FOOTBALL: Kicking Back With Matt Balis

The barrel chest and the bulging biceps are the dead giveaway for Matt Balis, the assistant director for strength and conditioning for the Florida Gators. Balis has muscles in places where most folks don't even have places. Because it's the offseason and Florida's football coaches have such limited contact with the players, Balis is one of the coaches who has the most contact with the football team.


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Balis worked with Coach Urban Meyer at the University of Utah for two years. Prior to that he was the strength and conditioning coach for the University of Houston. Balis was the 1995 World Champion power lifter in his weight class. He came to Florida in January with Coach Meyer right after the Fiesta Bowl.

FB: How is the transition to Florida coming along? You're from Houston and then Utah, and now Florida.

MB: Originally I'm from Chicago. Houston is very similar weather wise to Florida. Utah's a lot different, much more dry but it gets just as hot. Transition wise this is much more of a college town … it feels more special because everything is about the Gators and everything is about football. It became that way at Utah, kind of at the end there. At Houston there were tons of things going on, but here it's all about the Gators. The biggest difference I have seen is that here, it's all about the Gators.

FB: What's been your reaction to how the kids here have bought into the way you guys teach things and how you want them to lift, strengthen their bodies, etc.?

MB: What I've seen with these kids is that they are very, very receptive to everything. It was almost like they couldn't wait to be pushed into doing things in ways they had never done before. They were very receptive and took to everything. We came into a great situation because so many great things had been done here already, but the kids really wanted this. From the first couple of days that I started working out with the guys it seems that they wanted to be pushed, they wanted to be coached, they wanted to know how to win… they really want to be winners. It's getting stronger and stronger as we are going.

FB: When you come into a new situation there is a learning curve. It seems to me they picked things up very quickly judging by the way our players' bodies looked and the way players reacted to conditioning in the spring. I expect things will change again in August in a positive way. How have they reacted to being pushed every day and how are they reacting to the results that are obvious?

MB: They have realized that this stuff helps them… the way we train creates results and they see the results. Whenever you push yourself really, really hard in anything, chances are you're going to get better. That's what we preach every day as a coaching staff …. work hard every day, work harder today than you worked yesterday and this is the results that we are seeing. The guys who have bought into the system are getting physically stronger and they are getting mentally tougher. You can see it the way they're building their confidence. You want kids to accept and believe in what you're doing. I really feel that these kids have bought into what we are doing.

FB: Will you talk about the correlation between mental toughness and physical toughness because you can have one without the other but it's best when you have them both?

MB: Physically, this is a very tough team. You do not play football at the University of Florida and in the Southeastern Conference unless you are a physically tough person. But the more you develop your mental toughness, the more physically tough you can become over the course of a game. During a game when you have developed your mental toughness, you can play harder and harder for a longer period of time and you can outplay your opponents and be a stronger team in the third and fourth quarter. Hence, mental toughness improves physical toughness. That's what we're trying to do on top of changing our bodies … getting stronger physically and getting closer as a team, working together… all those important things. Being the most mentally and physically tough football team is ultimately our goal.

FB: At Utah, in the fourth quarter you dominated people. It got nasty in the fourth quarters … like the Christians when they faced the lions. Will you talk about how you are getting these guys ready for the fourth quarters?

MB: You hope that the kids train and buy into that because they are the ones who have to do it. When they're training, what's on their mind has to be not only do I have to get through this but I am training to get ready to play in the third and fourth quarters. They are going to be able to take all that they've done in this offseason --- all the hard work, sweat and preparation --- and they're going to be able to use it in game situations. That's the hope. Yeah, at Utah we did have that transfer from the offseason to the games, and that's what we're trying to do here.

FB: How did you transform Utah teams that hadn't done much before you got there into teams that truly dominated in the third and fourth quarters and won 22 games in two years?

MB: I got to work under a great strength coach in Jason Felkamp when I first got there. He did a phenomenal job. The first year when we went 10-2 saw that if we added a couple of things --- a couple of old school type things that increase their mental toughness --- how much better we could be. So we put in more of the stuff that you see here now … mental toughness challenges, team challenges and going until you can't go anymore. Guys started to buy into it. You saw guys whose personalities started to change to that attitude that there's nothing that you can give us that we can't handle. That was the biggest thing. Anything you give, we'll take it and spit it right back at you. That's how we did it there and that's what we're starting to see take place here.

FB: At some of the Gator Gatherings, Coach Meyer talked about how in the second year at Utah some of the players would come up to him at practices and they would say "Coach, can we work harder? It doesn't seem that we're working hard enough." I'm sure you saw that in the weight room too where guys wanted to do more and more. Are you starting to see that here?

MB: We're starting to see guys believe in themselves, the real confidence that you see when they're just walking around and you can tell just by the way that they move and they act that "I'm really doing something great to my body and for my team." We're paying the price now. We've got guys sacrificing. What you were talking about will come more and more when the inseason workouts become more structured to get ready for games. What we are asking guys to do now is preparation, so what we're asking them to do now is to go as hard as they can every time they're in here and then get out. We really don't want them in here when we're done because we're asking so much of them in the time that they're here and they're responding. What you mentioned, though, that's going to happen. You'll see it.

