Herbert sets new tone in Wisconsin weight room

May, 18, 2009
5/18/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After suffering through one of the most disappointing seasons in the country last fall, Wisconsin needed to make changes, and everyone knew it.

The problem? Spring practice was more than three months away. 

 
  Elsa/ALLSPORT
  Ben Herbert, a former defensive end, has rejuvenated Wisconsin's strength and conditioning  program with his unconventional ideas.

The weight room provided the first platform to shake things up, and thanks to some creative ideas and favorable timing, that's exactly where the Badgers capitalized.

Longtime head strength and conditioning coach John Dettman, a key figure in the football program's resurgence during the 1990s, moved into an administrative position and turned the football responsibilities over to his assistant.

Ben Herbert's time had arrived, and the former Badgers defensive linemen, who had assisted Dettman since 2003, didn't waste a second in his new role.

It took a wrestling belt, two potted plants, plenty of hand-holding (not the kind you think), some nontraditional tests and a lot of tough love, but Herbert got the desired results.

"Guys, they were looking for something to spark them a little bit," Herbert said. "I thought I had some of the answers for that. You never know until you get through a training cycle and then full winter and spring ball. But looking back on it, I couldn't have it go any other way.

"It worked out exactly how I wanted it to."

Before the players reconvened for winter workouts, Herbert and Badgers head coach Bret Bielema mapped out their plan for the strength program.

For the first time, players would be divided into four position groups -- defensive line/linebackers, defensive backs, offensive linemen/quarterbacks/tight ends and running backs/wide receivers -- that would lift together at designated times, usually beginning at 6 a.m.

Bielema also moved back the start date for spring ball, allowing a full seven-week period for strength and conditioning before spring break, which previously had been sandwiched between practices.

After winter workouts started, Herbert immediately tackled an area that had doomed the Badgers throughout the 2008 season -- accountability. Team unity was a problem throughout the fall, and players and coaches both say they didn't realize it until it was too late.

"We had individuals that were more worried about themselves than the success of the unit, whether it be on offense or defense," Herbert said. "It's one of those things that goes on, but it didn't really get brought to the forefront. I always want to get things out in the air so everybody knows."

At the end of every group's workout, Herbert had players gather in a circle and lock hands. Any player who had slipped up, whether it was missing a study hall or showing up late for class or a workout, had to stand in the middle. 

Herbert would ask the offender if his behavior was typical or rare, if he could handle responsibility and if his teammates could depend on him. 

"It's like a chain of armor," senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden said. "Everybody's linked up and everything, and if one link breaks, you've got weak armor. Being late to a meeting, that's like being late on a route or being late on a call or doing your assignment in the field. That could hurt us in the game. That carries over."

A few players found themselves in the eye of the storm early in winter workouts, but by the end, the circle was always complete. Each circle would end the session by reciting four words: One unit, one goal

"It's real embarrassing when you get pointed out, but it doesn't happen enough," senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield said. "We're at a level where you can point the finger when it's right."

Seven workouts into the winter session, Herbert pointed the finger, but for a good reason.

No group entered the weight room with more vigor than the linebackers and defensive linemen, who, according to Herbert, "destroyed" the first seven lifting sessions in January. They had set the bar for the rest of the time right off the bat.

"I said, 'You will now be referred to as The Tone-setters,'" Herbert recalled. "They were like, 'Tonesetters? Tonesetters?' And then they took it and said, 'We're the tonesetters.' Then the other groups got wind of it and they wanted to be the tonesetters.

"All of a sudden, the quality and the intensity, every group, every day, was banging workouts. So then, at about Week 4, I said, 'I need something to symbolize this.'"

A sucker for symbolism, Herbert went online and found a WWE replica championship belt. The W's in the center of the belt reminded Herbert of Wisconsin's logo, and he had the word "Tonesetters" engraved on it. 

Herbert gave the belt to the linebackers and defensive linemen but provided a caveat: "You're going to have to earn this thing," he said. 

On the final day of workouts before spring break, Herbert held the Tonesetter Title Match, a series of five different competitions between the four position groups.

Players competed in events like the medicine ball throw, the backward sled drag and a tag-team event where partners from each team had to hold 45-pound plates in both hands for as long as they could. There also was a mental test, as Herbert asked the groups to remember how many points the Badgers had scored and how many they allowed during the 2008 season.

