James McCann wasn't surprised when the Detroit Tigers strength and conditioning coach met him at the door when arriving at spring training last week. There was the usual question: What were Mike Strouhal's new tricks this winter back home in Arkansas?
Strouhal has been working with Arkansas baseball in strength and conditioning the last 10 years, dating to the days when the weight lifting for all athletes on campus was done in what is now the Miller Room in the Broyles Center.
There's been a little bit of everything in his time at Arkansas, including work with football, golf, gymnastics and track and field. But it's been his contribution to Dave Van Horn's baseball program that made him famous with major league baseball strength coaches. Strouhal is considered an elite level coach in a sport that once steered clear of strength and conditioning.
The NFL and NBA were far ahead of the MLB in moving towards strength and conditioning specialists. And, it's only been of late that college baseball did the same. Van Horn fully embraced it as a need about the time Strouhal arrived on campus.
It was clear an interview with Strouhal was needed after talking with McCann -- then Zack Cox -- as the two former Razorback stars headed to spring training. As they say, one thing led to the next and a story materialized.
“He's under valued on campus,” Cox said. “He's an elite level strength and conditioning coach as far as baseball on the national scene. I'm not sure everyone knows how good he is around here.”
Cox was not talking about the baseball coaches. Van Horn says it over and over, his players are often better after staying in Fayetteville over the summer than when they play in various leagues around the country. Bobby Wernes blossomed after a summer with Strouhal.
“He looked like a different person,” Van Horn said. “There are plenty of others. We've told many of our players, maybe they should just spend the summer with Mike.”
McCann, starting catcher for the Tigers, recognized Strouhal's value when he made his recruiting visit to Arkansas. He saw Strouhal as a huge asset to the program.
“Mike took me as an 18-year-old and I grew into a man with him,” McCann said. “Without his guidance, I would be no where near the athlete that I am now. He's a mentor type figure, someone you can bounce things off and you always know has your best interest. He always puts the player first.”
McCann thought there was something special about Strouhal, but perhaps didn't realize the extent until his first visit with the Detroit staff after being drafted.
“They wanted to see my workout plans,” McCann said. “That's when I knew how advanced Mike was. Every other player they drafted, they changed their plans. They told me to keep Mike's workouts.
“They loved it all. Now, every time our coaches with the Tigers see me, they ask me for the new stuff Mike's given me. They know there is always going to be something. They think Mike is genius.”
McCann asked to talk to the current Arkansas team before he left for training camp.
“I told them some things I might have done different as a college player, but I told them one thing I wouldn't change is the amount of time I spent with Mike,” McCann said. “A lot of credit for where I'm at now is due to Mike. I utilized him every way I could every day.
“A lot of young players might not realize what they have here until it's too late. Mike is waiting for them. They need to go see him. He will make more time for them.”
Sophomore pitcher Keaton McKinney sings Strouhal's praises. After hip surgery last summer, McKinney had to concentrate on upper body lifts.
“There was a time I was on crutches, couldn't even walk,” McKinney said. “I sat in a chair and Mike would bring me things to do. I am so much stronger in the upper body. It's not even close to where I was when I came here. I am not the same person.
“He's going to fit a workout to each different person. He cares about every one of us and knows what each of us needs that might be different.”
You can hear the keys to Strouhal's strength and conditioning methods in the words of McKinney and McCann. It's obvious Strouhal cares about his players.
“It's my favorite saying, people never care about what you know until they know you care,” Strouhal said. “It's about building relationships. I tell our staff, greet our athletes at the door and find out how they are, how they feel. That's how you know what buttons you can push.
“That's when you find out how you can help them. You better know how they feel.
“Our job is to keep them on the field. We want to increase their mobility, their quality of movement. That's how you keep them off the injured list.
“You have to have limits to how you can push them. Before you can add weight, you have to create quality of movement.”
Van Horn said the Hogs have injuries, but they've decreased through the years.
“Mike has proven to me that we keep our guys on the field,” he said. “We have had very few muscle injuries. We don't have many hamstring, quad injuries. His ability to keep our guys flexible and strong has been great.
“We lift, but he does it so that we don't get sore backs and injuries. He does that by teaching proper technique. I'm amazed at what he does with our team.”
Strouhal laughed about some of the things he's learned about college athletes. It will not surprise that nutrition and sleep habits are important.
“We have found that going on the road in baseball season is the best thing for our players,” he said. “I travel with the team. Staying in the same hotel, eating the right foods and getting good recovery sessions for our lifting really helped us.
“Obviously, we eliminate the distractions. We control the environment. And I'm with them all of the time.”
And, there are lifting sessions on the road. SEC baseball teams share facilities.
“The strength staffs in the SEC work well together,” he said. “We work to give our opponents time in our workout area.”
The SEC is probably ahead of most as far as strength and conditioning for baseball.
“Really, this sport has just embraced strength and conditioning,” Strouhal said. “I do think we have a strong culture with our baseball program for what we are doing now.
“I credit guys like James McCann and Zack Cox. Coach Van Horn says it all the time, the older guys establish the culture.
“You look at a lot of our athletes who were drafted, they had success in the weight room. Guys like Bobby Wernes, Tyler Spoon, Andrew Benintendi and of course James and Zack, they all were leaders in the weight room.”
It's clear Strouhal thinks those are special people. The only time during the interview his eyes sparkled more than when talking about McCann and Cox came when revealing that wife Allison is expecting their first child.
“As far as James and Zack, you don't get them like that often. They created the culture. I will never forget Zack's official visit, he came to me and we talked for one hour. He came in ready to embrace what we do.”
And what the Hogs do is constantly changing.
“That's where Mike is so good, he is constantly learning, giving us new things,” McCann said. “That's why our guys with the Tigers are interested in seeing what I've been doing.
“I think some think the goal is to look like some of the guys on the cover of the (body building) magazines. That's not it. It's about staying on the field and playing for a long time. Mike helps you stay on the field.”