Fear of getting fired sparked a flame inside Erick Schork.
As a new face to BYU’s new head basketball coach, Schork had little time to convince Mark Pope that he was the man to lead the Cougars strength and conditioning program.
“He said should I fire you right now or wait two weeks and fire you then?” said Schork. “I said, ‘That means I have two weeks before you find someone better’ and I gave him my resume. Then I showed up each day and worked my butt off.”
Fast forward 21⁄2 years — Pope is the fastest BYU coach to win 52 games in program history and Schork is the lightning rod that puts a charge into every player on the roster, during every practice and before and after every game.
“He may not be big in body, but his spirit is 10 feet tall. The only thing bigger than his spirit is his heart.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on strength coach Erick Schork
At 5-foot-10, what Schork might lack in size he makes up for in volume, energy and years of experience.
“I ask my wife that all the time, why do they listen to me?” Schork said. “I’m 5-10 on my best day and I have never played basketball.”
“He may not be big in body, but his spirit is 10 feet tall,” said Pope, who at 6-foot-10 is the tallest head basketball coach in BYU history. “The only thing bigger than his spirit is his heart.”
Schork barks out his commands just as a drill sergeant directs a group of young cadets. The difference is his warm smile and flurry of high-fives typically follow when the drills are completed.
“You can’t waste their time and you can’t lie to them,” he said. “If you do one of those two things you will lose them, and they will stop listening to you.”
Schork’s job is to turn BYU into the best conditioned and strongest team on the floor. But his reach into the lives of each player goes much deeper.
“I care about them.”
A coaching change
Schork woke up on Tuesday morning, March 26, 2019, knowing that a big change was coming. BYU scheduled a news conference for that afternoon for head coach Dave Rose to announce his retirement. He knew what that meant for Rose and his assistant coaches, but he didn’t know what it would mean for him.
“There was a little panic,” he said. “We had some family challenges during that time as well. You kind of go into ‘survival mode.’”
Schork joined the basketball staff three years earlier after spending 11 seasons in the same position at Saint Louis. Despite some warnings from colleagues about what life would be like at BYU, he took the job and rolled into town with his wife Amy and their son Alex.
“It’s definitely unique,” he said of his new surroundings. “I’m not really a church member, but I love the values of the school and the emphasis on family. I also love having Sundays off, which you don’t get at any other school.”
Another element new to his world — players with wives.
“I’ve worked with a lot of players who had kids before, but I’ve never worked with players who had spouses,” he said.
Schork also understood the business that comes with a coaching change, one that often sends the current staff out looking for work.
All he could do was wait.
A rocky start
Pope was named as the Cougars’ new coach on April 10. Pope had served as an assistant at BYU under Rose but left for the Utah Valley job before Schork was hired.
Pope had a dilemma. The relationship between a head coach and a strength coach requires complete trust. Pope and Schork were complete strangers.
The first meeting didn’t go great as Pope questioned whether he should fire Schork right then or wait a couple of weeks, but he had received a ringing endorsement from Jazz assistant head coach Alex Jensen, who worked with Schork at Saint Louis.
“He said, ‘Trust me,’ you will love this guy,” Pope said. “He was right.”
Schork wasn’t alone under Pope’s hot microscope.
“We were all put in that situation when Mark got here, said head athletic trainer Rob Ramos. “He wanted to see if we had bought into the program or not? Erick had it tougher than I did. It was kind of a ‘show me why you belong’ approach by Mark.”
Two and a half seasons later, Pope and his program are reaping the reward.
“I don’t know if there is anyone who has done a more meaningful job in our program than he has,” Pope said. “We are right in the middle of an unbelievable run, and he is right at the heart of it.”
Schork caught Pope’s eye on an early Saturday morning when he didn’t know he was being watched. The two men had discussed a series of techniques when Pope arrived about how to improve the team’s close-out defense.
“I came to work and looked down at the floor and Schork is there by himself, with a ball in his hands and he’s practicing all that we had talked about so he could teach it to the guys. I sensed right then that he might be our man.”
“These guys know that I trust him completely,” said Pope. “His word is the law in the weight room.”
Without question, Schork is Pope’s man, and he plans to keep it that way.
“I work every day like I’m trying to earn his trust,” Schork said. “But you can earn it faster by what the players say to him.”
The players concur.
“I would go to war for that man,” said senior guard Alex Barcello. “I have never worked with a strength coach that is so invested in us as he is.”
