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June 24, 2014

Veteran strength coach readying WVU football team

MORGANTOWN — It’s been a long road, Mike Joseph now admits, from the day he left Fairmont State University, a three-time captain of the football team, to get into this growing field of strength and conditioning coaching.

A full two decades have passed since he first played for the Falcons and 18 years since he was named the WVIAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, but he understands now that he took the right career path, recently being presented with the certification of Master Strength and Conditioning Coach (MSCC), a designation held currently by only 135 individuals.

It is the highest honor that can be achieved in the coaching profession of strength and conditioning, representing professionalism, knowledge, experience, expertise, as well as longevity in the field.

“I’ve come a long way from being a meathead, just training guys, making them lift, making them run,” he said, quite modestly.

Indeed. Today he serves as director of WVU football and has seen the profession go through tremendous changes.

“There’s definitely a science behind it,” he said on Tuesday morning following a meeting with his staff in the recently redesigned Mountaineer weight room.

Interestingly, the strength coach and staff are probably the least known, least understood members of any major program’s coaching staff, yet their role is crucial in nearly every aspect of the game other than the X’s and O’s themselves, being responsible for speed and strength and mental toughness, as well as durability while on the field and rehabilitation when off it.

“Football is X’s and O’s and it always is going to be, but our goal is to make sure every athlete is healthy. Until last year, every year since I’ve been here we decreased injuries,” Joseph said. “Football is a violent sport. You are going to have injuries. You are going to have limitations, but if we can get the majority of our starters staying on the field the whole season along with the majority of our backups then we’ll have a better chance to win.”

Joseph will tell you the profession “needs more respect, needs more emphasis in terms of how much time you put in with the kids while training.”

Earning the master’s certification was, in words, “a great honor”, but “my goal is to get West Virginia back to where it should be in terms of national prominence and winning championships.”

Joseph and his staff’s goal, of course, is to put his players at the top of their performance within the rules and that’s not always easy.

“It always was a major issue with high school athletes. High school athletes do a lot of supplements,” Joseph noted. “It’s not regulated like it is in college.”

And high school athletes become college athletes and they really are babes in the woods.

“A lot of guys come in who don’t understand nutrition, don’t understand how to train, don’t understand what it takes to get to where you want to be. Part of it is major education for them, showing them this is how you train. You will mature, you will progress and develop and become faster, stronger, leaner muscle mass and all that,” he said.

“It’s a big transition,” Joseph continued. “You have some high school programs that are pretty good. Some coaches are good mentors, good teachers in terms of teaching kids how to train properly. Our older guys know where they stand, but there’s always a transition. You don’t know how great the transition will be until they come in August and the bullets start flying, be it in scrimmages or the first game.”

A year ago, for example, WVU found itself in a difficult situation because it lacked depth and had to play a lot of players they would have preferred redshirting, giving them time to learn the lessons Joseph and his staff teach and giving them time to grow and mature.

“Last year we didn’t have a lot of depth, so we had a lot of young guys who maybe shouldn’t have been on the field playing, guys who maybe should have been redshirted, maybe should have been going through more of a developmental year,” Joseph explained.

But what’s a weakness one season may become a blessing the next.

“Because of that, though, this year we are in a better place physically, mentally and as a team. This year we will continue to get guys on the field and depth will be a lot better. As the year goes on, you won’t see guys out because of wear and tear on the body.

“The goal for us is to make guys strong, fast, not only well conditioned. In not one game last year were we out-conditioned, out-played physically. Mentally, sometimes yes, but that goes back to having young guys and not finishing.

“Our motto this year is to make sure we finish,” Joseph continued. “Everyone understands in the program that last year we left some things on the table, games we got out-finished in that we could have won.

“We have to be a major part of developing confidence in the kids, helping them show maturity on the field and off the field and help them with mental discipline so when they are tired they can finish.”

The lack of experience was not just from an excessive number of freshmen used, but also junior college players who often come from programs without the same kind of strength and conditioning resources as major colleges have, leaving them almost like freshmen as they enter, yet carrying a certain cockiness that comes with two years of success in college football.

“There’s a reason they went JUCO, whether it was academic or they had issues. Junior college players they feel they are older so they may not be so humble. They usually take a year, mentally or physically,” Joseph said, noting the possibility for exceptions.

“Some guys come in like Bruce Irvin and find a role faster,” he said.

But some, like last year’s trio of Dontrill Hyman, Mario Alford and Kevin White did not reach the heights anticipated when they signed on.

“This year, I argue Dontrill Hyman, Mario Alford, Kevin White all are in a better place,” Joseph said. “Once they understand the system, understand the discipline, understand the schemes and know how to work and that they are being pushed for a reason they are a lot better.”

“Last year mentally we struggled. We had young guys who shouldn’t have stepped on the field. Is that an excuse? Yes. Should we still have won games? Yes, but at the same time, that’s why this year there are no more excuses.

“We’re older. We’re more veteran. When we step on the field, we should be better. We should be physically better. We should be more mentally developed.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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