"Rest When You Get Old, Sleep When You Die"
by Jeff Holland, TSL Extra #13
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The title of this article is just one of the quotes that appears on the back of a Virginia Tech football player T-shirt. There are others, such as: "Sweat Blood" or "The Hotter the Fire, The Harder the Steel" or "Speed Kills, Strength Punishes." These mottos give a good indication of what the Virginia Tech strength and conditioning program is all about. And the man behind it all, Mike Gentry, is without a doubt the best strength coach in America. After reading this article, you will know why…
"Since 1987, our strength and conditioning program has developed a tradition. We have a team dedicated to training hard and striving for excellence. The younger student-athletes see the upperclassmen’s intensity and it makes everyone want to train to be one’s best. Our strength and conditioning program is designed to help our student-athletes build overall strength, power and stamina, while helping them develop self-discipline and realize their potential as athletes. We have a comprehensive program utilizing strength/power training, plyometrics, functional conditioning and flexibility training. Our goal is to become one of the most physical teams in the nation."
Coach Gentry oversees the strength and conditioning training of athletes in 21 varsity sports. He is directly involved with the training of football and women’s basketball and manages programs of nutrition. He received his bachelor’s degree in physical education from Western Carolina in 1979 and received his master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1981. He also received his doctorate’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on motor behavior in 1999. He was the assistance strength coach at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1980-1982 and then he was the strength and conditioning coach at ECU 1982-1987. Then in 1987 he became the strength and conditioning coach at Virginia Tech…
The Beginning at Virginia Tech
In 1987, Virginia Tech’s strength and conditioning program consisted of Coach Gentry and graduate assistant Jack Richmond. The focus of the program was just football. "The weight room was basically for football. The equipment was adequate but dated. I really had to come in and establish the program," Gentry said. The Iron Hokie program was something Gentry put in place to give the players personal goals to aim for in the four lifts: bench press, squat, hang clean, and push press.
Gentry had some specific goals in mind with this program. First, he had to convince the athletes to trust him and his staff enough to put their heart and soul in the program. Next, he had to build a base of strength with the younger athletes and as they progress, the training gets sports-specific. The coaches then try to instill work ethic and discipline so they won’t miss workouts. "When an athlete better understands the strength and conditioning program means results on the field," Gentry said, "they are more apt to want to train." Gentry’s goal for the strength and conditioning program was to have a total program including four parts of: strength and power; flexibility; speed development; and conditioning.
"Our goal is to become one of the most physical teams in the nation." Proof of Virginia Tech’s improvement in strength and conditioning over the past 14 years can be seen in the following:
Accolades and Accomplishments
These are just a few of the accolades and accomplishments of Coach Gentry:
The Merryman Center
When it came time to design the Merryman Center to fit the football program’s needs, former Virginia Tech Athletic Director Dave Braine allowed Coach Gentry to have input on the design of the weight room so that it would fit his needs. "I was fortunate enough to design it, so if I don’t like it. I don’t have anyone to blame but myself," Gentry jokingly stated. Including the existing weight room and the new speed/agility room, Virginia Tech has 22,000 square feet of space for getting bigger, faster and stronger.
The new weight room has state-of-the-art equipment, including 12 self-contained power-lifting areas, 8 Olympic benches, 25 hammer machines, 2 sets of dumbbells (5-150 lbs) and 1 set of dumbbells (150-200 lbs), along with other equipment designed to improve strength and enhance performance.
The speed/agility room makes this weight room unique. Players use this 6000 square foot room to enhance speed and explosion. "I think that’s one of the unique things about it (the Merryman Center). We can do so many things in that room to improve agility and speed development. We’ll use that more in the offseason. But a lot of schools don’t have this luxury."
The Nebraska Influence
In the spring of 1996, Dave Braine and Mike Gentry visited Nebraska to look at their athletic program. Braine looked at the administration portion of Nebraska’s athletic department, and Gentry examined the athletic performance portion, which includes weight training and nutrition.
"I think Nebraska does more with developing athletes than anyone else now. Obviously, they recruit good athletes. They win national championships in a lot of sports. But they’re in a remote part of the country, and a lot of their players are from the state. They’ve taken those players and developed them."
