June 28, 2016
Mike Joseph’s day starts with his alarm going off at 4 a.m., followed by a quick stop at Starbucks for a morning jolt before arriving at Milan Puskar Stadium at 5:15 a.m.
Then he goes over the day’s plan with his hard-working staff consisting of Darl Bauer, Kevin McCadam, Chad Snodgrass and Alex Mitchell, before the players start filtering in for their 7 a.m. run that finishes around 8 – the time many of us are getting out of bed to go to work.
After a short break, Joseph and his guys will see four or five different groups throughout the day until he finally leaves for home around 6, 6:30 or 7 in the evening, depending upon how things went during the day.
That means just a few hours of daylight left for his wife, Andre, and their two boys, Quincy and Brolin, before the sun goes down and it’s off to bed only to be awakened again by that 4 a.m. alarm.
Wash, rinse and repeat.
Sounds like a fabulous summer, doesn’t it?
Well, this is Mike Joseph’s ninth summer doing this since Bill Stewart hired him away from Notre Dame to run Mountaineer football’s strength and conditioning program in 2008.
Joseph’s tenure overseeing the strength development of West Virginia’s football players is now the second longest behind Allen Johnson’s 15 years, split up over two different time periods from 1982-88 and from 1993-2000.
Dave Van Halanger was WVU’s football’s first strength coach when Frank Cignetti created the position in 1978. The former Mountaineer offensive lineman also spent two years working for Don Nehlen before joining Bobby Bowden’s Florida State staff.
Then followed Johnson for seven years before Jim Hopkins took over for four seasons when Al left to run the Baltimore Orioles strength program. Johnson returned to WVU in 1993 and trained Mountaineer football players until Nehlen’s retirement in 2000.
Then it was Doug Elias for two years, followed by Mike Barwis for five seasons until Barwis left with Rich Rodriguez for fame and fortune at Michigan in 2007.
Joseph, a former Fairmont State gridder who worked as a WVU strength graduate assistant coach for Johnson in the late 1990s, returned to his Mountain State roots in 2008 when Stewart got the West Virginia job, and he’s been here ever since.
What Joseph and people in his profession do these days is dramatically different than what guys like Van Halanger and Johnson were doing when they got things started back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In many instances, the strength coaches then were either powerlifters or body builders, or, ex-football coaches who basically became an extension of the coaching staff.
At that time, the players typically came in for a couple hours three or four times a week and lifted as much weight as they could before they left. What they did for the remainder of the day, what they ate or how long they chose to sleep, was up to the players’ imaginations.
And that was about it.
“When I started, lifting as much as possible and getting as big as possible was the No. 1 goal,” Joseph said. “But over the last 10-15 years the shift has been made to science and technology. You still want to be strong and fast and possess all those intangibles, but I think now it’s more about being athletic.”
Football has changed so much over the last 15-20 years, and so has the way the players are now preparing to play the game. In the old days, when the game was basically still confined to small areas of the field, brute strength and power were the two basic requirements for any successful football player.
That’s why they lifted all those weights and got so big in order to move the guy lined up across from them out of the way. Big and physical football players were also confident football players, which is sometimes just as important as being big and physical.
In the early 1980s, Nehlen brought the Michigan style of football to West Virginia, which meant having bigger, stronger, more confident players. Nehlen used to tell the story of how he once jumped all over Wolverine quarterback Rick Leach for taking a lesser Big Ten opponent lightly during pregame warmups.
“Relax, coach,” Leach told Nehlen in the locker room. “We’re Michigan, and by the end of the day we’re going to kick their #@$ anyway!”
That’s exactly what happened because they were Michigan.
So when Nehlen came to West Virginia and noticed how weak his guys were, particularly the players up front, he knew he not only had to boost the amount of weight they bench pressed and squatted, but also how much they thought they were bench pressing and squatting. Also, he wasn’t against his strength coaches giving the players a little boost when they were pushing up heavier weight, or, slipping their toes on the scale to give the impression the players were gaining more weight than they actually were.
If they think they’re getting stronger and heavier that’s just as good as them actually getting stronger and heavier, Nehlen believed. A lot has changed through the years, but developing self-confidence through your strength and conditioning program hasn’t.
