For the first time in 12 years, southern Methodist University's football team is going to a bowl. LeBaron Caruthers, the Mustangs' strength coach, thinks he knows why.
"There wasn't a better-conditioned team in the Southwest Conference. We just lined up and whipped people," he says, giving credit to the year-round weightlifting and running that players do.
The value of extra muscle power also was recognized at UCLA, where the school's strength coach was awarded the game ball after the Bruins upset Ohio State this year.
SMU and UCLA, like many other schools today, consider off-season conditioning a must in the development of their athletes -- both men and women. "The policy here is that if you don't lift, you don't play," Caruthers states. It's not anything that needs to be in writing, he adds, because "the player who doesn't lift will get beat out by one who does, since he'll be physically superior."
Coaches, looking for a winning edge, are the first to recognize the value of pumping iron.
Eddie Robinson of Grambling indicates that "a good year-round weight program is important if a team wants to still be playing come late fall." There's often a definite correlation, insiders observe, between a team's off-field training and its on-field success. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such perennial national powers as Nebraska, Michigan, and Penn State are known to have excellent physical conditioning programs.
Mike Gittleson, the strength coach at Michigan, calls the Wolverine football players in the next-best-conditioned athletes on campus after the wrestlers. "I think this is why, when we lose, the score is always close," he says. "You know you've got to really play to beat this team."
The point of lifting weights, strength coaches agree, is not to turn out batches of Arnold Schwarzeneggers with Mr. Universe physiques. Instead, the objective is to produce bigger, stronger, and more durable athletes, the type that spring back from injury.
Some observers may view this as a dehumanizing "meat on the hoof" approach, yet strength coaches obviously see things differently.
"I look at what I do as a lifetime service for the athlete," gittleson explains. "A player who feels better about himself physically is going to feel better about himself socially, too. And weight training is great for learning self-discipline."
Far from shying away from schools that emphasize off-season conditioning regiments, athletes are attracted to them. Or at least athletes who want to play on winning teams are.
Increasingly, well-designed workouts conducted by exercise science specialists are seen as essential to a successful football program.
"Having a full-time strength coach may be looked upon as a frill by some schools, but they soon will be considered an integral part of any athletic staff ," says Stanford's Dick James, who currently wears two hats as offensive line coach and strength coach.
Off-season weight training has never been mandatory at Stanford, because the players would rebel if it were, James says. Nonetheless, about 70 percent of the football squad participates voluntarily.
At some schools, players even stay on campus during the summer to work out. At Michigan, the seniors traditionally stick around, often holding lucrative summer jobs in Detroit when not sweating themselves into tip-top shape. At Louisiana State, players who go home are sent training schedules that amount to correspondence courses in physical conditioning.
LSU athletes dabbled with off-season weightlifting as far back as the early 1940s, says Dr. Martin Broussard, supervisor of athletic training. By the '50s he and an associate talked Coach Paul dietzel into making it a required part of the football program. When the Fighting Tigers won the mythical national championships in 1958, Dr. Broussard explains, other teams begun jumping on the conditioning bandwagon.
Today, football players at big-time schools receive very little R&R. At SMU, for example, an eight-week conditioning program begins Jan. 12 and runs right up to spring practice. Linemen and linebackers generally spend five to six hours a week in the weight room, with backs and receivers putting in slightly less time.
So that the workouts don't become drudgery, attractive surroundings are important. Southern Methodist's new weight room certainly rates as beauty, with some $50,000 in equipment, wall-to-wall carpeting, and 22 ceiling speakers for the stereo system. Such luxury can help make the baby fat just melt away.