboratory look like Average Joe's.

"I guess I caused a lot of schools to spend a lot of money," Epley says, laughing. He is now the director of coaching performance for the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which he formed in 1978.

But how did strength training in college football get here from there? To answer that question, one must first take a trip back through time, to the beginning and to, of all people, P.T. Barnum.

While strength training was still decades from being in vogue, Americans were drawn to the freakishly powerful "strongmen" who performed alongside lion tamers and high-wire acts in traveling circuses. Within time, singlet-clad strongmen emerged from under the big top pumping gigantic Globe barbells, extolling the benefits of strength training while entertaining in exhibitions. Their feats would come to be called "the Iron Game," or the early sport and science of weightlifting, and were chronicled in the writings of strength-training proponent Bob Hoffman, who founded the York Barbell Company in 1932.

One of Hoffman's subjects, and a major iron-game player in the '20s and '30s, was a Notre Dame priest named Bernard Lange. Lange was a gruff, burly, talented carpenter who crafted many of the benches in his campus gym and also reportedly one of the five strongest men in the world at one time. At the request of famed coach Knute Rockne, a revolutionary innovator, Lange began instructing Notre Dame football players in weight-training exercises as early as 1922.

But the Roaring '20s remained largely an era of individualism, and college football players, like the other revered athletes of the day -- baseball players and boxers -- trained similarly. Arguably the era's most famous athlete, Red Grange of Illinois, employed the most unusual personal-training regimen: Grange spent summers delivering huge blocks of ice, resulting in a powerful, muscular physique and a nickname, "The Wheaton Iceman."

Bob Devaney
AP PhotoNebraska coach Bob Devaney told Boyd Epley he'd be fired if any players got slower.

"It was great conditioning for an athlete," Grange later claimed, "walking all day up and down stairs and carrying that stuff."

Other players worked out like Grange, too, Epley says -- they just didn't know it.

"Lifting bales of hay helped farm kids become stronger than city kids," he said.

Subsequent decades saw a steady interest in strength training among lone college football players, largely attributable to Charles Atlas advertisements that promised to transform skinny "97-pound weaklings" into Hercules, the work of fitness pioneers such as Jack LaLanne and the infusion of World War II veterans into the sport who implemented physical training they received in the service into preseason conditioning regimens. But large-scale weight training was slow to take hold because coaches, stubbornly adhering to an old myth that weightlifting somehow siphoned athleticism, refused to sanction such programs.

"[The coaches] felt that the muscles would contract, not expand," said Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame's head coach from 1964 to 1974. "[The prevailing thought pattern was that] you didn't want a running back -- or any skill-position players for that matter -- that was muscle-bound."

Although Parseghian had cut his coaching teeth as an assistant under old-school mentors Paul Brown and Woody Hayes, he knew that to resurrect Notre Dame football, he, like Rockne, would have to be open to innovation. He assigned Brian Boulac, a graduate assistant, to commence an offseason football weight training program in conjunction with -- who else? -- an aging yet still formidable Fr. Lange.

Although Lange had continued to train individual players from the Rockne era through the present, Parseghian was the first Notre Dame coach to commission a team program. The results spoke for themselves. By 1966, the Fighting Irish were national champions again, and Parseghian penned a letter to a writer from Strength and Health magazine who was writing a feature on Lange: "[T]he improvement that took place in strength and performance of a number of the individuals that participated [in Lange's program] was amazing. Our squad members have profound respect for Father Lange, and the coaching staff and I are deeply indebted to him for his aid to our program."

But Notre Dame's strength-training program, even with the legendary Lange as an expert consultant, was still in what Parseghian would call "the rudimentary part of it, the kindergarten stage," nowhere near what Boyd Epley was planning in Lincoln. Yet despite the cultural shift seemingly taking place in college football, Devaney would not be an easy convert.

"If anyone gets slower," Devaney told Epley after the hiring handshake, "you're fired."

So Epley chalked up and went to work. The Cornhuskers exhibited astounding gains in strength, speed and overall athleticism, the poster boy of which was Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner, and Nebraska -- with Epley's help -- built an early '70s dynasty.

The decade served as Epley's professional coming-out party and the birth of the modern strength-training movement. He would create the NSCA and organize a truce between competing sects -- nautilus versus free-weights adherents -- in the nascent strength-training faith. Then there was "Pumping Iron," the 1977 documentary cult-classic starring a real-life incredible hulk from Austria named Arnold Schwarzenegger, coupled with the fitness craze of the 1980s, as well as the future Governator's successful career in Hollywood, that lifted strength training out of residential basements and garages and into the mainstream popularity that it enjoys today.

Ultimately, Epley's plans were manifested in Husker Power, a strength and conditioning system that fused Epley's training tenets -- elements of power lifting, Olympic lifts and bodybuilding -- with players' fierce work ethics and brought fourth-quarter victories and championships, as well as countless coaches, to Lincoln in hopes of replicating Nebraska's strength-training success at their schools.

Mike Gittleson
AP Photo/Susan SternerMike Gittleson helped Michigan for 30 seasons.

And so, in true biblical fashion, Boyd Epley begat a lineage of assistants who spread his strength-and-conditioning gospel across the college football landscape, the zealots today whose disciplinary styles and workout regimens are the stuff of message-board legend.

Epley, albeit in an indirect way, begat men like Buddy Morris, the self-proclaimed head coach of "physical preparation" at the University of Pittsburgh ever since the Panthers had script Pitt on their helmets. After being "thrown the keys" to Pitt's strength program by then-coach Jackie Sherrill after his graduation from Pitt in 1980, Morris applied his strict disciplinarian personality, infectious enthusiasm and blue-collar, steel-town work ethic to his job, dubbing the Panthers' facilities the "Pitt Iron Works."

In the opinion of Morris, one of the most respected strength coaches in the business and an icon revered by former players, the thinking of old-school coaches and the myths concerning strength and conditioning could not have been more wrong. The weight room -- not the film room, not the recruiting trail and not the huddle -- was where preparation takes place and where championships were really won.

"If you look at the calendar year, 65 to 67 percent of your time is spent on preparation," Morris said, "and only about 3 to 5 percent on actual game time, the rest being other responsibilities, so if you don't enjoy the process, you're in the wrong sport."

Morris, like Epley decades ago, is on to something. Examples of both sustained and mini-dynasties in college football that have roots in strength training lore abound.

In addition to Nebraska under Epley from the '70s through the '90s, there was Brad Roll, now a veteran NFL strength coach, who turned the Miami Hurricanes' weight room into a crucible of sweltering South Florida heat, sweat and swagger, in which was forged the very identity of "The U" and a decade of dominance in the 1980s.

Mike Gittleson, a Vietnam veteran with a master's degree in exercise science, came to Michigan in 1978 and helped Bo Schembechler and the Wolverines exert their physical will upon the Big Ten for the latter half of Schembechler's career.

Interestingly, despite his remarkable vision and all he accomplished, Epley does not pretend to be omniscient, to know the ancient past of weight lifting, nor to be a prophet, to have seen it all coming -- the facilities, the strength coach disciples, the extraordinary effect that systemized strength and conditioning programs would have on the game.

"I don't think anyone could have foreseen what lifting weights would do for athletes," he said.

Writer and historian John D. Lukacs is a consultant for "College GameDay." His first book, a true World War II adventure titled "Escape From Davao: The Forgotten Story of the Most Daring Prison Break of the Pacific War," is available at booksellers nationwide.

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