Weight Lifting: Gentry has combined some of Nebraska’s weight training methods with his own to make Virginia Tech bigger, faster and stronger. At Nebraska , their staff believed that the things which correlate to the most success on the field are the 10 yd sprint, the 20 yd shuttle run, the vertical jump and the 40 time.
Nutrition: When Amy Freel was hired as coordinator of student life in 1999, she wanted to offer her knowledge in the field of nutrition. Gentry jumped at the chance. She is Virginia Tech’s first sports nutritionist. It’s her experience as a dietician that’s paying off for Virginia Tech. She is continuing to educate coaches and athletes about nutrition, diets, losing fat, gaining lean muscle mass and eating to improve performance.
Eventually, she wants to get involved with Virginia Tech’s "Nutrition Oasis" – a supplementation station for Olympic sports athletes where they can get pre-practice and post-practice energy drinks (the same ones used at Nebraska), pregame/postgame meal planning, grocery shopping tours for athletes, and a recipe book for athletes.
Also, Gentry introduced the concept of the "The Training Edge", a cafeteria line at Dietrick Dining Hall designed for health conscious individuals, which he got from Nebraska and seeing what they do with nutrition.
Sports Psychology: Another area Gentry thought could be improved was the need for a sports psychologist, someone besides coaches for student-athletes to talk to and to help them deal with problems both on and off the court or field. "I’ve always felt that was an important element. And some of our coaches had sought some help in the past. We just needed the resources. We want to be a holistic model of an athletics department and we wanted to – and needed to – include sports psychology in that model."
Gentry, along with Dr. Bob Miller (associate director of the Thomas E. Cook Counseling Center located at McComas Hall) and Dr. Gary Bennett (licensed psychologist at the Cook Counseling Center), Jim Weaver (who graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in college counselor education) and Dr. Brenna Chirby, helped get everything in place to start doing the job of sports psychology.
Next was getting the athletes to come see the sports psychologist. After his knee surgery, current Virginia Tech cornerback Larry Austin went to Dr. Chirby before and after the surgery. So far the word of mouth has gotten around, and the number of athletes meeting with the sports psychologists have increased greatly.
"It’s a great resource for our coaches and our athletes. It’s a great tool and that’s why we want to continue to develop it and make it better. We’ve improved a lot in areas of strength and conditioning, nutrition and in sports psychology, and in other areas as well," Gentry said. "It’s all about becoming a well-rounded athletic program and helping student-athletes. We want to give them all the resources we can put them in position to be successful.
"We’re trying to model our program after Nebraska’s, because they were one of the first to realize the importance of nutrition and sports psychology. I want to continue to direct the strength and conditioning program, but we also want to gradually develop these other areas. We want to do it right."
It’s no secret that Virginia Tech has one of the best walk-on programs in the country. The secret of their success is simple – they get Gentrified. For example:
John Engelberger: "He’s just an incredible strength athlete. He ran a 4.55 40, and that, to me, might be the most impressive number I’ve seen. That’s more impressive than a player who weighs around 200 running a 4.3. You expect those players to do it, so its not much of a surprise, but John’s time was exceptional, " Gentry said. "John Engelberger is the poster boy for our strength and conditioning program. When he came here as a freshman John weighed 210 lbs and ran a 4.75 Now (1999) he weighs 269 and ran a 4.55 and became the 1st person in school history to push jerk over 400 lbs."
Michael Stuewe: "Gentry deserves a lot of credit. He treats everyone the same, regardless if you’re a walk-on or on scholarship. Everyone does the same lifts and he’ll try to motivate you the same as anyone else. Nobody gets a chance to relax with Coach Gentry around." (Note: Stuewe added 23 lbs of muscle and decreased his 40 time from 4.81 to 4.42.)
Danny Wheel: "The real influence on me that made me stand out from the rest of the players was Gentry. He really pushed the weights on me, telling me that to stand out in front of the coaches, I had to work hard in the weight room, so I did that. When you lift weights in the weight room, it translates on the field because you notice you feel stronger than other people." (Note: Wheel earned Super Iron Hokie status five times, and his 40 time decreased from 4.93 to 4.68.)
