Strength of Team Lies with Joe Kenn

ASU's weight room, the jewel crown of the newly renovated ICA building, is located in the basement and so is Joe Kenn's office. Quite an irony for a facility considered the best in the nation, and for the award winning coach who helped design it. Professionalism and tireless motivation are the staples of his personality, which not only helped the team dramatically improve their physical conditioning since his arrival, but also had him recognized for his excellence by his peers.

ASU's Head Football Strength and Conditioning coach recently won the 2002 National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for the College Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year award. Kenn is full of humility when he talks about the honor. "The award has little to do with me, and more with the products on the field, which are the players." He says. "I've been blessed because the athletes that I coached and the coaches who believed in what I was doing, put me in that position. My two assistants, Cheyenne and Mark, are awesome. You're not gonna find two better strength coaches than those guys. They're young and motivated. The only down side having such good guys like that is that you'll lose them for a head job one day (smile)…If my award helps recruit players, than that's just great for the team." Kenn, who was nominated by his peers three times before winning the award, was a little skeptical when the announcement of his triumph came. "Last year I lost by one vote. The guy who won sent out flyers asking folks to vote for him, but that's not my style. So this year I was kinda pessimistic. I thought that if I don't win this year, I would never win it. I get a call at 7AM while I'm sleeping, and I'm thinking that the convention where the awards are given out is just starting. My buddy on the line tells me I won it, and I told him that this is nothing to be joking about! (smile). Then he called me at 10:30AM saying that he's holding my plaque…I'm like everyone out there, you think it would be nice to win, but once you do win it really hits you that you accomplished something big."

Kenn was also awarded the NSCA certification Committee Bronze Award in 1999. Another impressive accomplishment for Joe Kenn is being involved in the weight room designs a structure that is featured in Sports Illustrated College Football preview as the best in the country. Even though most of ASU's ICA improvements took place prior to the arrival of coach Koetter and his staff, fortunately for Kenn the weight room construction hasn't started yet. "When we knew that we're gonna have some input in the weight room design, our main objective was to have a facility that can house the entire team at one time. This layout is the wave of the future, and you'll see more and more teams go to this format …Even though I'm the strength coach for Football, I had to look out for all the athletes when I decided which equipment we needed. I was given the green light to purchase whatever we need to make this the best weight room, and luckily the winning bid out there offered exactly that. If you look at this weight room and don't go wow! Then you just don't understand college athletics."

When we asked the Head Football Strength and Conditioning coach why this weight room, from a pure professional perspective, is a superior one, he replied: "The weight room is functional, and that's something that can and should transfer to the field. That's a high objective for a football coach. We have one station where we do 90% of our exercises, so we decreased our dead time in this weight room…Football is game of multiple repetitions with little rest. Most of the time you'll go five plays in a row with only 35 seconds of rest in between. So, that's how we have to train the players in the weight room…We have the best variety of machines, and they're all state of the art." While the best equipment can't prevent bumps and bruises, it can help with the healing. "I can prepare players as much as I can so they won't get injured, but you can never totally avoid it, especially in Football. But if you injure your right arm, you still have your left arm, two legs, and a torso you can train. If you don't have the machines and the exercises to train an injured athlete, then you're putting them and their team at a disadvantage. Certain exercises can not only maintain or improve the healthy body parts, but also help accelerate the recovery of the injured body part…You also have to keep the athlete in shape. Years ago if an athlete got injured; you wouldn't see him until he healed. Now injured guys are working out the healthy parts of the body when they're injured. So, with all our resources we can help our athletes to be the best conditioned in the country."

The fact that the weight room can simultaneously accommodate the entire squad, is an attribute that can never be underestimated in Kenn's mind. "I'm a big believer in peer micro-management. As a coach I can tell a player that he's not doing well, and he can think it's no big deal because that's what I'm suppose to say. But if your teammate starts laying into you for not doing well, that carries a whole different effect…Instead of having a couple of guys around a player pushing him, now you have 10-15 guys doing the same thing. That arousal effect can easily cause you to exceed your lifting goal and it has nothing to do with your strength. It's just somebody getting in your face, and you responding to it. If you lift well under these conditions, you'll play well in a stadium with 70,000 fans."

Naturally, having one of the elite facilities in all of college athletics produces the burden of expectations. Coach Kenn wouldn't have it any other way. "You have a facility like this you can't make excuses. But I'm not one that makes excuses, and I always look for improvement from last year. If 100 out of 105 guys do well in the program, then you can't say it's the program that failed those five guys. If it's the other way around, then you better look in the mirror. My motivation is that I want to help and win coach (Koetter) a national championship. He's the real deal. The kids deserve it too. You watch our practices; you see how hard we work. Winning will help a lot, and we want it faster than anybody out there."

