Matt Balis remembers it well. The year was 1998.
Balis, now the director of football performance at the University of Notre Dame, was a high school strength coach at Wheaton Warrenville South High School in the western suburbs of Chicago.
In those days he was a sponge, two years out of college at Northern Illinois and soaking up every speck of knowledge about the business.
“I saw a flyer for a Notre Dame strength and conditioning clinic,” says Balis.
“When you’re a high school guy and you’re young in the profession all you want to do is learn, pick people’s brains.
“I had heard about Mickey (Marotti, then in his first year as the Notre Dame strength and conditioning coordinator and now in the same role at Ohio State) and what he did and I loved his intensity. I came down here, watched his clinic and watched him speak. I said, ‘Man, that’s what I want to do.’
“I actually came down here a couple of times and sat with him in his office for a couple of hours. He took the time to do that with me.”
Balis still has “selfies” in the Notre Dame Stadium home football locker room from one of those visits.
“It was all that stuff, touching the (Play Like a Champion Today) sign,” he says. “I mean, that’s 20 years ago. It’s kind of incredible.”
Balis can’t pinpoint when college football strength and conditioning coordinators approached rock-star status.
Maybe NCAA rules dictated it, as head coaches realized how much more time the strength staff could be around the players in the offseason compared to the on-field coaches.
Maybe it was the head coaches themselves, understanding that year-round strength programs for their charges had become more important than ever.
Maybe it was the New York Times doing a series of stories over the years on the exalted aspect of those individuals — including one titled “The Rise of the College Football Strength Coach.”
One of those pieces in the Times ran in January 2009 just before Florida and Oklahoma squared off in the Bowl Championship Series title game. The head strength coordinators at those two programs both happened to have Notre Dame pedigrees — Marotti, who was then with Urban Meyer at Florida and later followed him to Ohio State, and Jerry Schmidt, at Oklahoma for many years with Bob Stoops and now at Texas A&M.
It may well have started at Nebraska in the 1970s when Boyd Epley led the Husker Power strength program.
But, these days, Marotti and Schmidt are two of the best-known professionals in their business. And Balis can’t be far behind, given his impact on the Irish the last two seasons.
It takes a village to build an ultra-successful football program. Head coaches are well aware the roles strength coaches can play in ensuring every last player is fit to both last and prosper in the long haul from August to January.
Maybe Balis was fated to arrive in South Bend, given his connections to others with Notre Dame on their resumes:
- Marotti, who Balis eventually worked for at Florida (under Meyer).
- Dan Mullen (the current Florida head coach and a one-time Notre Dame graduate assistant in the Lou Holtz era), who hired Balis when Mullen became head coach at Mississippi State in 2009.
- Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who became friends with Balis during their days together at Virginia (2007-08) and then hired Balis to head the Connecticut strength staff when Diaco became the Huskies’ head coach in 2014.
- Former Irish assistants Charlie Strong, Steve Addazio and Greg Mattison, who were on Meyer’s Florida staff when Balis was in Gainesville.
Then providence stepped in.
With Notre Dame on the lookout for a new strength and conditioning coach after the 2016 season, Diaco asked Balis if he should make a call to Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
The rest is history. Balis calls it “this incredible dream blessing.”
No one had to sell Balis on Notre Dame, given his brief stops in South Bend and connections.
“The history here, the highest level of football and academics and, most importantly, the faith-based part which is huge to be a part of,” he says. “It’s a total package. I knew that for sure.”
When Balis arrived in January 2017, he did not care that the Irish had been a painful 4-8 in 2016 or that he was one part of a major overhaul of the program. He only knew he had a job to do.
He understood from the beginning he and Kelly were on the same page, and today he loves the idea that that synergy has translated into lots of victories. Even if Balis is loathe to accept any particular extra credit.
“The accountability piece is so important to Coach Kelly. To be able to function in this setting requires the players to have complete buy-in in terms of what you’re doing here,” Balis says. “Not just the work, but being on time, being early and working the entire time with a purpose.
