No such thing as an off-season - part one

No off-season under Sark (K. Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

As coaches, for years and years we felt like we beat many teams with our off-season conditioning and running program. Our data convinced us that even the already fast kids got faster during their 4-5 years at Washington, and that every single kid got considerably stronger. We considered ourselves a 'blue collar' and 'work-ethic' program.

We believed that we earned the right to win because we worked harder than other teams in the off-season. It meant extra sacrifices on the kids' part, with no summer vacations and literally a year-round commitment to football.

We knew much of the success we had in wins and losses was due to the hundreds of hours those kids put in the weight room. Rick Huegli was the weight and strength coach for years at Washington, and all he did was build our teams into winners. We knew the extra work done in conditioning won games for us in the fourth quarter. The Whammy in Miami is a classic example. We were simply in better shape than most of our opponents.

For whatever reason, after being named the National Strength Coach of the Year Huegli had to go, and he passed the baton on to Pete Kaligis and Steve Emtman until, they too, had to go. I know a lot of football coaches have come and go at Washington over the past decade, but personally I will always think that when UW got rid of Emtman and Kaligis in the weight room, they essentially cut the heart out of Husky football.

Washington football changed both on and off the field when they decided to make those changes and the record over the next five years directly mirrored those changes. That, and a changing administrative philosophy which discouraged optional activities like the summer program to the point where there was less than 50 percent of the team staying in town and working out together the summer of 2004.

Those things led directly to the 1-10 season in 2004. Then the whole firing of Gilby and hiring of Tyrone Willingham was so botched that the only thing worse was the subsequent drawn-out firing of coach Willingham three years later.

I maintain though, that had there not been the turnover in the weight room, the bottom would never have fallen out of the program. Coach Rick Neuheisel was smart enough to figure that out when he retained Kaligis and Emtman to run his weight and conditioning program. The administration was clueless, though, when they later said goodbye to Emtman for a guy from Oregon State. Look at what has happened at Oregon State after they got rid of the guy that Washington hired. They hadn't beaten the Huskies but twice in 27 years, but haven't lost since.

There is a correlation.

We are just starting to recover from those moves, and the saddest part is that with it came the softness in the program. Gilby was told he couldn't make anything mandatory. They were so paranoid about the NCAA and 'looking clean' that they overdid it to the detriment of the football program. He was monitored about all volunteer and optional activities and the players were allowed to do as they pleased in the off-season. Gilby knew what it took to win off the field and they literally made it impossible for him to do so.

Guys like Huegli, Bill Gillespie, Kaligis and Emtman worked on the foundation of the program and created in the kids a belief system that only hard work can get you there. It was a belief in sacrifice, a belief in commitment, a belief in group dynamics, and above all a belief in winning and expecting to win.

Washington lost in the weight room as much as they did in the coaches' booth. It wasn't all coaching that brought down the Dawgs over that last decade, as much as it was an understaffed and underemphasized approach to conditioning and strength development. We had traveled all over the nation and knew what schools like Nebraska did in their weight rooms, but could not convince our own school to step it up and make a similar commitment.

Coach Steve Sarkisian stepped in the first day and changed the expectations for this program. One of his very first hires - and the first man to actually go to work on campus - was his weight and strength coach, Ivan Lewis. Lewis hit the ground running and has pulled the team along with him. He demands involvement. He challenges the kids to meet expectations, and that is to be a winner off the field as well as on. It is all part of the big equation.

There is no more off-season anymore.

This team and this program is now teaching college football as a full time job. These kids go to school year around now and hardly any of them go home for summer because that just isn't accepted anymore from their peers. Plus, staying for summer school gets them closer to graduation, and that's their main objective anyway.

The kids on this team know they are working men now and they expect to put in a full day of work every day. Occasional days off and a couple of trips home is about the only things they expect besides punching their time clocks and hitting the weight room and conditioning field, going to class (on time), tutor sessions, study table and training table. And they have to be organized enough to coordinate it all.

They all know coach Lewis will be there to greet you bright and early every morning, so you better come prepared to work.

Departmental philosophy has noticeably changed, and Lewis' job has likewise evolved considerably since he just completed his first year of employment at Washington. He is now in charge of all sports and has a staff of nine who essentially take care of at least 600 or so Husky athletes. Crew basically conditions and trains themselves, but all the other sports share the same facility and obviously the same strength coaches. Most of his staff have multiple team sports to assist with specific emphasis on a sport-by-sport basis.

Matt Ludwig, for example, handles both men and women's basketball, as well as men's golf and Rose Baker handles track, women's soccer, men and women's tennis and women's golf.

Hans Straub handles baseball, softball, and volleyball in addition to helping out in football, and Henry Ruggiero covers gymnastics, men's soccer and of course, football.

Lewis is in charge of football, and he has Scott Gadeken, Kenechi Udeze, Grey Ruegamer, and Marques Tuiasosopo all assisting him in specifically in the sport of football. This is roughly a ratio of one coach per every 15 players. With all the lawsuits and off-season conditioning deaths, it is now mandatory to have supervised workouts no matter what the season (remember, of course, that assistant football coaches are not allowed to be involved except during designated practices sessions).

In football there are phases of yearly development. The first phase is the winter program which the team is currently completing (first of the year to March). The second phase is spring football in April. Phase three is summer workouts during May, June and July. The fourth phase is fall camp in August. Phase five is the season itself, and the last phase of the cycle is the post-season and the 15 practices that come with playing in a bowl game, which, of course Washington has missed for the past five years or so.

Visiting with coach Lewis, he told me that the kids were so jacked after their season-ending shutout of the Washington State Cougars and dismantling of the California Golden Bears, that his 'open gym' approach to the December weight room was packed. Most of the team couldn't wait to get going right after that last game, even though the winter program didn't start for another month. That's what finishing strong does for your team, and they could only do that if they were in great condition. They were, and will be even better shape next season, according to Lewis.

Since the first of the year, this team has been showing up at either a 6 am or an 8 am for a weight conditioning session, which usually lasts an hour and 45 minutes (the linemen, by the way, compose most of the 6 am group). They do this Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesdays off for recovery.

They then go to class and do all the other things college kids do before answering that 5 am alarm the next morning. They know this system works and they know that the heart has been put back into Husky football. They know it because they live it daily. They know because Ivan Lewis is always there early and eager to start their day for them.

Part two off season-conditioning and training to come.

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