Winning was hard to come in 2001. However, Kenn saw encouraging signs from last season that the team can build on. "The two biggest differences from last year is that one, we're a much better unit - guys really care about each other. Second, our work ethic is much better. Before we got here the team wasn't well conditioned. We literally started from ground zero. Now with the year-round training, we're in some respects even better than I thought we would be at this time. That's thanks to the kids who work their tail off. We're stronger, more explosive; our speed is much better too. If a guy can improve two tenths of his 40 time during his four or five years in college, that's an above average accomplishment. We have seven guys on the team improve over two and half tenths of a second. This is because they got into better shape and trained hard. I love our guys - they work hard, and I hope that they can bring it over to the Football field so we can get some more wins. Our guys had to learn a lot more exercises. They're educated, and they know what our objectives are. They're more disciplined in their approach, and understand what our system is, and they work with it. They know that if you want to win, you have to follow the system."

Just as the sport of Football has evolved over time, so have the methods used in weight and conditioning programs. Kenn explains: "We're in different times, with different athletes and different attitudes. The days of jumping through fences are over. I'm sure that coach Kush did that, and if I was playing for him back then I wouldn't have a problem doing it myself. Now some athletes question why they need to do something. On the other hand, times have changed in the sense that now you lift weights year round. If you don't, you get behind the eight ball real fast." Cyberspace is a tool that aids Kenn quite a bit in his work. "The Internet is great for stats and research, and I use it a lot. A lot of the stuff we do is practical, but there's also some science in regards to the technique… I'm on the computer a lot designing all kinds of spreadsheets and reading up on articles."

Joe Kenn may have only known coach Koetter for less than a handful of years, but that doesn't diminish the high esteem he has for the Sun Devils Football coach. "I was at Boise State for seven and half years before coach Koetter was hired (Kenn has a master's in Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from that university). I coached with him for a year and half. I was there when he interviewed, and you could just tell that he was dialed in and he would succeed at Boise State…When I left for Utah, it was just mater of my time winding down in Boise, and his time just getting started. It was extremely tough for me to leave. Our personalities just clicked from day one. We both understood what the other one was doing, and we never had to justify our actions to each other - we're always the same page."

The strong bond between both individuals prompted the ASU head Football coach to ask Kenn to join him at ASU. The timing was great from all perspectives. "I always wanted the opportunity to coach again for him. I came aboard a few weeks after he got hired here, and I was happy that it was in January. That's the ideal month for strength and conditioning coach to get hired. I was hired at Utah in the summer, and say what you want to say - summer is voluntary when it comes to working out…We coach according to the environment, and the summer is very different than the fall or spring. The priority of conditioning is much different in the off-season when you compare it to the actual season. You can't ride a guy hard during conditioning drills or weight training, when he's in Football practice every day. You just have to pick your spots."

Kenn who played Football at Wake Forrest (where he earned a bachelor's degree in Health and Sport Science) knows all about the traditional Football workout regimen. He believes that a non-conventional program is what's needed for Football players to succeed. "Our program is a-typical to what's out there - we really tried to get out of the box. I look at the conditioning program from a Football perspective. I need to see what this player is asked to do on the field, and how can I do something here in the weight room that will help him. They are several exercises that you go through regardless of position or even the sport that you play. But you also have to tailor certain exercises by position. For example, lower body training single leg movement is more crucial for receives, running backs, and defensive backs. The lineman work on lateral and forward lunges, and the hip movement involved with it…The fact that I played the game helped me realize what needs to be done." It also doesn't hurt that one of Kenn's assistants was a player at Boise State, during Kenn's tenure there. "Cheyenne Pietri played for us at Boise State, so he's an example of someone that went through our strength and conditioning program as a player, and now he's coaching it. A person like him knows this will work, and that's a great sell for the players."

Coach Kenn believes that his conditioning program helps players beyond just being stronger or faster. "We have to be mentally tougher, and I can do things in the weight room that can help with that. We never had a chance to show that we were ready to play in the fourth quarter, besides the Washington game. In all the other games, it just became another quarter before the game ended. You look at that particular game, and all the plays they made on us – they were all mental. When you explain that to the players, that makes them want to be mentally tougher. Based on the summer we had, I think we're getting there." Self-discipline is another trait that Kenn sees the team developing. "We started to see players coach themselves more, and the coaching staff acting like cheerleaders. That's satisfying to me, just as much as seeing a player break a lifting record or his 40-yard time."

Joe Kenn is realistic about how much (or how little) feats in the weight room really mean. "We're not just a bunch of guys banging weights around here with no objectives. If we're 4-7, I don't care if somebody can bench 400 pounds, and nobody else will care too. Wins and championships, that's what justifies what we do in the weight room. My drive is that I want us to go 11-0 and to a bowl game every year. We ask way too much of our players here for them not to reap the benefits." The outlook for 2002 is very promising to the Head Football Strength and Conditioning coach. "Last year we had some opportunities to justify what we're doing here, and it didn't happen. But last year we also grew a lot. We're onto something good here, and we're gonna win. You know it's gonna happen, but it's just a matter of when it will happen. And once we win, we're not gonna stop!"

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