More college football games are being won in a place other than the football field than ever before. Check under the stands at the stadium or down those steps in the field house and find the weight room. That’s where they are really doing it.
You stare into mirrors hung on the wall so you can check out your technique and also your pecs, which is what weightlifters call the pectoral, or chest, muscles. Yes, you look marvelous. You listen to hard rock music blasting out of speakers as big as a foreign car. Your spirits are lifted along with whatever hunk of iron you’ve got your resined hands on.
This is the modern college weight room, the place that no decent college football team would dare be without. Not in these enlightened times anyway. Weight training, or strength training, is an idea whose time has come, again, and a lot more people are recognizing its value in winning football games.
“Weight training is awfully important to us,” Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. “We believe that you can do more with weights to make yourself a good player in football than in any other sport. We’ve seen dramatic progress. You can usually increase your speed and jumping ability, improve your flexibility and lower your susceptibility to injury with proper training. It’s not just a matter of increasing bulk.”
No, weight training isn’t just for bigness anymore. Sure, that’s what most people think of when you talk about using weights, but that isn’t the total picture. There are many different ways in which to lift weights. There are the press and the clean and jerk, but there are also deadlifts, snatches and squats.
It is the combination of all the different lifts that makes strength training so attractive. What football coaches are finding out is that they’re getting bigger, stronger, faster athletes. For coaches who are looking for an advantage, and they all are, strength training makes a lot of sense.
“The parity in college football is so widespread, the edge is going to be the bigger, stronger guys,” UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. “With the scholarship limit, the same level of talent is at a lot of positions. We can make a big guy stronger and a little guy stronger and quicker.”
There are now year-around strength training programs for college football players. Defensive linemen work on increasing the power in their lower backs, hips and legs, so they concentrate on lifting weights that benefit the muscles in those body parts. Offensive lineman work on upper body strength to keep from getting crushed by defenders, and offensive backs concentrate on lifts that help increase speed and durability as well as strength.
Jim Skow, a defensive tackle for Osborne at Nebraska, said weight training has boosted his stamina and kept him from being injured.
“In the fourth quarter, if you’re up against a guy who hasn’t been working on weights, his body starts rebelling and you can beat him,” Skow said.
“I also find I don’t get hurt as much. Most offensive tackles are 275 or 280 pounds and since I’m about 25 pounds lighter than they are, I need extra strength to keep those guys off of me. But what I’m really trying to do is keep those big guys off our linebackers, too. I’m just a piece of meat.”
Ryan Knight, a tailback at USC, runs a 4.7-second 40-yard dash and can bench press more weight than any other Trojan except for Jeff Bregel, who outweighs Knight by 75 pounds. Knight has lifted weights for six years, and he is only a sophomore.
“In high school, I was just brainwashed into believing in weightlifting,” he said. “Now, everybody’s lifting. It’s just part of the game. I find that 9 out of 10 times, I’m stronger than the guy that’s tackling me. I can lower my shoulder, use my forearm, and move him right out of there.”
That is the advantage coaches are looking for, so that’s why schools are investing a lot of money, sometimes nearly a quarter of a million dollars, in strength training programs. Some schools have better programs than others and one of the oldest also just happens to be one of the best.
You can find history in a room in Lincoln, Neb., beneath the stands at the west end of Memorial Stadium. This is where it all began, 16 years ago, this idea of putting football players and weight-lifting together to create a hybrid that Nebraskans could find as exciting as a new kind of corn, because college football is a pretty big cash crop, too.
What happened is that the Cornhuskers found strength by lifting weights. There is a monument to this discovery, behind red velvet ropes in the West Stadium Strength Complex. There you can see the original lifting equipment used that day in 1959 when the University of Nebraska ushered in the new Iron Age.
The Strength Museum is the brainchild of Boyd Epley, the strength coach at Nebraska and probably the reigning guru of weight training for football players.
Epley was the first president of the National Strength Coaches Assn., which began in 1978 with 76 members. There are more than 9,500 members today. Epley didn’t invent athletic weight training, but he certainly refined it and brought it into the modern era of college football.
That was not particularly easy, so he began at the beginning. The first thing Epley did was change the name of weight training to strength training. Next, he had to come up with a purpose for what he was attempting to do, and that was a lot simpler.
“We’re not making football players weightlifters, but we’re making better athletes stronger through the lifting of weights,” Epley said.
While Nebraska was known for turning out big, corn-fed football players, it wasn’t until 1980, when the strength complex was built, that the Huskers shot far and away from everybody else in strength training.
Nebraska already had a reputation for having the best program in strength training, but the Cornhuskers didn’t have the best facility. Missouri’s was newer and bigger, Oklahoma was building a 5,000-square-foot complex and Indiana’s layout measured 6,400 square feet.
Epley went to Athletic Director Bob Devaney and said that if Nebraska was going to keep its lead in strength training, it would need more space for a bigger weight room. Devaney agreed and found a possible area beneath the stands of the 57-year-old 73,650-seat Memorial Stadium. The stadium’s maintenance equipment stored in the space Devaney suggested was moved out to make way a new strength complex.