Kerwin Hairston: "Coach Gentry. Four years of being with him will put weight on anyone." (Note: Hairston went from 231 to 270 lbs and his bench press increased from 235 lbs to 340 lbs.)
Jarrett Ferguson: In August 2001, he benched 390 lbs, squatted 605 lbs, power cleaned 351 lbs, push jerked 361 lbs, had a 38.5" vertical jump, and earned his 3rd Elite Athlete Award aka "The Excalibur Award".
Quotes from Coach Gentry
Quotes from Others
Unique Experiences with Mike Gentry
When I was a freshman in 1991, I wasn’t on the dress squad. Therefore, when the dress squad traveled on Fridays for away games, the other players had to lift. Coach Gentry would give you the option of lifting at 6:00 am or coming in the afternoon. Since Coach Gentry traveled with the team, an assistant strength coach would monitor the weight room.
One Friday morning during the 1991 season, J.C. Price and I lifted at 6 am. We "finished" our workout in about 20-30 minutes. (Note: It is impossible to finish a Gentry workout in 20-30 minutes). The following Monday, Coach Gentry heard about our quick workout and called J.C. and I into his office. To sum it up, he chewed our butts off and warned us that he would run us out the program if we ever did anything like that again. I can laugh about it now, but back then we were "punk freshman" and didn’t know any better. Needless to say, JC and I never slacked off in the weight room – ever!
There has always been a rumor/running joke that Coach Gentry could control the weather and make it hot and humid anytime he wanted. During the summer, Blacksburg doesn’t really get that hot and humid. However, one summer we were about to do some running drills on the practice field. It was an overcast day and it looked like it was about to rain. Many of the players thought the running would be cancelled or perhaps moved inside to the Rector Field House. No way! Minutes before we started the sun came out, and it started getting very hot and muggy. Coincidence? I think not…
Two interesting stories from former Virginia Tech football player, Kirk Gray:
Virginia Tech vs. Maryland – September 1, 1990 (VT 13, MD 20)
"Coach Gentry and the strength coach from Maryland were not real friendly, and he made the team aware of this during preseason workouts. They crossed paths somewhere earlier in their careers and it wasn’t pretty.
"During much of the game, they spent a fair amount of time standing across from each other with their arms folded staring each other down. I was actually standing next to Coach Gentry when all of this happened. It was late 2nd quarter or early 3rd quarter, when former Virginia Tech player Bo Campbell returned a punt and ran towards our sideline. He came out of bounds a few yards past where we were standing.
"One of the Maryland players (‘a big rangy fella’) didn’t tackle Bo Campbell, but he ran right into Coach Gentry. It was obvious this guy was looking for Coach Gentry. The Maryland player lowered his shoulder at full speed and crashed into Coach Gentry. He went flying back under the player bench which landed on top of him, as well as the Gatorade table and coolers. Players ran to help Coach Gentry up because it looked like he got blasted. Coach being Coach, he just jumped back up and violently shrugged off all attempts of assistance. He dried himself off and returned to his position on the sideline.
"Since I was standing very close to him it looked very intentional, but from the outside looking in it probably looked quite harmless. After everyone calmed down and the concern about Coach Gentry’s welfare had passed, he leaned over to me, looked straight ahead and said, ‘that would have killed a lesser man.’ No smile, no giggle, no nothing. At the time, his attitude about the whole thing…his reaction…made me believe he really was "Iron Mike". He just didn’t preach it to us. He lived it too. Show no weakness, no chink in the armor.
"For a long time he had 'VT FE' on his license plate. I was thinking, ‘what does that mean?’ Obviously, ‘VT’ is for Virginia Tech. Well, ‘FE’ is the symbol for iron. Virginia Tech Iron is how he identified himself!
"Years later when I was working with Coach Gentry and this story came up, I asked him if he thought his counterpart at Maryland had set up the hit. Coach Gentry said yes. He felt like it was intentional. I asked Coach Gentry if it hurt. ‘I don’t ever remember feeling any pain.’ was the response I got."