In keeping with the wrestling theme, each position group entered the weight room through a different door and got to pick its own entrance music.

The defensive backs came in dancing to a track from the movie "You Got Served." The offensive linemen wore all black and marched into the sound of bells.   

"It felt like the Olympics," Schofield said. 

The competition came down to the final event, the 6-inch challenge. Players had to hold their feet six inches off the mat, with their toes touching a square bench, which prevented them from going any higher.

"We had guys hold for over 12 minutes, fully shaking, it was unbelievable," Herbert said. "The guys refused to let their feet drop until they absolutely had nothing left."

The linebackers and defensive linemen ended up retaining their title, as redshirt freshman Mike Taylor came through in the 6-inch challenge. 

"It was very competitive," Schofield said. "By the time the completion was over, I didn't have a voice. And our legs were gone and everything."

The unusual events in the "Tonesetter" competition were consistent with the methods Herbert used to test players throughout the winter and spring.

Rather than put players through the standard tests -- bench-press, hang clean, squat, 40-yard dash -- at the start and end of the training sessions, Herbert had them do football-specific tests every day for three weeks. Herbert and Bielema made strength and size their top priorities, so they had the players run less than usual.

"We don't want a great testing team; we want a good football team," Bielema said. "So much gets emphasized on the bench and the 40-yard dash and all that goes
into it, but what I want to see is the application of being better at a reach block, be better at tackling. We really tried to make it as football-specific as we could."

Several players had sizable weight gains, including defensive end Louis Nzegwu (20 pounds), early enrollee David Gilbert (15 pounds) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (12 pounds). Starting center John Moffitt trimmed 15 pounds during the winter, while defensive end J.J. Watt totally transformed his body.

Though players took time to adjust to the unorthodox testing, they understood Herbert's thinking and grew to appreciate it. 

"I looked forward to doing my testing and finding out my numbers," Schofield said, "but you talked about last year, people always being individuals. Taking that out set a precedent for us being a team. You're competing every day."

Schofield saw the results in spring practice. Red zone defense was a focal point for Wisconsin after it finished last in the Big Ten in 2008 (92.9 percent). 

During one red zone session this fall, neither the first-team nor the second-team defense allowed the ball to cross the goal line. 

"I really felt the one unit-one goal [motto]," Schofield said. "Even if someone lost the edge or couldn't contain, somebody was there to cover for them. Guys were picking each other up."

Herbert had one final motivational tool for the players when they began a three-week training session following spring ball.  

 
  Wisconsin Athletics
  Wisconsin strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert finds potential inspiration in many things, including these two potted plants.
He purchased two potted plants, naming one The Governor and the other The Deacon. 

Herbert fed The Governor a steady supply of water and Miracle-Gro. The Deacon, meanwhile, had a diet of Miller High Life, cheap whiskey, Oreos, Doritos and bits of DiGiorno frozen pizza. 

He didn't tell the players about the plants but placed them in the weight room with a short description for each. When players asked about the plants, Herbert told them to go over and read about them.

The results were predictable but effective. The Governor blossomed and grew, while The Deacon wilted and reeked.

"The Deacon got to the point where he smelled so bad, we actually had to keep him out in the hallway," Herbert said. 

The point was made.

"You've got to feed a plant basically like a human being," Schofield said. "It was a neat experiment he did because it did work."

Most of Herbert's experiments worked during the offseason.

As a product of the system at Wisconsin, he didn't transform the program's philosophy toward strength and conditioning. Wisconsin is still all about power and size.

But his innovative tactics created a new feel in the weight room and raised the energy level for a team that badly needed a boost. 

"He is always thinking outside the box, which, to me, is everything," Bielema said. "I'm trying to always think of a new way, a better way, of doing things. And he really makes those kids understand, 'Hey, when you're coming here to work, you better come in here with the right attitude. I don't want bad attitudes in here. This isn't a slap-you-on-the-back session. This is an opportunity to go an hour-and-a-half and make yourselves better.'" 

The Badgers won't know until the fall whether they're better, but players felt a difference this spring. 

"The changes that we did before spring ball, it carried over to the field," McFadden said. "This is as strong as I've ever been in this program. The one thing about Herb, he's going to lead us in the right direction."

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