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Big Man On Campus

If a scrawny pole vaulter had never picked up a barbell, football might be a different sport today.
by: Jane Musgrave
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When Boyd Eply told Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney he was going to teach his Cornhuskers how to lift weights, Devaney was about as excited as if Eply had told him he was going to teach them how to fumble in the end zone.

"Why would you want to do that?" Devaney asked. "I have a friend at Michigan State and he doesn't lift weights. I have a friend at Ohio State and he doesn't lift weights. In fact, I don't know anyone in the whole country who lifts weights. The way I understand it, it could hurt players."

Eply, then a struggling undergraduate student, calmly explained that lifting weights would make Devaney's players stronger and faster.

While the legendary coach didn't actually harrumph, he wasn't impressed either.

"OK," Devaney grudgingly agreed. "But if anyone gets slower, you're going to get fired."

Three months later, all of the players on the 1969 squad were both stronger and faster. And, as they say, the rest is history. Nebraska went on to win back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971, setting the stage for a dominance that would last more than two decades.

And, oh yeah, Devaney tripled Eply's salary.

Eply, now 54, tells the story to illustrate how far the world of strength and conditioning has come in the last three and a half decades.

Thirty-five years ago, there wasn't any such thing as a strength and conditioning coach - not in the Big Eight Conference and not anywhere else that anyone can remember. In 1970, Eply became the first person in conference history to carry the title. Now, few football programs are without one.

Further, when Eply accepted Devaney's challenge, the discipline was so new that there was no professional organization where strength coaches could share information, talk about common concerns or become certified so others would know they were the real thing and not just some gym rat pumped up with hot air. Such an organization wasn't formed until 1978 when Eply gathered seven of his counterparts together in Lincoln, Neb. and founded the National Strength and Conditioning Association. It now has 19,000 members and a new organization was recently formed to address the unique concerns of college-level strength coaches.

"He was the real pioneer in the field," says Chuck Stiggins, a former BYU strength coach who was one of the seven who launched the national organization 23 years ago and recently founded the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. "He is the guy who brought strength and conditioning to the forefront and because of what he's done he's allowed the profession to grow and prosper and flourish."

More importantly, for those who coach, watch or play football, he's enabled players to grow, and prosper and flourish and in the process has fundamentally changed the game.

His contribution was recognized last year by Lindy's magazine which named him one of its Top 100 Most Important College Football Sports Figures of the Century. The magazine explained his inclusion alongside coaching greats such as Devaney, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, saying the "strength coach built bruising 'Huskers lines, leading to bigger, stronger, faster approach everywhere."

But while the accolade is written in past tense, there's nothing past tense about Eply, who was actually discovered in 1969 by then-assistant Nebraska coach Tom Osborne.

While Devaney died three years ago and Osborne is now a U.S. congressman, Eply continues to build stars at the center in Lincoln that is now known as Husker Power.

Over the years, his goals haven't changed. He still works to build the strongest, fastest athletes possible. But the means have changed dramatically.

"I was winging it," he says of his early days as the school's strength coach.

Today, researchers all over the world are conducting tests and coming up with new ways to condition athletes.

"At one time we had no resources at all to call on," says Eply. "Now we have scientists who are doing research on strength and conditioning. They used to do it on horses or dogs. Now they're doing it on people. Everything we do in our program is based on scientific research."

When he began, his research involved experimenting with his own body.

In fact, his first experience with weight-lifting sounds like something out of a circa 1930s Charles Atlas advertisement. While he wasn't the 100-pound weakling Atlas featured in his body-building ads, Eply was scrawny.

"I weighed 160 pounds when I was a junior in high school," he explains. "During the summer, I started lifting weights and gained 20 pounds."

When he went back to school, his football coach was amazed at how much bigger he had become and switched him from quarterback to linebacker. But, Eply says, the biggest change had nothing to do with where lined up on the field.

"I had so much more confidence," he says. "It really changed my life."

And so weight-lifting an exercise that then attracted few athletes became a part of his regular routine.

And that's ultimately how Osborne found him.

When he went to Nebraska on a track scholarship, he naturally hung out in the weight room. Because he was one of the few regulars, injured football players who were sent to the weight room for rehab sought his advice.

One day, he got a call from Osborne. "I was scared to death," Eply, who was a pole vaulter, recalls.