West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech – October 6, 1990 (VT 26, WVU 21)
"We played West Virginia, which was ranked in the top 25. In 1990, we had a chance to be very good, but just couldn’t get over the hump. The preseason practices as well as the summer preparation (running, lifting, etc.) was extremely tough and a lot of the players went through it.
"A few minutes before we run out of the tunnel, we are in our usual meeting room in Jamerson Athletic Center. The atmosphere of the room is usually pretty quiet. Some players talk and motivate other players, most players sit quietly. Coach Beamer usually comes in and says a few words. After Coach Beamer was finished, he asked if anyone else had anything to say. Coach Gentry stood up and asked if all of the coaches could step outside because he wanted to talk to the team.
"Once they left, Coach Gentry started to pace back and forth at the front of the room with his head down. I could tell he was building up inside, but his voice never changed. He must have known that our team had a chance to be good (Note: the 1990 team finished 6-5), and this game may be the one that turns it for us. He kept talking about how hard we worked all summer and that they (WVU) were not working as hard as we did.
"Coach Gentry also said that when he was watching them in warm-ups, he noticed that they were fat, sloppy, and were breathing heavy and sweating already. Coach Gentry’s voice began to build with adrenaline ever so slightly. As he continued talking, the room began to get heavy with anticipation and just at the right moment, Coach Gentry picked up one of the folding chairs and threw it against the blackboard and started screaming that we should get out there and kick their asses. The room exploded, and everyone ran out of the room to the tunnel. Needless to say, we beat their ass!"
In the summer of 1995, Coach Gentry and Jimmy Whitten started the Iron Man Competition. They got the idea from ESPN and the magazine Milo – it had some great ideas about doing the event. In fact, Jimmy Whitten, who is the ECU strength coach now, does the Iron Man Competition at ECU. "It (the Iron Man competition) gives the players a chance to compete and break the routine of training – whether they look forward to do it or dread it," Gentry stated.
I had the honor and (dis)pleasure of competing in the very first Iron Man Competition. Back then, we did the back squat, stadium run, keg toss, sled pull, car push, and tire toss. It was actually fun for the most part because it did break the monotony of summer lifting and running.
However, the worst event for me was the car push. Pushing a car 60 or 70 yards was excruciatingly painful afterwards. I could not stand up for 15-20 minutes after the event because my legs felt like jello. I’m not kidding. I tried to stand up, but I would just fall back down. I remember T.J. Washington did the car push right after me and he couldn’t walk either.
Wednesday Morning Running
I just thought I’d mention this. If you got caught skipping a class or didn’t fulfill your required study hall hours, Coach Beamer would make you do Wednesday Morning Running with Coach Gentry. Sometimes at our team meetings, Coach Beamer would jokingly say that Coach Gentry doesn’t like to do Wednesday Morning Running, but he wasn’t kidding. He hated to do it. Put it this way, I never had to do Wednesday Morning Running.
In my opinion, Mike Gentry is the best strength and conditioning coach in America. Like many players have said before, he made me the player I was. Without him, I know I wouldn’t have made it in Division I football. He is absolutely the best motivator I have ever met. Year after year, other teams (college and professional) try to steal him away from Virginia Tech. But year after year, he stays with Virginia Tech.
Once you give 100% effort in the weight room 100% of the time and earn his respect, he becomes more than a strength coach. He becomes your mentor and friend. J.C. Price and I kinda learned the hard way. And occasionally, he will joke around with you…if you’re lucky.
I would like to point out that some of the stories you have read about Coach Gentry should not be misinterpreted. I actually left out a few stories about Coach Gentry that only former athletes (primarily football players) who actually got to interact with Coach Gentry would understand and appreciate. But, the stories I did write about should give anyone a good idea of what the Virginia Tech strength and conditioning program is all about…
"Speed Kills, Strength Punishes."
Jeff Holland was a defensive tackle for the Hokie
football team from 1991-1995. He played a key role in the rise of the Virginia Tech defense and on the Hokie
bowl teams from 1993-1995. Jeff graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.A. in Urban Affairs and Planning and a Masters
in Urban and Regional Planning. He is currently the Town Planner in Smithfield, VA.