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Utah's player-friendly culture a bright spot, hallmark of Whittingham era

SALT LAKE CITY — When news of the tragic death of Maryland Terrapins offensive lineman Jordan McNair was made public this summer, it brought increased scrutiny, not just of the Terrapins football program, but of programs across the country.

The increased scrutiny at Maryland, university and media driven, brought immediate results.

Stories about the failures of the Terrapins strength and conditioning staff soon came to light, ultimately leading to the resignation of strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. No less important was the reveal of a “toxic culture” in College Park, a culture based on fear, intimidation and humiliation, according to a combined report by ESPN’s Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Tom VanHaaren.

That culture led the university to place head coach D.J. Durkin on administrative leave while an internal investigation commences.

The reports confirmed, or at the very least painted a picture, of some of the worst aspects of college football.

Utah’s director of football sports performance, Doug Elisaia, otherwise known as the strength and conditioning coach, is no stranger to college football.

Elisaia played defensive tackle at Iowa Wesleyan from 1991-95 before becoming a defensive tackle coach at both McPherson College in Kansas and Wayne State.

In addition to coaching the big guys up front, Elisaia was also a strength and conditioning coach. His aptitude for that particular job took him to the University of Kentucky — he served as the Wildcats strength and conditioning coach for three years (2002-04) — and eventually the University of Utah.

Since his promotion from assistant strength coach to director of sports performance in 2006, Elisaia has been one of the longest tenured coaches on Kyle Whittingham’s staff, and for good reason.

"He's fantastic, I can't say enough about him," Whittingham told the Deseret News. "I wanted a certain type of strength coach, and Doug is the perfect fit. Our players are completely sold on him. He has a great rapport with the players."

All of that, the workplace experience across the country, the strength and conditioning experience and the long tenure under Whittingham made him the perfect coach to ask about the tragedy at Maryland, as well as the avoidance of a toxic culture at the U.

As far as Elisaia is concerned, the answer to that question — how the Utes can and do avoid a toxic culture — is simple.

“It is the leadership within,” he said. “Kyle has been here since I got here and he has done a great job creating a player-friendly culture. He’s got a saying, ‘It is the players' job to love each other, it is our job (as coaches) to love the players.’ We’ve got some good leadership here, guys that do just that.”

That includes the members of Whittingham’s staff, Elisaia’s own staff — the strength and conditioning staff is comprised of six staffers, not including Elisaia — as well as the players themselves.

Elisaia believes it is the players who play as vital a role as anyone in maintaining the positive player-first culture Whittingham has built on the hill.

“We have some good leadership within. The coaches do a great job recruiting guys that fit our culture. Guys that are disciplined and that show up. Guys that are mentally tough,” Elisaia said. “You may be real real good, real talented, but if you can’t handle all the things that come with this program, with our process, you aren’t going to make it. In fact, our coaches sometimes bypass those guys.”

The result has left the Utes with the type of athletes that take care of each other, allowing Elisaia and his staff to focus on their health and physical well-being, which ultimately only helps on the playing field.

“In this program, guys mentally understand what our culture is,” Elisaia said. “The coaches have instilled this culture so when new kids come in you have the older guys telling them the expectation. They take care of those guys, push ’em and help them understand the mentality here.

“That leadership has been here as long as I have, and it makes my job easier. The bar is kind of set. It makes our job easier as strength coaches because the guys understand the importance of leadership from within.”