The area was enormous, and the cost of renovating it wasn’t much smaller. For $205,000, the University of Nebraska catapulted itself into a stratosphere reserved for the weight training’s heaviest of heavyweights. The Cornhuskers got a 13,000-square-foot complex, more than twice as big as any other in the country. Then they stocked it with more than 20,000 pounds of iron that could be pumped by as many as 375 athletes in one room at the same time.
“I wasn’t looking for the largest weight room in the world,” Epley said. “That’s just what happened.”
Epley also made certain that there happened to be some special touches that would keep the Nebraska program ahead of the rest, both in technology as well as in popularity.
To accommodate the expected crush of media interested in the strength program, Epley called for special lighting for television crews. He also had an idea of making a poster out of a picture of the weight room and having it distributed to high school athletes. But the room was so big, an artist had to airbrush three separate pictures together to get the whole thing on one poster.
Even though the NCAA later ruled that the giveaway was not proper, there were probably hundreds of Nebraska high school kids who tacked it on their walls, concentrating on posters of a weight room in Lincoln instead of Heather Locklear in a swimsuit. For what must be considered a stunning stroke of marketing, Epley assumed the responsibility.
“No one had ever promoted a weight room before,” he said.
When a piece of equipment breaks down, it’s no sweat. They don’t have to wait for a repairman to show up at Nebraska. Repairs can be made quickly by grabbing a tool kept handy in a 1,700-square foot storage room. There’s also a film room where athletes can study their lifting techniques videotaped during training sessions.
If Nebraska’s weight training past is in the Strength Museum, it’s future is in the computer room. Athletes can get daily printouts for their individual improvement plans from the computer which could also store a school’s entire strength program for its athletes. Epley and his top assistant, Mike Arthur, have already formed their own computer software company and are marketing a $200 disc capable of printing out an entire team’s workout program in 30 minutes.
Epley has eight assistants working with him. He once had 18, but they kept leaving Nebraska for better jobs after working in the Cornhusker program for either the minimum wage or for no pay at all.
Tired of training and then losing his assistants, Epley began a private fund-raising program called the Husker Power Club that provided pay incentives for his aides. So far, there are 500 members in the Husker Power Club who have donated $35 apiece for the privilege of joining. Epley is obviously a man who knows his market.
“The future of our strength program looks very bright,” he said.
Osborne, the head coach at Nebraska, is the beneficiary of the Nebraska strength program. In Osborne’s 12 seasons at Lincoln, the weight-trained Cornhuskers have a record of 118-27-2, so this is not a man who doesn’t know his own strength, or recognize where it comes from. What’s happening is that a lot of others are finding out, too.
“Our program is probably superior to most programs in the country, but it’s not as pronounced a lead as it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Osborne said. “Most schools now have full-time coaches and weight rooms, but the thing that is most helpful with our players is their work habits. You can have all of the coaches and expensive equipment in the world, but the players have to work to get the benefits. Our players have done that.”
John Arce, the strength coach at UCLA, dipped snuff as he sat behind his desk in a corner office of the Bruins’ large, well-lighted weight room. There are nearly 6 1/2 tons of weights in the room, which he said should be enough for everybody.
But is there anything else in there with the athletes to help them lift, make them bigger, something you can’t really see, something in their blood?
“I can’t sit here and say we don’t have anyone on steroids,” Arce said. “But if they are, I’d tell them to get their money back.”
While there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that players who use strength training have an advantage over players who do not, the NCAA is voicing a growing concern about an edge of a different sort. Because of this, the NCAA is studying a plan for mandatory drug tests of college athletes.
“We’re trying to protect the integrity of the sport,” said Ruth Berkey, assistant executive director of the NCAA. “Some may gain an unfair competitive advantage through performance enhancing drugs.”
If the full NCAA membership votes to accept the new drug-testing legislation at its convention in New Orleans in January, athletes will undergo mandatory drug tests at championship events and postseason football games. The new rules could be in effect next fall.
John Toner, chairman of the special NCAA committee that prepared the legislation, said the new rules would also include guidelines for schools that would like to carry drug testing even further.
Under the terms of major league baseball’s agreement with the players’ association, a team may not give mandatory unannounced urine tests for drugs to its players. A team may, however, ask for tests of players suspected of drug dependency.
Many NCAA schools routinely test their athletes for so-called street drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin. But in strength training, if there are drugs of preference, they would be what are called performance enhancing drug, such as steroids, which are legal only by prescription. The testing of college athletes for steroids is a new, somewhat confusing, and certainly controversial issue.
Since there is no NCAA policy regarding steroid testing, the decision is left up to the member schools. It is clear no consensus has emerged. At USC, football players are routinely tested for both steroids and street drugs, but there are no tests at all at UCLA.
