Bigger and stronger

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

In this time of administrative turmoil, it is so comforting to finally get one issue behind us. We now understand why Tennessee football deteriorated during the Butch Jones era and ended up 0-8 against SEC opposition.

Mirrors, mirrors on the walls at the LaPorte Strength and Conditioning Facility at the Anderson Training Center did us in.


When Volunteers were supposed to be working to get bigger and stronger, they were instead rubbing oil on their bodies, flexing biceps and admiring their glistening physiques. They probably enjoyed mood music and snapped a few selfies, too.

Shame, shame.

Craig Fitzgerald, relatively new as UT strength and conditioning coach, stopped football players from having too much fun admiring their reflection while lifting weights. He ordered the removal of mirrors.

“We don’t need our guys looking at themselves. We need them training.”

As you may have noticed, money is no object at Tennessee. With input from previous head coaches, Derek Dooley applied the finishing touches on the best-looking weight room in the country. UT spent millions to build, equip, adjust and tweak it.

It is now spending half that much to tear it apart and rearrange the remnants.

Fancy machines were removed in phase one of the Fitzgerald renovation. For the second time in a few months, a new floor was installed. The mirrors are gone. We now have free weights and medicine balls, an enhanced version of how it once was in gym class, back in the days of George Cafego.

There are differences. Forty-watt bulbs have been upgraded, there are fewer cobwebs and the weight racks are trimmed in orange.

If the Volunteers go undefeated this fall, you will know why. We finally got the weight room right.

“We’re going to do the best facility that’s ever been,” said the new strength and conditioning coach.

“You’re going to know when you walk in that this is where football players train,” Fitzgerald said in a promotional video, another new in-thing.

“This is where the best players in the country train as they get ready for their NFL careers and become dominant players in the best conference in America, the Southeastern Conference.”

I can’t prove it but I have often heard that strength and conditioning coaches are different. Some have been described as a little bit crazy. I have heard the word “lunatic” in two or three descriptions.

Most are passionate about their work. Head coaches love that. For months each year, while the regular staff is chasing recruiting rainbows, strength coaches are responsible for the care, feeding and development of the team.

The current assignment includes reduction of injuries. Tennessee has endured a shocking number in recent years. Butch Jones is convinced that led to his disaster.

When Butch came to UT, he brought along Dave Lawson, his strength and conditioning coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Between his third and fourth years in Knoxville, something strange happened. Lawson was suddenly too tough. Elite players were unhappy. They complained. Jones provided soft and absorbent Kleenex. Lawson was shoved aside.

An assistant was awarded the serious responsibilities for 2016. That must not have worked. Butch brought in an older friend, Rock Gullickson, NFL veteran who needed a job, for last season. That change didn’t have time to work.

Jeremy Pruitt, blessed with years of perspective gleaned from Nick Saban, obviously believes he has found the solution. He bought Fitzgerald from the pros for a mere $625,000.

Craig tipped his cap and said goodbye to the Houston Texans. He previously worked at Penn State. Before that, he was at South Carolina. Before that, he was at Maryland where he had played.

It seems the job requires smart guys who are truly dedicated, who care about helping (pushing) young people to maximize their potential. I remember Bruno Pauletto. Good man. He was a factor in the 1985 Tennessee season that turned the team into the Sugar Vols.

Johnny Long was credited by Phillip Fulmer with making physical fitness a basic component of the UT football program. Long gained the title of Master Strength Coach which is said to be the highest honor in the profession.

John Stucky moved up in 1994. He won an assortment of awards and was credited with a team winning percentage of .833 during his seven years. A certain quarterback helped.

Homegrown Aaron Ausmus was the main man for a few minutes. Bennie Wylie did drills with players. One was running while carrying a cinder block over his head. He also acquired 600-pound tires off very heavy construction equipment for players to flip over and over, just for fun.

Ron McKeefery brought military training experience.

Gullickson had the best background. He was in Butch and Barbara Jones’ wedding. Alas, he failed to recognize mirrors as a distraction.

Marvin West invites reader reactions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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