“Confidence is everything,” Joseph admitted. “That’s the biggest transition we see from the younger guy trying to compete with the older guy is just having the confidence and knowing he can compete with him. Our job entails a lot of things: motivating them is No. 1 – finding a way to get them to work beyond their comfort zone, but once they get to that point and they’ve gotten bigger, stronger and faster, we continue finding ways to show them through different results.
“That’s why we keep pushing them for PR’s (personal records) and we constantly take pictures of them before and after so they can see how their body is changing. That’s developing their mental approach. If a guy is confident, he’s knowledgeable, focused and mature, he’s going to be successful,” Joseph added.
Obviously, what has changed today is how the game is played and how players are getting prepared to play it. These days, football has become a space game requiring well-conditioned, highly-trained, highly-skilled athletes.
“Speed is everything,” Joseph said. “Having athleticism, possessing a high level of conditioning to be able to play in space, react and change direction is the biggest thing.”
In order to get the players where they need to be athletically, Joseph has several people on his staff to work with them, plus, a team nutritionist in Nettie Freshour, and a close working relationship with Dave Kerns’ athletic training staff.
All of the parts have to fit just right in order for everything to work smoothly.
“It takes a lot out of these guys to travel, game plan, go to school and then get ready to play another football game,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to get these guys back and have them healthy and ready to go for the next Saturday.”
It’s a never-ending process, beginning with the winter conditioning program before transitioning to spring football, then to summer conditioning, and then to fall training camp leading into another long and grueling season.
Rare off days, or that one week in May when Joseph and his staff finally get to take a brief break for vacation, are frequently interrupted by text messages from the players from whom they are supposed to be getting away.
To do this continuously, year after year, takes special people who are focused, driven, well-organized and goal-oriented. That’s what Dana Holgorsen has in Mike Joseph and the people he has working for him.
“We are all passionate about our jobs,” Joseph said. “It comes to do you really care for these kids, and how much do you care about the program? If you don’t care, you’re not going to put the effort in and it won’t matter to you. Yes, this is a personal sacrifice to our families, and that’s why I appreciate my wife and my family so much.”
Joseph also appreciates the type of players Holgorsen is bringing to West Virginia University these days – guys who are willing to work hard and put in the time to be successful football players.
WVU is a unique situation in that it is a developmental program – and most likely always will be one unless there is a massive influx of Power 5 Conference-caliber football players in the state – meaning, the Mountaineer strength and conditioning staff will continue to be vitally important to the overall success of the program.
That’s why West Virginia has to work a little bit harder than everyone else, and that’s why Joseph and his guys have to spend so much time at Milan Puskar Stadium during the summertime.
“We do have to develop guys here and that’s why we are so hard on our guys with discipline and accountability because we can’t allow guys to miss workouts or slack off,” Joseph explained. “We have to train harder because their personal safety is extremely important – we want them to stay healthy throughout their careers – and if we need to increase size and speed we need to get that done.
“There is only one way to do it – through hard work and getting it done the right way.”
Which is how 195-pound high school safety Nick Kwiatkoski can turn into a 245-pound middle linebacker now playing for the Chicago Bears, or a skinny, 145-pound Tavon Austin can transform his body into a 175-pound first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams, or how Bruce Irvin can go from 218 pounds to 245 pounds in a matter of two years and become such a coveted pass rushing specialist.
Karl Joseph and Kevin White are two more workout warriors who became No. 1 draft choices – and not by accident.
The Mountaineer strength and conditioning success stories are endless, including guys going in the other direction such as offensive tackle Quinton Spain, who slimmed down to a more manageable weight and is now playing in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans.
“When our guys come in hungry, motivated and ready to get better, you want to help them do it,” Joseph said. “It motivates us, too. We’re going to help them reach the end result they want, but it’s all on them because they put the work in, they decided to have the self-discipline and they decided to do things the right way.
“All we did was guide them.”
Guide them, indeed, for virtually every waking moment from the time they step on campus as freshmen until they leave four or five years later – summertime and vacations, included.
Wash, rinse and repeat.