“I have mixed feelings about the issue,” UCLA Athletic Director Peter T. Dalis said. “On one hand, I have serious concerns about the legal issues, particularly as it relates to privacy. On the other hand, there is medical evidence that enhancement drugs, such as steroids, could be detrimental.”
According to the NCAA, 52% of its Division I schools have either a plan for future drug testing or already have a testing program in place. Berkey said that USC, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington are the only schools in the Pacific 10 testing for street drugs or performance enhancing drugs, which include amphetamines and steroids.
Steroids have been used for many years in strength training to increase bulk. Since strength training has grown more popular in college football, the issue of steroids and the idea of testing have also assumed greater importance.
When USC football players took their physicals about three weeks ago, some players were randomly selected through their social security numbers and tested for drugs.
Coach Ted Tollner said that 30% of his team was tested and that he has not been notified that anyone had flunked. Each Trojan player was required to sign a consent form, agreeing to the test. If any player had refused to sign the consent form, he would have been dismissed from the team, said Tollner, who took the test himself so he would know what the procedure was like.
Sophomore tailback Knight was one of the Trojans who was tested. Knight, 6 feet 1 inch and 205 pounds, can bench press 415 pounds. He had no objection to being tested.
“It didn’t make any difference to me because I don’t use steroids,” he said. “I like to think I’m better and stronger than the guy trying to tackle me without taking anything.”
Bregel, the strongest player on the USC team, is a 6-4, 280-pound junior guard. Like Knight, he is also a serious weightlifter, but unlike Knight, his social security number was not selected and he was not tested. Bregel said he was concerned about the issue of mandatory testing anyway.
“I think it’s kind of a shaky thing,” he said. “It’s an invasion of privacy thing, and if one school is doing it, I think everybody ought to.”
At Nebraska, there is a mandatory testing program. The Cornhuskers’ blood specimens are sent for analysis to UCLA, which does not test its own athletes, but whose medical center has the equipment necessary to conduct and analyze the collected data.
Many schools do not test for drugs because of the cost, which run from about $80 up to $120 per athlete.
“There would be a lot more schools steroid testing if it weren’t so expensive,” said Epley, the strength coach at Nebraska, who said he does not recommend steroids. He also said that none of the Cornhuskers had tested positively for steroids.
Skow, a senior at Nebraska, is the Cornhuskers’ lifter of the year, even though he is relatively small at 6-3 and 250 pounds. Two years ago, he weighed 210, but Skow credits his increase in size to working hard with weights, not because of steroids.
“I don’t do any of those drugs,” he said. “I’m not interested in that scene. But I do have a problem with the testing. Here at Nebraska, everybody has to do it or you don’t play. Not taking the test is like admitting you do drugs. If I was a civil libertarian, I think I’d have a hell of a point.”
The weight room at USC is just over a year old. The one at UCLA is nearly four years old. Lifting weights is still a relatively new area for college football to be discovering, at least on a mass basis.
Everyone seems to be doing it, so everyone is getting better. The strength programs are better, the athletes are better and the teams do better. When people play USC, they won’t have seen anything bigger that didn’t have advertising on the side. The Trojan offensive line is larger than a lot of towns. It averages 6-5 and 270 pounds.
Bregel is 280 at one tackle and James FitzPatrick is 270 at the other. The guards will be 260-pound Tom Hallock and either 285-pound Gaylord Kuamoo or 265-pound Dave Cadigan. Tom Cox, 260 pounds, is the center.
USC’s strength program for football, once voluntary, is now mandatory.
“We’re over the hump now,” Tollner said. “I think we’ve really helped ourselves.”
Strength coach Jerry Simmons said the Trojans have come a long way since they got their new facility. Simmons said two years ago, USC had the worst program in the country. Only 25 players could bench press more than 300 pounds. Now, 46 players have bench pressed at least 300 pounds.
“We had a lot to overcome,” Simmons said. “We heard things like, ‘Marcus Allen and O. J. Simpson didn’t lift and they won Heisman Trophies. Why do I have to lift?’ I told them to just think how much better Marcus Allen and O. J. Simpson would have been if they had lifted.”
Defensive tackle Mark Walen of UCLA spends as much time as anyone in the Bruins’ weight room. He is 6-5 and 252, he can power clean 308.5 pounds, his hero is Raider Howie Long and he works on his strength because everybody he plays does.
“It’s a necessity,” he said. “We’ve got just about everything in here, even 160-pound dumbbells. I don’t know if we really need that.”
Then again, the way things are going, maybe sometime soon that 160-pound dumbbell won’t seem so heavy after all. Somebody might twirl it in his hand like a baton. Of course, the guy would have to be pretty strong to do that.
The fact is, strength training is used for a lot of things, but it’s still strength training. It’s not injury-prevention training or speed and quickness training. College football players use weights for one overriding reason that is beautiful in its simplicity and devastating in its commission.
“The reason for lifting weights is to get strong and beat your opponent,” Bregel said.
In college football, what could be better than that?