- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Strength and conditioning coaches in college football are around the players more than the head coaches and more than the position coaches.
No wonder the first piece of advice Florida’s Urban Meyer gives to a first-time head coach is to go out and get the best strength coach he can find.
Here’s a rundown of the head strength coaches in the SEC:
Alabama: Scott Cochran
One of the most energetic and vocal coaches on Alabama’s staff, Cochran came to Alabama in 2007 along with Nick Saban. Prior to taking on the Crimson Tide’s head strength and conditioning duties, he spent three years with the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets as assistant strength coach. Cochran’s ties to Saban go back to LSU when Cochran was an assistant strength coach on LSU’s 2003 national championship team. An LSU graduate, Cochran has been credited by many of the Alabama players for being a big part of the Tide’s turnaround under Saban. “He makes you want to show up and work every day and push yourself even harder than the day before,” said former Alabama All-America center Antoine Caldwell.
Arkansas: Jason Veltkamp
Veltkamp is beginning his third season as the Hogs’ head strength and conditioning coach after joining the Arkansas staff in January 2008. He was with Bobby Petrino at Louisville for three seasons and helped coordinate the development of 21 future NFL draft selections. Veltkamp was also the head strength and conditioning coach at Utah and was there with Florida coach Urban Meyer for a season in 2003. Veltkamp played for Bobby Petrino’s father, Bob Petrino, Sr., at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., and was a captain on the 1994 team. Among the professional athletes Veltkamp has worked with include Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith and NBA basketball player Andrew Bogut.
Auburn: Kevin Yoxall
Yoxall has been at Auburn since 1999 when he came over from UCLA and supervises all strength and conditioning programs for men’s and women’s athletics. Yoxall was a power lifter in college at East Texas State and earned All-America honors in 1983. He came to Auburn with Tommy Tuberville and was retained when Gene Chizik took over last season. Yoxall also previously served as Minnesota’s strength coach and started his career at TCU. Named a Master Strength and Conditioning Coach in 2002, Yoxall was also selected as the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2005 by the Professional Football Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society.
Florida: Mickey Marotti
Meyer has called Marotti the best strength coach in America on numerous occasions and was able to pry him away from Notre Dame in 2005 when he took the Gators’ head job. Marotti, who played fullback at West Liberty State, was Notre Dame’s director of strength and conditioning from 1998-2005. Meyer was instrumental in bringing Marotti to Notre Dame when Meyer was an assistant coach with the Irish. Marotti was in charge of Cincinnati’s strength program from 1990-98 prior to that. He and Meyer first met when they were graduate assistants at Ohio State. Marotti holds a Master of Strength and Conditioning certification.
Georgia: Dave Van Halanger
Van Halanger has worked with 29 consecutive bowl teams spanning his tenures at Georgia, Florida State and West Virginia. He was with Bobby Bowden at both West Virginia and Florida State as head strength coach, but came with Mark Richt to Georgia in 2001 as director of strength and conditioning. Van Halanger was an offensive lineman under Bowden at West Virginia and co-captained the Mountaineers’ 1975 team. He’s credited with starting West Virginia’s first organized weight training program. In 2001, Van Halanger was awarded the title of Master Strength and Conditioning Coach and was inducted into the Strength and Conditioning Hall of Fame in 2003.
Kentucky: Ray “Rock” Oliver
A former strength coach at Kentucky under basketball coach Rick Pitino, Oliver returned to Kentucky this past January to head up the football team’s strength and conditioning program under first-year coach Joker Phillips. A renowned motivator, Oliver has worked with football and basketball teams on both the collegiate and professional level. Prior to returning to Kentucky, he spent the last six years as the associate strength and conditioning coach with the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s worked with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Jersey Nets. Oliver has also worked extensively in the past with Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. A defensive back in college, Oliver started his career at Ohio State before transferring to Cincinnati.
LSU: Tommy Moffitt
Moffitt is entering his 11th season at LSU after coming over from Miami. He’s been part of two national championship football teams at LSU, one at Tennessee and one at Miami. Moffitt has incorporated yoga and karate into the Tigers’ offseason program to increase a player’s flexibility, while forcing the team to stay focused for a lengthy period of time. He was named the 2003 College Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by America Football Monthly. While at Miami, Moffitt worked under Butch Davis and was instrumental in helping to rebuild the Hurricanes’ program. He’s a graduate of Tennessee Tech and was named the National High School Strength Coach of the Year in 1992 while coaching at John Curtis High School in River Ridge, La.
Mississippi State: Matt Balis
One of the first things Dan Mullen did upon landing the Mississippi State head job was hire Balis away from Virginia. They were together at both Florida and Utah, and Mullen has often referred to Balis as the most important part of his program. Balis was the head strength coach at Virginia from 2007-08 and was an assistant director of strength and conditioning at Florida from 2005-06. Balis was also the head strength coach at Utah in 2004 when the Utes went unbeaten and won the Fiesta Bowl. When Balis arrived on Mississippi State’s campus two Decembers ago, former running back Anthony Dixon said Balis was the driving force in helping to change the culture of the football team and called Balis’ offseason workouts “the kind of hell we needed.”
Ole Miss: Don Decker
Decker is entering his 13th season with Houston Nutt after serving as Nutt’s strength coach for all 10 seasons at Arkansas. A small college All-America quarterback at Evangel University in the early 1980s, Decker was at Arkansas for 15 years. He was the Hogs’ assistant strength and conditioning coach before being promoted and oversaw strength and conditioning for all men’s sports. He was in charge of the basketball strength program for eight years, including the 1994 national championship season. In 2004, Decker earned the designation of Master Level Strength Coach by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association.
South Carolina: Craig Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is beginning his second season as the Gamecocks’ strength and conditioning coach after serving as Director of Strength and Training at Harvard since April 2005. While at Harvard, Fitzgerald trained the football, men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, men’s and women’s tennis and men’s and women’s crew teams. The Harvard football team won back-to-back Ivy League championships over his final two years there. Fitzgerald played football at Maryland and later served as an assistant director of strength and conditioning for the Terrapins.
Tennessee: Bennie Wylie
Wylie is in his first season as Tennessee’s head strength coach after overseeing Texas Tech’s strength and conditioning program for the last five years. Wylie was a big part of the Red Raiders’ success the last few seasons and had a strong rapport with all of the players. At times, he was known to have players running while holding cinder blocks over their heads. Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach used to call him the “executioner” for his grueling offseason workouts. The Red Raiders were 46-18 during Wylie’s five seasons in Lubbock, including the memorable 11-2 season in 2008. Wylie also worked with the Dallas Cowboys as an assistant strength and conditioning coach for four years before joining the Texas Tech staff.
Vanderbilt: John Sisk
An 18-year coaching veteran, Sisk enters his ninth year as Vanderbilt’s director of speed, strength and conditioning. Sisk and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson go back to their Furman days together. Sisk was a Furman strength assistant in Johnson’s first year as coach. Sisk also worked on the strength staff at Clemson before coming to Vanderbilt and has worked with a handful of first-round picks in baseball. He also helped transform former Vanderbilt offensive lineman Chris Williams from an undersized 245-pound prospect into the 14th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler also credits Sisk for helping him take his game to another level physically when he was at Vanderbilt. Sisk played his college football at Western Carolina.