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Thursday, June 26, 2008

When you're a blogger, stupid post ideas flit through your mind on a daily basis: "college football programs as cheeses!" or "4,000 words on the construction of authority and why it's still weird when people ask me questions." One of the very stupidest ideas I ever had was a recent one: "I will present myself as a guinea pig and go through a Barwis workout."

I said it was stupid.

Any lingering thought I might actually attempt to go through with this idea -- no doubt futile because Michigan's athletic department remains highly leery of the internet -- was crushed, maimed, and then hurled bodily into a trash can by Spencer Hall's (or Orson Swindle's or maybe SpencerOrson Hall-Swindle's) two-day odyssey of pain. The process looked a lot like this:

That was after nine minutes. Add a significant amount of hair, subtract three minutes, and add some dangling organs I have forcibly ejected from my body and are currently being nipped at by Barwis Wolves and you have the probable result of Worst Idea Ever. So thanks for that, Mr. Hall-Swindle. I owe you a beer and maybe a kidney.

After day one Orson dropped this into his Curious Index and I immediately thought of Barwis:

The mode of thinking this morning after talking with the trainers I’m “working” with (read: being maimed by) is that the only possible reason any discrepancy might exist between the SEC and the Big Ten is talent development. That’s it: not schemes, not odious theories involving weather, nothing but the training they receive and the varying emphases different programs build into their training programs. We’re brewing up a piece on this at SN, but in short think of player development in college football as one exaggerated episode of Top Chef: when everyone’s working with the same produce, how you cut it up and prep it makes all the difference at the margins.
This is unremarkable, since "eeee Barwis" has replaced "sex" as the thing I think about every ten seconds as mandated by crappy stories in the "Lifestyle" section of your rapidly imploding local paper. But it turns out Orson was also allowing his thoughts to linger over Michigan's new S&C demon:
Bringing us to the future, a.k.a. the West Virginia/Michigan training program. I mentioned Michigan's superb record against the SEC above; now consider how well Michigan did using training techniques from the 1970s, as it did until this year's complete revamping of the training program.

(Fun story that's been floating around college football circles: Under the former management, Michigan linemen, in order to gain weight, were allegedly told to "eat a whole pizza" at night. [not alleged; directly stated by Pat Massey, the lineman in question, to Brent Musberger. -ed] I'm amazed they didn't flounder like sick race horses on Saturdays. [Uh... some did. -ed] Also: no squats. The most basic fundamental move in weight lifting simply did not exist in their machine-dominated training program.)

Michigan is now busy reprogramming its players to play in the 21st century, demanding speed at every position (yes, even for pizza-mobbing offensive linemen) and totally rebuilding their talent development system.

Two thoughts crossed my mind as we finished drills: One, that not vomiting on day one represented a substantial accomplishment for a squishy blogger; and two, that if Michigan did as well as it did with old training methods, the possibilities for the Wolverines under a newer, speed-obsessed regime remain both frightening and limitless.

Mike Barwis went from a respected but obscure S&C coach at West Virginia to the head of a cult he had no hand in creating. He is the highest paid and probably the most famous trainer in the country. There is an "eeee I'm a little girl for Mike Barwis" tag on this blog, and it is only half-sarcastic. Can he possibly live up to the hype?

First, we should establish that this comment from Swindle's personal torturer...
"In terms of players we see for the combine, the best-conditioned and prepared athletes by conference come in this order: the SEC, the Big 12, the Pac-10 is just a little bit under that, and then the Big Ten brings up the rear."
...has not actually translated to any notable superiority on the field. This is Michigan's problem with "southern speed":

Opponent (record) Result Score Site
1/1/2008 vs. Florida (9-4) W 41 35 @ Orlando, FL Capital One Bowl
1/1/2003 vs. Florida (8-5) W 38 30 @ Tampa, FL Outback Bowl
1/1/2002 vs. Tennessee (11-2) L 17 45 @ Orlando, FL Citrus Bowl
1/1/2001 vs. Auburn (9-4) W 31 28 @ Orlando, FL Citrus Bowl
1/1/2000 vs. Alabama (10-3) W 35 34 @ Miami, FL Orange Bowl
1/1/1999 vs. Arkansas (9-3) W 45 31 @ Orlando, FL Citrus Bowl
1/1/1997 vs. Alabama (10-3) L 14 17 @ Tampa, FL Outback Bowl
1/1/1991 vs. Mississippi (9-3) W 35 3 @ Jacksonville, FL Gator Bowl

...oops. Add up all the bowl games the two sides have played against each other in the last eleven* years and the SEC is ahead 15 to 14 with most of the damage being done against Ohio State, 0-4 in that timespan and 0-7 since '91. Clearly, being fast -- if SEC teams actually are, which is debatable -- is not a magic ticket.

On the other hand: holy hell did West Virginia look fast, and with functionally zero four-star or better recruits. Under Rodriguez, West Virginia outperformed its recruiting rankings every year, assembling team after team somewhere between good and great without the benefit of more than one or two guys a year with any shot in the NFL. Barwis had a hand in that just like Gittleson had a hand in Gabe Watson's failure to live up to his potential.

The thing that excites about the transition is the sheer gulf between Gittleson, Carr, Debord, et al., who were all decent enough in their time but by 2007 were reduced to shoving an unmotivated, out of shape Alex Mitchell onto the field against Ohio State, and the Rodriguez/Barwis regime, where Mitchell would be laughed off the team. It's not so much the new training techniques that excite but the demand that team members participate in offseason workouts even you're a starter and Daddy has a landscaping business. The offseason is optional: so is playing time.

Over time, everything in your program is shaped by the attitude you bring. Michigan recruits are committing in the full knowledge Barwis is going to kill them, and they are eager to be killed. In time, this will manifest itself and the only things separating Michigan from national title games will be blind luck and Jim Tressel.

*(eleven is a weird number that looks carefully chosen to conceal difficulty, but I'm just using Jim Delany's stupid letter from last year, which pointed out that the teams were dead even over the preceding decade, and going from there.)