FB: Even in your workouts in the weight room or in agility and speed drills, there is always a winner and a loser. Will you explain why you think this is so important?

MB: When we condition and do our agility and speed work, we say it's not just enough to train … it's not just enough to run around bags, run around cones and run sprints. We want to see these guys do their best. The ultimate way to get the best out of somebody is make them go against somebody else. What we've found is that the kids here love it more than I've found anywhere else. They really love to compete, and when they compete and they beat the guy in front or them or the guy that's next to them, they go "Wow! I feel proud of myself, I'm a winner and I've done the best that I can do." Now the guy who loses … he feels terrible because he didn't beat that guy. At the same time we're giving them great training but most important, we get the best out of every single person. That's the key. That's why we don't have to work out two or three hours because we're getting the maximum effort out of each guy.

FB: What these guys do in the weight room and in conditioning has a lot of bearing in players getting into the Champion's Club. Are you seeing the guys who aren't in the Champions Club really striving to get better so that at the next Champions Banquet, they can eat with the champions and eat the good food?

MB: Getting in the Champions Club means a lot to them. This team has a ton of pride. One thing that we're noticing more and more is how much pride they have. Everyone wants to win and to be a winner, but it's about the guys who are willing to pay the price. Now, what we're seeing is guys who think if I have enough pride to do what I have to do in the weight room, if I can do the right things in the class room, if I act the way I'm supposed to away from the weight room and the field so that my character is impeccable, I can become a champion. Now, more than ever it means everything to them. We have to have our whole team in the Champions Club before we start this season but we're not there. The kids have really, really responded and the guys who aren't in Champions Club… well it bugs them. And the guys who are in it are getting with the guys who aren't and saying, you've got to do everything possible to get into Champions Club, and we see all of them responding.

FB: You've had a chance to explain to the incoming freshmen about the Champions Club. Do you see them already talking about it and really busting it in their conditioning so that they can get into Champions Club, too?

MB: What we've noticed most about these freshmen is that they are really hungry and ready to be pushed. We've only had them a week now, but they already want to show us how hard they've worked. Obviously it's an exciting time for them. It's so much fun because they are so green and they haven't seen much, but they're telling us "show us the way and whatever you want we'll do" and that is really exciting to see.

FB: Back in February, there was all this talk about things that you did in the mat drills like carrying chains and rocks and flipping tires. There was also this bit about if you screw up --- for example you don't have your feet behind the line --- the first time it's on you but the second time your whole unit pays the price. Will you talk about the team approach that you used there?

MB: Mat drills are maybe the best thing we do in the winter. When you're trying to build a team you have to make everyone accountable. If there's one guy who's thinking about himself, as soon as he gets tired he gives in. You give in, you lose. In the mat drills everyone is set up in lines of four, four guys out there and his whole position group behind him. If one guy gets selfish and starts to think about himself and not the team, then the whole group is going to pay for it. That's the concept of it. The mat drills are hard enough by themselves, but when you add on asking guys to be accountable, to be disciplined and to do everything together, and instead of thinking of themselves, think of the team … when they buy into that and start doing that, then you can start building something special. That's what the mat drills are all about.

FB: Putting your toes behind the line may not win a football game, but it might keep you from losing one because a guy automatically lines up onsides in the fourth quarter when he's dog tired. It seems to me that these drills are designed to keep you from doing something stupid that would cost the team when it's late in a game. A lot of games were lost over the last three years because little things that weren't done that caused critical mistakes. Is that why there is all the attention to detail and the little things?

MB: The little things are really the big things … the details … getting behind the line, living your life the right way when you're away from football, doing great in the classroom … working together as a team … being on time to meetings … when you do all the little things right, you really rarely have to worry about the big things. So we stress doing the little things and doing things right. Then we won't worry late in the game that we'll have those little breakdowns that prove costly.

FB: Will you talk about some of the guys on this team who have caught your eye for their leadership?

MB: Leadership is essential and we're really developing some great leaders. The first one that comes to mind is Chris Leak. I think he's a general. He's a quiet person but his work ethic is second to none. He goes hard at everything and he leads by example. He's going to be the guy. Brandon Siler is a vocal, very strong leader who when he's going to be a senior, you better look out. He's a sophomore and the power that he has to command his teammates … I'm very impressed. Jarvis Herring is probably the toughest guy on the team…. very strong willed, pushes guys to get better, cares about his teammates … willing to do whatever it takes. Vernell Brown is another guy who comes to mind. He's a little guy but what a big, huge heart. He pushes guys all over the place and he's out to make every guy on this team to get better and do things right. Mike Degory, our center … the way he's taken the O-line and brought everyone together … he's really the leader of that unit and it's such an important unit to have. Those guys are really special.

(Weight room photos courtesy of UF Sports Information - GatorZone.com)


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