Osborne said he'd noticed that after working out with Eply, football players were coming back to the team even stronger than before they were injured. "Could you do it for the whole team?" Osborne asked.

While Eply agreed, he didn't do so unconditionally. First, he said, he needed a bigger room and more equipment. Osborne, he says, didn't flinch.

He ordered workers to knock down a wall in the dank 900-square-foot weight room to create more space and told his secretary to order every piece of equipment on a list Eply provided.

"I didn't realize how supportive he was going to be," Eply says. "He ordered $10,000 to $12,000 worth of equipment on the spot. And that was in the late 1960s. It would be like $60,000 to $70,000 today."

To devise a program, Eply sought advice from a P.E. teacher who helped him figure out a way to test athletes so he could track their progress and provide Devaney the proof he demanded.

While many of those tests, such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump, are still standard, others have been added as researchers and scientists have refined strength training, turning it from a marginal sport into a key part of all athletics.

Those same researchers and scientists have shattered myths about strength training and have changed drills that were once as common in weight rooms as barbells and chin up bars.

Thanks to the research and examples set by Nebraska and other schools, few coaches now believe that weight training will hurt athletes by making them slow and stiff. And virtually all recognize the importance of year-round training. The days of having a short spring practice and then bringing players back to the field for about 10 days before the fall season are long gone.

But, Eply says, some traditions die hard. For instance, he says, even though it's been more than 15 years since he first began preaching about the evils of making football players run long distances, some coaches still do it.

"Football is an anaerobic sport," he says. "The play only lasts five seconds and then there's 50 seconds of rest."

Therefore, football players don't need the endurance to run five miles or even the once standard mile and a half. They need explosive energy so they can run extremely fast for five or six seconds.

Having football players run a mile or more doesn't just waste time, it's actually counterproductive, Eply says. If they train for long distances, they won't have the energy they need late in the fourth quarter to explode from the line or sprint downfield.

"When we stopped running 1 1/2 miles, it caused a lot of controversy," he says. "But our linemen gained an average of 30 pounds a person. We had bigger guys who were fast."

The combination, he says, was lethal.

In addition to running players too far, coaches often still run them too long. Even those who have abandoned long runs, will insist that the players run short distances repeatedly throughout practice.

"They'll tell them to run the 40-yard dash and then tell them to run back and then run it again," he says. A player isn't going to ever run his hardest if he knows he's going to have to run back and do it again. Players will simply pace themselves so they can do the drill repeatedly. And because they will pace themselves, the coach will never find out what they are really capable of and they surely won't be able to give it their best on game day.

"Rest is a tough one to deal with," he says. "But coaches have to work recovery into their programs."

He says he discovered that his own program was too intense by strapping heart monitors on his players. The monitors showed that the players' heart rates weren't coming down during the workouts. "It was an aerobic workout and we didn't want that. Football is an anaerobic sport," he says. "So we built some rest into the drill."

Further, he says, over the years, he - with the help of scientists - has learned that more is not necessarily better.

"A lot of people think Nebraska is a lifting factory - that we mass produce athletes," he says. "We probably lift less than any school you can think of. We pride ourselves on being efficient. We try to get more out of the workout, not just make it longer."

While training is good, over the years he has learned the over-training is also debilitating. His personal training regime is a good example of how less can be more. He lifts weights for 20 minutes two times a week. "It's pretty intense. It's efficient," he says.

And while he is still a big proponent of free weights, he now acknowledges there is a place for machines in the weight room. A firm believer that athletes should train the way they play - on their feet - he generally dislikes machines with seats. But, he says, some machines, like those that force athletes to work at a 45-degree angle, enable athletes to exercise muscle groups more efficiently than they could with free weights.

Further, without a machine, such an exercise would be impossible. "With free weights you'd fall on your face," he says of the machine that tilts athletes at a 45 degree angle.

Machines also allow athletes to isolate muscle groups which is good for injured players who are building back their strength.

But, he says, with rare exception, free weights still rule."If you just train on machines, you'll have a heck of a time beating a team from Nebraska," he says simply.

And, as the record books show, that doesn't happen often. The Cornhuskers haven't had a losing season since 1962 and haven't posted fewer than nine wins a season since 1968, the year before Eply joined Devaney's staff, promising to build stronger and faster athletes.

He not only kept his promise to Devaney, but in doing so helped create an entire profession and an industry to support it.

Not bad for a once scrawny track star.


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