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Speed Report: The History of Football Speed Training (Part I)

by: Dale Baskett
Football Speed Specialist
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In the late seventies, into the early eighties, not much was taking place in the football speed world. In fact, before the early eighties, nothing formal was being done about speed development for football. By the eighties only some football programs had begun to consider speed training as a possible approach. For many years, coaches felt athletes either had speed or they didn’t. They were convinced that it couldn’t be developed. This concept was the main reason speed training was stagnant. Coaches go with trends; football speed development at the time didn’t have a force to spearhead a counter to the negatives that were prevalent regarding the potential of football speed. Finding the leaders who are creative and optimistic enough to pioneer a trend is usually not an easy task with any subject matter and speed was no exception.

Strength and conditioning coaches at the collegiate and professional level are as common today as loaves of bread on the grocery shelf. When I began coaching in 1968, strength training was not of interest to the football community, much less speed. Bailing hay at Uncle Ned’s farm in the summer, or throwing cement bags around on a construction site, or being at the wrong end of a shovel were hard core jobs physically and they were considered taxing. Those were the weight room of the era and considered a good preparation for football. Free weights were primarily for bodybuilders. Scientific knowledge for performance was non-existent in the old days. The computer and the internet were not born yet. Information was scarce and not as accessible as today. Physiology was the science of the day and was very general. Today exercise science, biomechanics, kinesiology and much more are helping, not to mention the advent of the internet.

Speed as discussed earlier came after weight training but, not until weight rooms were solidly in place. Even today, some coaches are unsure of how speed is developed and what they should do. As I researched, I found that weight training for football was not new. It was on hold, so to speak, for many years. Notre Dame had a priest at the university named Father Lange, who at the time, was number five in the world in the strong man competition. Knute Rockne, being the innovator that he was, hired Fr. Lange for team weight training. The experiment that season paid dividends. Football coaches believed for years that weight training would make an athlete muscle-bound and slow.

Very little happened since Rockne until 1966, when Ara Parseghian was hired by Notre Dame. Parseghian brought in an aging priest for weight training. Enter Father Lange again, still working at Notre Dame. The dividends were solid once again. However, others still didn’t follow their lead. Following the trend setter in the weight room was not the norm at the time.

The Godfather of Strength Coaches
The second university to consider using weights for football training was the University of Nebraska, in 1970. The Cornhuskers coach, Bob Devaney, wasn’t shopping for a strength coach at the time but, Boyd Epley was selling. Epley was a pole vault star at Nebraska. He had used weight training for development. His tenacity and prodding Coach Devaney to use weights finally worked. Devaney accepted the challenge for using weights for the football team. The first thing he told Epley was, “I’ll hire you but if our athletes get slower, you’re fired.” He was paid a whopping $2.00 per hour to prove his point. It was a huge success. At the end of the season the coach was well pleased with Epley’s production. The man responsible today for strength and conditioning coaches as we know them is Boyd Epley. The idea of weight training for football was still scary to coaches. Epley had a vision for the future of weight training at the collegiate level. Slowly, strength training started catching on at other colleges. By 1978, Epley became founder, president and chairman of the board of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He is the sole individual responsible for getting football coaches to follow the idea of weight training for team development in football. He’s also responsible for the concept of scientific study for accurate training applications. The importance of science based knowledge for sports training is paramount today. The birth of the NSCA was critical to changing the thinking of the football community as a whole.

Football Speed Today: Where is it?

We must have a history of where we’ve been before we can understand where we should go. Football speed has been and still is very misunderstood. This has been caused by the lack of true knowledge of human movement training biomechanically. The influx of too many so called ‘speed coaches’ in today’s football marketplace has become almost ludicrous. The profession of the term speed coach is being misused. They are flooding the land, are not sanctioned, not proven as authentic coaches, and now, it seems, working everywhere. The world doesn’t know the difference, unfortunately. Speed coach profiling should be within a sanctioning organization similar to today’s strength and conditioning coaches. Anyone can be a speed coach today by going to Dick’s Sporting Goods and loading up on colorful toys.

Remember, fatigue and colorful entertainment today outweigh knowledge and sound training. The Epley era didn’t fall prey to this problem as it relates to strength training. Coaches had a very limited understanding of weight training at that time. The difference, as it relates to speed training, is that coaches today still have a limited understanding of the subject. Nothing governs the function of accuracy versus entertainment. Knowledge and application should really be the criteria for substance. Who’s the policing body of reckoning? There isn’t one. Buying a set of weights and professing to be a strength coach without prior knowledge through the NSCA’s scrutiny would not pass today. That’s the way it should be but, welcome to today’s speed training world. Today, you can’t get a collegiate strength coaching position without the CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) credential that is given by the NSCA.

On the other hand, speed training is measured by who has the prettiest web site and the greatest amount of minutia without scientific evidence to support it. In other words, just buy what I’m selling. We need facts for accurate, scientific substance. It is very similar to the quick fix activity that I mentioned earlier. Everyone is a hero and wants their name in lights and everyone is a ‘speed coach’ without official sanctioning. This will soon end and a new era of authenticity will force the surrender of many speed coaches. Boyd Epley came from a weight training knowledge, being a bodybuilder and pole vaulter. Those sports used weights for development.

What was the first sport to connect with football for speed training? I’ll cover that answer next month as well as other historical factors that played a role in the development of football speed. This includes what’s best for your program and why. You will also be introduced to a new program designed just for football coaches. Don’t miss part two of the History of Football Speed Development in America.


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