Rebounds and results
“We have got to rebound!”
Without fail, those words have come out of Pope’s mouth during every pregame interview with the BYUtv announcers this season. So far, the undersized Cougars have outrebounded eight of their 10 opponents, including the much taller rosters from San Diego State, Oregon, Utah and Utah State by a combined 152-108 margin.
Pope draws a direct correlation between the team’s toughness and rebound success to the shortest guy on the bench — Schork.
“Absolutely,” Pope said. “He is a good catalyst for helping them embrace the spirit of physicality.”
“The stronger you get, the better rebounder you will be,” Schork said.
“The weight room and what we are doing here translates to the defense and rebounds.”
“Every summer starts with Schork in the weight room. It isn’t easy, and everyone is frustrated, but 100% of our toughness comes from him,” Lohner said. “He works so hard to make sure we are in shape and our bodies are right. When I’m on the floor I feel like I’m representing him.”
“Every summer starts with Schork in the weight room. It isn’t easy, and everyone is frustrated, but 100% of our toughness comes from him.” — Caleb Lohner
Barcello came to BYU after two years of playing at Arizona. His conversion process to a new way of doing things, with a new strength coach, started with transparency.
“He told me the truth,” Barcello said. “We sat down and had a heart-to-heart conversation about what my goals were and everything we have done since that day has had a purpose behind it to accomplish them.”
Barcello wants to play professional basketball. Part of his decision to return to BYU was so he could work with Schork for another year to get ready, both as a player and a leader.
“I’ve improved my nutrition, speed, agility and shooting,” Barcello said. “Everything we are working on is getting better.”
Each member of the roster is on a different journey, but with a unifying goal — be tougher than the other team and win. The Cougars will take that attitude into Ogden on Saturday night to face Weber State.
“The level of expectation has changed. There is a high level of accountability,” Schork said. “Our program must produce results and it shows through testing and player performance.”
Good teams have big battles during practice. It’s the laboratory where they learn toughness. Prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, Gavin Baxter went after a rebound. During the play, the promising 6-foot-9 sophomore suffered a torn labrum muscle in his shoulder.
The projected starter was down and out. Once Ramos cleared him to start rehab, it became Schork’s job to bring him back.
“It wasn’t easy. Gavin was young and because of that youth he was a little naïve,” Schork said. “There were no comfortable points in that first year and we had a few blowups.”
Despite the rocky and emotional road, Schork helped deliver Baxter for BYU’s final seven games of the regular season, including the Cougars’ 91-78 upset of No. 2 Gonzaga. Afterwards Pope said, “We do not win this game tonight without Gavin Baxter!”
Baxter, Part II
The second game of BYU’s 2020 season fell on Thanksgiving night with a holiday matchup against New Orleans at the Marriott Center. Baxter was back in the starting lineup. However, eight minutes into the game, he fell to the floor grabbing his right knee and writhing in pain.
Baxter’s season was over and Schork’s job to get him back — started all over again. This time, the process between the two was much smoother.
“He evolved and developed and took ownership in his progress,” Schork said. “I can’t take the journey for them I can only provide the map.”
Baxter, Part III
Early in BYU’s Dec. 1 game at Utah Valley, Baxter hit floor with a torn ACL in his left knee — prematurely ending his third consecutive season with an injury.
“I’ve watched him go through so much,” Schork said. “You can’t help but give a piece of your heart to him.”
What happens now is up to Baxter. He has not ruled out a return for next season, but both he and Schork know from experience how hard the road back will be.
Five minutes into BYU’s exhibition game against Colorado Christian, starting center Richard Harward began having trouble with his stamina and balance. He struggled to the bench and was eventually carried to the locker room by his teammates.
Paramedics arrived and transported the 6-foot-11 senior to the hospital while the rest of the Cougars played the second half. The school announced a virus was impacting Harward’s heart.
Harward went through his first round of testing last Friday and announced Tuesday that he will remain out for the rest of the season. As for what’s next, Ramos will make the call for when he will be ready for Schork.
“We’ll start with stretching and get him moving,” Schork said. “Then we’ll see how long of a nap he will need afterward. We’ll just try and make progress each day from there.”
With Baxter and Harward both lost for the season, the Cougars will rely on their physicality more than ever.
When it comes to credibility, Schork’s is at the head of the class. With his undergraduate degree at Springfield College and master’s degree from Western Michigan, he has worked his craft for 26 years.
