How strength coaches are taking over college basketball

Much of Cincinnati's success on the court comes from what happens away from the court in the weight room. Courtesy of Mike Rehfeldt

When his team gathered last week for summer workouts, Notre Dame star Bonzie Colson watched freshman D.J. Harvey and Connecticut transfer Juwan Durham saunter around campus with the same limp he remembered from his first season.

But the soreness that followed Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski's workouts and instruction proved worthwhile. Colson, the doughy forward who arrived with more than 20 percent body fat his freshman season, will enter his senior season as a 6-foot-5, 225-pound preseason All-American.

"He's been everything," Colson said of Rolinski in a conversation with ESPN.com. "He's one of the realest. He's done everything to help me shape my body."

The growing significance of Rolinski and his peers in college basketball demonstrates the philosophical shift within the game that has made strength coaches pivotal assistants, not the stereotypical meatheads who just scream at players while they throw weights around a few days per week.

"Each athlete is different," Rolinski said. "You want to get to know them. I want to climb inside their soul and figure them out. They all have different attributes, and everybody's got different needs. ... I have their best interests in mind. I know they're not coming here on a weightlifting scholarship. They're coming here to play basketball, so let's look, and let's identify your weakness and teach you how to turn it into a strength."

A past generation of basketball players resisted strength training.

"If you look at the players that played in yesteryear, no one ever touched a weight," NBA legend Jerry West told NBA.com in 2008.

But Michael Jordan's renowned strength training regimen in the 1980s and 1990s, encouraged by the clotheslines and elbows he caught from the brutish Detroit Pistons, challenged old-school ideas about the value of the weight room. Years later, LeBron James, equipped with the frame of an all-pro tight end, arrived and has won multiple MVPs and championships in the NBA.

As young players tried to emulate James and embrace the weight room, nutrition guidelines and other tools to pack muscle onto their frames, college basketball programs began to chase the top strength coaches in the country -- a pursuit championed for decades by ambitious college football powerhouses.

Per USA Today, 41 college football strength coaches made more than $200,000 per year last season. Two years ago, Rob Harris, Kentucky basketball's strength coach, made just under $100,000, per a Lexington Herald-Leader database from 2015.

The money for strength coaches in college basketball does not come close to matching the cash flowing into the bank accounts of their college football counterparts, but their importance is expanding.

Indiana's Archie Miller called new strength coach Clif Marshall "a difference-maker" in a recent statement announcing the hiring of the notable NFL trainer whose client list includes Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.

"They're every bit as important as the college football strength coaches because we're always sensitive to who is the guy in the weight room with our guys," Notre Dame's Mike Brey said. "It can be quite a little bidding war."

In 2012, the NCAA adopted legislation that allows college basketball coaches to spend two hours per week with their players on the court and another six hours with players off the court, a stretch most programs use for strength and conditioning work during the summer.

"In basketball, it has really evolved," Jay Wright said. "It used to be you can't lift weights because it's going to hurt your shot to now, it's nutrition, flexibility, sleep and nutrition. ... It's not just gains in strength."

Last year, Richard Pitino led Minnesota to a 24-win season and the school's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2013. He credits the additions to the team -- players such as freshman standout Amir Coffey and transfer Reggie Lynch -- for the 16-win improvement over the previous season. But he also calls strength coach Shaun Brown, a key asset in Minnesota's physical development, his most important assistant.

"My strength coach is maybe the most important person in the program," Pitino said. "I tell recruits this a lot: If there's two people beside yourself who are going to be the most important people in your lives that you see today, it will be me and the strength coach. He's not just a strength coach. He does a little bit of everything."

For many schools, it's an expansive role that encompasses strength training, nutrition, injury prevention, recovery and the development of relationships with players. Villanova strength coach John Shackleton helped national title game hero Kris Jenkins and his flabby frame -- he played center in high school -- into a sleek, 6-foot-6, 235-pound athlete who played on the perimeter during his senior season.

This season, Wright wants Shackleton to do the same work with Omari Spellman, a promising big man. That's a challenge that begins with educating the redshirt freshman.

"In the summer time, I'm spending probably the most time with these guys," Shackleton said. "Obviously, we're in the weight room -- that's a big part of it. Outside of the weight room, I'm meeting with guys for food, nutrition, teaching them about nutrition. I take them out to different restaurants around the area. We sit down and talk about the nutrition."

When Kyle Washington transferred to Cincinnati in 2015, he weighed 218 pounds. After conversations with Cincinnati strength coach Mike Rehfeldt, Washington realized that he had to eat better to develop an elite body and battle others at his position.

Last season, the 6-foot-9 power forward weighed 235 pounds and averaged 12.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 1.2 BPG. He's in the weight room in the morning and evening. And in those hours, he has bonded with Rehfeldt.

"He does exercises that translate to the court," Washington said. "He knows everybody's bodies. He's our nutritionist. Sometimes, he's our therapist. He does everything."

And even more when the team hits the road.

"I travel," Rehfeldt said. "I'm at the hotel. I'm the 'bed-check' guy. I'm the 'wake-the-guy-up-for-breakfast' guy. I wear a lot of hats."

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said strength coaches feed off their relationships with head coaches. He said he trusts Rehfeldt and tells his players to treat sessions with Rehfeldt the same way they treat sessions on the court with other coaches.

"The key is you've got to empower him," Cronin said.

Sometimes Colson, Notre Dame's star, texts Rolinski, the school's longtime strength coach, with pictures of his meals and asks for tips and instructions to help him stay lean. He trusts Rolinski, who helped him develop his body and evolve into one of the sport's stars.

When Rolinski tells Colson and his teammates to skip a workout and recover, they listen. On Thursdays, Notre Dame does yoga. It's a holistic process that has changed Colson's career.

Even after three years -- and counting -- with Rolinski, however, Colson said he is still learning.

"I love cheese," Colson said. "I'm trying not to eat as much cheese. Now it's more protein, more sleep, drinking more water. It takes time to develop your body."