They’re running around like picnic ants; huffing, puffing and straining in an early morning workout where normal guys their age would either be asleep or shuffling like zombies.
This is the scene of a BYU defense workout this summer, a time most of the culture is kicked back looking for leisure. But it’s a time all football teams pay the freight. The leader is BYU’s new director of football performance Frank Wintrich, a muscle whisperer whose job is to reshape bodies and minds.
Crack of dawn? How does he avoid herding zombies?
He gets them to walk into a non-caffeinated electric shock zone.
“First it starts with my staff and me,” said Wintrich. “We have to be motivated and high energy every day and be hard chargers. If we come in and we are flat, the kids are going to feed off our energy, so it is incumbent upon us to be constantly driving the motivation and energy. We have to be excited to see them."
Wintrich must begin his own day with his hair on fire. “When they walk in the door, I’m constantly in their ears, talking to them, asking what’s going on, what did you do last night, what are you sulking for, do you feel good? So they know that I am doing and practicing what I preach and what I expect of them every time they come through here. That’s the most important part. Then, it is keeping them focused on why we’re here, preparing for September at Nebraska, that season and that schedule, one of the toughest this school has ever had.”
Wintrich replaces longtime BYU conditioning coach Jay Omer, who retired after the Miami Beach Bowl. Wintrich previously worked at North Texas, Utah State and The Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at the Citadel he got turned on to the “warrior culture,” an obsession shared by his boss, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“I had the chance to work with kids who were actually going into the military. Before we developed the warrior mindset, some of the former students there were Army rangers and Delta Force and they were looking for a place to train. They asked if they could join us and I told them to jump right in and train with us. How cool would this be when we were trying to get our kids to have a warrior spirit and culture? What better way than to put an actual warrior on the platform with them at the same time and have that guy motivate them?
“At North Texas, we needed something. Physically we were there, but mentally our edge was gone. I was fortunate to meet up with two former recon Marines. Working with them, we began developing the warrior mindset program. That led to us researching other warrior cultures like the Samurai and our Special Forces communities, and that drove the psychological emphasis. When we train athletes we look to develop physical, psychological, technical and tactical. The first three are where we have the biggest impact. That is the driving force behind how we train.”
Wintrich divides players into groups. These groups work as a unit like a military squad, drilling as a Special Forces attack team on a mission, taking one another’s back, pushing each other and competing. He’s tried to create a warrior culture, one that sees a greater cause than self, where sacrifice and commitment rule every moment.
“We might not be the most talented team on the field every Saturday, but dang it, we are going to be the most conditioned team on the field. We’re going to be the most mentally and physically prepared team that steps on that field and we use that as our frame of reference — instead of doing it for one’s self, for me, or doing it to just be doing it.
A year ago, BYU had nearly a dozen players miss games due to ankle sprains. I asked Wintrick if that was just bad luck or a foundational issue in conditioning.
“I wasn’t here so I can’t really speak to that. I just know football is a violent sport and there are going to be injuries. Taysom breaking his ankle and guys tearing their ACLs is going to happen because of the collisions and violence. Our thinking is to not have our guys be predisposed to have soft tissue injuries with the hamstrings, groins, quads, shoulder and back. We have a very good track record helping to eliminate or reduce those type of injuries through the training process. If a guy does get injured we try to make it so he comes back faster because of training leading up to it.”
Shortly after Wintrich arrived in Provo, current and former players were surprised he cut down on weight lifting time for focus on explosive skill development and sprints.
“The benefit is we want to be explosive athletes. We say this kind of tongue in cheek, but it’s true. People are always looking for the magic pill on how to make guys more explosive, but if you want to make people sprint fast, you have to go out and run fast.
“When we first got here the kids came in and said, ‘Hey, we’re only lifting 30 minutes a day but we’re running for an hour or hour and a half.’ But the majority of their time on the football field is running. So when we are on the field training, we want to be sure there is a high level of dynamic correspondence or correlation to activity in a game situation and how they expect to perform. We jump a lot, we sprint a lot, we do explosive medicine ball throws. The weight lifting is there to compliment those things, not as the basis for what we’re doing.”
What’s more important for Wintrich, his knowledge or personality?
He says it’s his personal touch. “It’s essential. That’s why I hire people that are smarter than me.” The example is his role as energy engineer, the driver. He is vocal and demands direction and results. It bleeds down the line.
“It is my job to push it forward and make sure the personality and energy I bring drive it, and it rubs off on the kids. Some of our kids are starting to get it. Harvey Langi, Bronson Kaufusi, Tejan Koroma, Ului Lapuaho and Taysom Hill are guys that are starting to realize what leadership is and how that dynamic energy can influence the team, and they are beginning to do a much better job. Coaching it and getting kids to buy into it is essential. If you have a great program, but it’s boring and the leadership is poor, they’ll look at it and say they don’t really believe in it and go somewhere else to find training or not work very hard and not get a good result.”
Wintrich is impressed by the progress of D-lineman Graham Rowley, the return from injury of linebacker Fred Warner and development of outside linebacker Tyler Cook. He says RB Jamaal Williams has refused to take time off and is in the weight room or receiving treatments when everyone else is gone. He’s had to hold the reins back on Taysom Hill, but he’s good to go full bore.
Wintrich said what’s stood out the past five months is BYU players willing to do anything asked of them. “These kids are training themselves. They would go through a wall for us if we asked. I am so grateful, so appreciative to have their attitude, it makes our job so much easier as a staff. All we have to do is coach. We don’t have to coach effort and drive these guys. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Aahhh, how are we going to motivate them?’ “
He said his mileposts in the offseason have been met so far in 2015, but confesses dealing with returning missionaries has caught him off guard.
“I knew we had to slow cook those guys but we’ve really had to slow things down, especially for some of those who might not be as good of athletes. Micah Hanneman came in and boom, he was ready to go in a couple of weeks: rock and roll. But others we have to be careful and slow the process down. I knew that would be a challenge, but it is more of a challenge and long term problem than I anticipated it would be. But 90 percent of the guys they are right where we want them to be.”
He sees a roster of 80 athletes who have gone on LDS missions as a plus.
“They’ve been out, they’ve experienced the world and they are much more mature than a 17- or 18-year-old kid who might be wondering what’s outside this world that he’s used to. These kids have been out and seen a completely different parts of the world that many of us will never experience or see in our lifetime. They’ve got some wild stories to tell. I love that about them and I think it makes us a better football team, but physically, we have to work that and be patient and intelligent about it. Mentally, I love that.”
Nobody, including Mendenhall, or this new Wintrich, who has had more time with BYU’s football players than anybody on the planet the past few months, can tell how good the Cougars will be this fall.
But offseason training is one facet that is hands on, measured and accounted for come the end of July.
Wintrich likes what he sees.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.