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Notre Dame football: Longo bringing a different approach to Irish conditioning

January 17, 2010|By ERIC HANSEN, Tribune Staff Writer | By ERIC HANSEN, Tribune Staff Writer
  • Paul Longo, the new director of strength and conditioning at Notre Dame, speaks to the media Friday. Paul Longo, the new director of strength and conditioning at Notre Dame, speaks to the media Friday. (Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)
Paul Longo, the new director of strength and conditioning at Notre Dame, speaks to the media Friday. Paul Longo, the new director of strength and conditioning at Notre Dame, speaks to the media Friday. (Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

SOUTH BEND - His introduction into Notre Dame football fans’ consciousness was immersed in, well, vomit. Not that the school’s new director of strength and conditioning, Paul Longo, wants to distance himself from the typical puke story that seems to accompany many college football regime changes. “Like I told them, I’m not concerned with where you are right now, because there’s nothing I can do about it,” said Longo, who had seven Irish players upchuck during their very first stretching session under his watch, last Thursday. “I’m concerned where we’re going to be the next day, the next day and the next day. We’re going to go as fast as we can moving forward, but it’s going to take some time.” And it’s going to be way more scientific, way more holistic and way more cerebral than simply directing the accelerator to the floorboard. Less is more sometimes. More is more sometimes. Being on time matters all the time. So does appearance, all the way down to what a player’s locker looks like. “My feeling on it is that strength and conditioning is 50 percent science, 50 percent art,” Longo said. “And so I approach it that way. Bottom line is results, and results aren’t just about getting bigger, faster, stronger, but it goes to character, it goes to teamwork, it goes to injury prevention, it goes to becoming others-centered and it goes to wins and losses.” First-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly is so convinced what Longo does contributes to his own bottom line so significantly that Kelly treats him and pays him like an offensive or defensive coordinator. And here’s what the bottom line looks like. Since 2005, Kelly’s teams are some of the strongest-closing nationally. In that stretch, his Central Michigan and Cincinnati teams were a combined 42-1 when leading after three quarters, compared with 27-6 by ousted coach Charlie Weis’ ND teams in the 2005-09 time frame. And while Weis’ team often faded in November (10-11 overall, 3-11 in his last 14 games at ND), Kelly, with Longo, fashioned a five-year record in November of 20-4 combined at Cincy and CMU. “I think of myself as a teacher,” Longo said. “Strength and conditioning is the best classroom that there is. I get these guys at a time when you have to be committed to something that’s not going happen until six months from now. “To be able, at the point, to start to develop the habits, the daily routines and make those things part of their DNA that are going to carry over into the season is a crucial thing.” So are the Lou Holtz-like position switches Kelly has come to rely on to fill holes and/or to get more speed or skill on the field. Longo looks at body types and body composition in helping Kelly assess whether, say, an outside linebacker can grow into a defensive end. “If they started as a safety, for instance, as an eighth-grader, they might not be a safety as a 21-year-old,” Longo said. “As the body changes, they grow - that type of thing. We will look for guys who might be able to grow into another position or might be able to lean them up and move them.” New ND running backs coach Tim Hinton, along for the ride with Kelly and Longo the past three seasons at UC, even offered how Longo plays significantly into recruiting. “The idea is to recruit a guy who wants to be an academically sound man, who wants to do it right off the field, who will die for the Irish and play hard for the Irish,” Hinton said. “And you know if he has X amount of talent, I guarantee you coach Longo will make that an X-plus.” Kelly discovered what separates a weight-lifting coach from what he has in Longo very early in his coaching career, when Grand Valley State’s modest budget for salaries necessitated that Kelly himself help significantly in the strength-and-conditioning process. Meanwhile, Longo, once upon a time a wide receiver at Division II Wayne State, funneled himself into the strength-and-conditioning end of things after his attempts to walk through the back door to a spot on an NFL roster continually fell short. “My career ended when they didn’t need a tackling dummy anymore,” he said with a laugh. “But it was great for me being a Division II try-hard guy. That’s really where my roots in strength and conditioning came from. “I had to learn how to lift weights, so I could build by 165-pound frame into 200 pounds and actually be able to hold myself up in there. It was a great experience, because it gave me an opportunity to be able to see some great players, see how some of the best operate on a day-to-day standpoint. You just start logging that stuff as you go through it.” And he kept logging it at every stop along the way, and not always from football players and coaches. One of Longo’s most powerful mentors was legendary Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable when Longo was working for Hawkeyes football coaching icon Hayden Fry. Longo realizes, though, his next puff of publicity is likely to be reduced to something about puke - again - when the grueling Camp Kelly kicks off at a still-to-be-determined date for a still-to-be-determined amount of time. Kelly, himself, admits the once-a-regime event has no transferable football skills involved in it. But it has everything to do with finding out what’s inside of his players. “What I hope to gain from it is teaching the players how to win,” Longo said. “Learning how to win is an acquired skill. You won in high school, and you learned how to win in high school. Now, you’ve got to learn how to win in college. It’s an entirely different animal. “When you’re in Camp Kelly, you’re trying to put those guys in positions and situations where they have to compete - and they have to compete when they’re very uncomfortable and stressed. You learn to win, not only individually, but as a team. The better team is going to be the one that’s better as a whole than the sum of its parts as opposed to who’s got the most talent, any way you cut it.”

The Office

As a member of Tyrone Willingham's staff from 2002-04, Mike Denbrock took part in some planning discussions for Notre Dame's new football facility, the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, which broke ground in May 2004. During the 2004 season, Denbrock can remember walking out the back of the Joyce Center to check out how construction was coming on the facility. Still, he resisted the temptation to get too close. "I never really went through it," Denbrock said Friday, "because I didn't know what our situation was going to be and I didn't want to drive myself crazy thinking about whether I was going to get an office in there or not." He didn't. Denbrock and the rest of the Willingham staff were let go following the 2004 season, and when the Gug opened in 2005, it was the Charlie Weis staff that was the first inhabitants. Denbrock, however, was recently named Notre Dame's tight ends coach. "Here we are five years later," Denbrock said, "and I've got an office."

Setting priorities

Keeping the recruiting class intact that Weis started and Kelly will finish off was a high priority for Kelly, but not the priority. “Certainly we've had to make certain that our recruits understand that we still love them and we still want them here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “But my focus, quite frankly, has been in putting this staff together. If you don't have the right people in place, really it doesn't matter who you recruit.”

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