“It’s about competing. That word is really important in football. ‘Can you make it like what we’re trying to do on the field?’ That’s what Coach Kelly said to me. He said, ‘I want accountability, I want mental toughness and I want competition.’ It’s those three things along with all the science-based, cutting-edge things that we like to do.”
The Irish players may have responded to Balis because they did not want to be 4-8 again. But Balis didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about that.
“You just do your best every day,” he says. “You don’t really even think about that.
“It was more, ‘This is what we want.’ It was Coach Kelly saying, ‘This is what I want you to focus on. These are the things. Get after it.'”
Balis saw some quick paydays.
“The biggest thing was the players,” he says. “Their immediate buy-in from day one, I could feel that.
“The first day they came in here with the energy and the juice. I knew right away that it was something special. The hardest thing was going to be for me to match their excitement.”
Balis also understood that, like in any other business, you have to show people you care.
“It’s like cultivating a relationship each day,” he says. “It’s caring about your guys more than football. It’s not only about being a great football player. It’s about being a great person and a great man.
“My biggest mentor in life was that for me because I knew he cared about me more than just what I did for him work-wise.”
That individual is Matt Foster, now the head football coach and assistant athletics director for external operations at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Foster was the head high school football coach in Wheaton when Balis was cutting his teeth in the strength business.
“Listen, every head coach is phenomenal in what they do. I think when you get in their hearts and you get the buy-in, that’s when you see they are excited. They wanted to be pushed. We believe in strength and conditioning that you have to push people to get better. You have to challenge not only the bodies but the minds to be able to go when you don’t feel like it.
“There are so many great players here, so many very talented people. A lot of times you can dominate in high school without having to kill it in a weight room. Whereas here, if you want to be elite at this level, now you’re going to have to really step up your game in the weight room.
“When you have that — the great talent plus the great work ethic — it can start to transfer over.”
Balis’ plan involved group efforts, even if the training regimen for the defensive backs was different than the one for the offensive linemen.
“I told him (Kelly), ‘Listen, we have to be able to have team workouts where we see all the players. I have to see the beginning and the end. We need to have team runs. These are all focus points for the guys. The guys need to be coached hard, just like practice. It can’t be different.’
“That was maybe newer for them in terms of a little culture shift. Yes, you’re going to be coached with every rep, every set.”
Balis believes strongly in the team run concept — when all his players see how their teammates are committed.
“It’s basically the whole team at a run together. Maybe it’s outside running around the track — it’s whatever the goal is for the day. It could be agilities, could be drills, could be competitive agility. In the summer it changes to more running-based, then more football-specific as we get closer to the season. It’s a little different by position groups, but they’re all together.
“I’ve always thought the team needs to see one another work. The defensive back has to watch the O-linemen bust their butts. The O-lineman has to know the specialist is working his butt off. That’s a big deal. It’s just being together, working hard together.”
A year ago, the Irish started strong, then dropped two of their last three-regular-season games. Balis just kept doing what he was doing.
“You just continued to focus on what it is Coach (Kelly) wanted,” he says. “This is a process that’s time-tested. Been doing it a long time. Sometimes it takes a few years for it to work.
“You certainly can’t say that just because you lost those two games in year one that it didn’t work.
“It’s very hard. So many things come into play with winning ball games.”
Balis has learned to be a realist.
“I don’t want to overstate what it is that we do. I love what I do and our staff loves it and Coach Kelly loves it, but it’s only one piece. The nutrition piece is huge; the athletic training piece is huge; the academic part is there.
“Certainly Coach Kelly and all the football coaches, they have to all be with you together in pushing the guys. It’s like, yeah, that’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be hard.
“When the head coach and his vision and his love of what strength and conditioning is is the same as yours, that’s when it’s very powerful. That’s what we have.