“He’s not afraid to go ask and find ways to improve, which is sometimes hard for these guys who may be set in their ways,” said Ramos. “He’s open-minded for thoughts and improvements, but he’s connected and knows his stuff.
Schork was named Master Strength and Conditioning Coach in 2013 by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, which is the highest honor given in the profession.
“He has an uncanny ability to get the most out of the guys, almost taking them to their breaking point,” said Ramos. “He knew he was brought in here to change the culture and get the guys bigger, faster and stronger. I think that leads to his toughness. He has a no-nonsense side to him in the weight room and a jovial side to him outside of it.”
“You are weak!”
“You are soft!”
“You are not tough enough!”
The things that have often been said to struggling athletes in the grind of a workout are no longer said at BYU.
In fact, Schork believes the biggest change to strength and condition programs in the last quarter-century has everything to do with an athlete’s mental health.
“Now we look at ways to work with the kids and help them get to where they want to be and Pope embraces that,” Schork said. “The first few years I was very hard on those guys. If I did that today I’d run myself out of a job. I’m nicer now, but I still hold them accountable. Coach Pope is pretty tough.”
In addition to lifting weights and increasing speeds, Schork and his team are looking for red flags that might trigger bigger concerns.
“Everything these kids do is to the max and they are judged whether it’s by grades or a boxscore or how they act in public,” Schork said. “Sometimes kids melt down and we have to let them know that there are moments when it’s OK to not be OK and we help them.”
Schork has helped student-athletes work through eating disorders, family challenges, name, likeness and image issues — even questions about whether to buy or rent?
Schork gets it all — because he has their trust.
“He was such a huge part in my transition to becoming a leader of the team,” said Barcello. “He suggested books to read, people to study and he would send me text messages during the week to make sure my head is in the right place.”
“I’ll have a hamburger,” said Rick Majerus, one of college basketball’s winningest head coaches.
“I’ll have a salad,” added Schork.
“A salad? For a strength coach?” said Majerus, whose combination of a Santa Claus physique and Grinch-like personality, made this a job interview unlike any other.
The poolside meeting at Majerus’ home in the Chase Park Plaza Royal Sonesta Hotel in St. Louis in May 2007 was about to change Schork’s life in a way he never expected.
Schork was the strength and conditioning coach at Wright State, but he decided to look at the opportunity Majerus was pitching at Saint Louis. The former University of Utah head coach left his analyst gig at ESPN for one last blast with basketball — and he needed a guy.
“We sat down together,” Schork said. “Majerus promptly ordered a hamburger, and I ordered a salad and he started making fun of me for being a strength coach with a salad.”
Little did Schork know that this was just the tip of the iceberg — and this is not a reference to the lettuce.
“He asked me if I could stay a few extra days,” Schork said.
“I’m not sure?”
“Why not?” Majerus asked.
“Because I have a job that I want to keep if this doesn’t work out,” said Schork.
Majerus reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys and pushed them across the table. He asked Schork to immediately drive to Iowa to visit with the Hawkeyes strength coach and come back before he returned home.
“Will you do that?” Majerus asked.
Schork didn’t want to, but he did.
“At that point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work for him?” Schork said.
Eventually an offer came and Schork accepted it.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
Even to this day, nine years after Majerus’ death, Schork keeps a video clip on his phone of the coach berating him in front of his team.
“He called me out every day in practice,” he said. “It was everyone vs. him. We would all get called out and it galvanized us — like a support group.”
In between the swear words and the rants, and the wins, Majerus gave Schork a five-season education that prepared him for BYU.
“He taught me how to care for kids while still holding them accountable,” he said. “He was demanding and cruel, but he had such compassion for his players and their families.”
No more tackling
Schork’s ever-evolving relationship with the players is no more evident than during BYU’s pregame warmups.
After the required number of stretches and pulls, lunges and leaps, the team surrounds him in a circle. This is where he takes on a Thor-Hulk like persona, but in Spiderman’s body.
“I remind them how hard we have worked to be here and to relax and have some fun,” Schork said.
He finishes his speech by slamming the ball onto the floor and sending it high into the air as the players let out a thunderous scream. With a giant smile, Schork deems them ready to play.
“We used to do bear hugs until Gideon (George) decided to tackle me to the floor before one of the games,” he said. “That’s when I came up with the ball slam. It’s safer!”
Safe and sensible. After all, there is no need to pick on the little guy who is helping BYU play big.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.