“I could train myself until I’m blue in the face. But I’m not going to go out there and make plays. You need talent, right? You get the right kind of guys here, and then they embrace the training program. What we try to do is keep the guys on the field, playing at the highest level as long as possible.
“The off-season in here is very challenging. The reason is you want them to develop a base that’s so strong that you’re able to take it with you later on. We make our bread and butter from January to August.
“And the other thing that is so huge is the mind. As seasons go, let’s say you lose a few games in the beginning. You might not have that same gusto inside of you, right?”
Balis likes the idea that, after almost two full seasons in South Bend, a standard has been set.
“We set goals for the guys based on where they were in the past,” he says. “We want to continue to keep the standard. Coach Kelly always talks about how you have to play up to your standards.”
And in his own way of doing things, Balis already is looking forward to 2019.
“From a training standpoint, it’ll be year three so we can say we have to train up to our standards. It’ll be up to our older guys, the juniors and seniors and this will be their third off-season, to say, ‘This is the standard, right? It’s not a question of, ‘What do we got?’ This is what we do, and the results will take care of themselves.'”
When Kelly set out three goals for his 2018 team, one of those was about winning in November. That wasn’t lost on Balis.
“To win in November for us in the weight room, in the strength world, we had to finish the summer program hard,” Balis says. “How we finished the summer program was how we were going to finish the season. If we limp out of the summer program we’re going to limp out of the season. That’s kind of this mindset deal.
“If you’re doing your job with strength and conditioning, you tie in the mental piece as well as far as how it relates. Some guys will be, ‘Yeah, whatever. We’re running and lifting weights. What does that matter? Football is about execution.’ Which it is. But everything is a habit, and you always revert back to your training. If you know how to finish strong in this arena, then we can certainly take that and transfer that over.”
It’s hard to put into words what the atmosphere was like in the cramped Los Angeles Coliseum visiting locker room where the Irish gathered on that November Saturday to celebrate finishing 12-0 after defeating rival USC in the regular-season finale.
With Kelly backed into a corner and unable to see all his players he offered his congratulations and then, like after every other victory, he presented a game ball.
This one went to Balis.
He accepted the recognition in his typical raspy, hoarse voice — and then the players lifted him in the air, nearly to the ceiling.
No one had to explain the significance of Kelly’s choice that night.
“There were some tears,” Balis says now. “I mean, incredible. Humbling. I really wanted to put it back on the players. It’s just like I’m telling you, it’s all of our staff. It’s not just me — but Coach was very kind to me and it really gave me a great feeling inside because it’s the highest level. There is nothing better for me in my world and being a part of this.
“It’s your guys that you watched work so hard and have so much fun. I mean, these players have bought into everything we’ve asked and have worked very, very, very hard. They’ve earned everything that’s happening. That’s why it felt so good.”
Balis’ presence with the Irish the last two seasons came as part of a larger plan — yet it has paid tangible dividends:
- Says Irish wide receiver Miles Boykin, “Coach Balis’ workouts are obviously tough, but there’s a method behind the madness.”
- Adds cornerback Julian Love, “I don’t know if he was at home Googling stuff to see what he could throw at us, trying to see what the Marines do?”
- Says captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill, “I’ll never forget him giving that first speech in that intense, raspy voice. All the guys were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is crazy.’ But never once in my two years with him have I questioned Coach Balis’ love for me. I think you see that in the way every single guy has gotten better from him being here. ”
In a matter of weeks, the 2018 season, however it ends, will be in the rear-view mirror. And Balis will be on to the next challenge.
“You have to,” he says. “I’m huge into planning, I always have been. You never can be too far away from what’s coming. We’re always thinking that way.
“Every time you start in January, you start over. This January I will go through all the same things.
“Coach (Kelly) is going to want me to do the same PowerPoint, go over all our rules.”
Both Kelly and Balis find comfort in that, knowing the Irish strength program exists in a great place.
And, somewhere in the distance, that raspy voice begins to echo all over again.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.