CHAMPAIGN - When asked his best memory of playing at Illinois, former Wisconsin Badgers defensive back Joey Boese quickly changes the tone.
“I got a worst memory," Boese says with a laugh. "Being here with (Luke) Butkus, I always hear about the game here in ‘01 where they beat us. Brandon Lloyd caught a touchdown pass over one of our freshmen or a younger guy, and they beat us by seven. That was the year they went to the Sugar Bowl. Butkus reminds me of that literally weekly. Literally. Weekly."
Boese -- pronounced boze-EH -- also remembers playing against future pros like Lloyd, Walter Young, Kurt Kittner, David Diehl, Tony Pashos and Marques Sullivan. He remembers "the way (Illinois teams) looked on the hoof coming off the bus."
Boese's job is to build more football players who look like that, who look like pros -- because Illinois hasn't had enough pros lately.
No Illini was drafted in 2014 or 2015. Three were selected in 2016 -- Jihad Ward (2nd round - Raiders), Ted Karras (6th round - Patriots) and Clayton Fejedelem (7th round - Bengals) -- and Josh Ferguson signed a premium undrafted free agent deal with the Colts.
While senior Dawuane Smoot is projected as a possible first-round draft pick and Illinois has a few other legitimate NFL prospects, the Illini still don't quite stack up with West Division foes Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska -- let alone the East Division powers.
They're still not quite fast enough. They're still not quite athletic enough. They're still not yet strong enough. Simply, the Illini (six Big Ten wins over the last four seasons) have been a finesse team in a slobberknocker conference.
While recruiting is the best solution to this problem, Boese -- the new strength and conditioning coach -- plays the next biggest role in the powering-up process.
“We got some work to do," Boese said. "We definitely have some work to do. Nothing that’s too daunting. It’s something we’re making progress at every day, but we need to get stronger. We need to lose body fat. We need to get more athletic. Those are things that are going to come in our room and in recruiting. Our coaching staff has done a tremendous job on the recruiting trail so far. But those things, especially in this league, and the physicality of it and the athleticism on the edge. You know this, there’s no off week in this league. You don’t go, ‘Oh, that’s a dub (win), that’a dub.’ That’s just not the case. Schematically, you can X and O it all you want, but it’s about the players. It’s always been about the players. Players make plays.”
'Gym rat' finds his calling
Like most strength coaches, Boese always had an affinity for the weight room. Boese is a talented athlete, but he had an appreciation for the improvement one could make with sweat and effort in the offseason. It helped him earn so much: a star prep career at Mater Dei in Orange County, Calif.; a scholarship at Wisconsin (where he started for two years at defensive back); and a successful four-year career (2003-06) in the Canadian Football League (he finished second in the league in tackles in 2004).
“I loved playing. I loved the game, don’t get me wrong," Boese said. "But I loved the preparation for the games prior to the season. I loved summer conditioning, the running sessions, the lifting sessions. As a coach, I didn’t love necessarily looking schematically on what was going on, what kind of defense they ran, what offense, yada, yada, yada. I was more interested in the physical part.”
But Boese never had a plan to become a strength coach. He's another example of the arduous yet impromptu climb up the college coaching profession.
After his CFL career, Boese tried the family business. His dad owns a car business in California. But the transition from football to cars didn't take so well.
“I tried that for two months and realized I was miserable," Boese said. "I hated it. I was a gym rat. Growing up, I was always a gym rat, whether it was basketball, football, track, in the weight room. Any time I had free time, I was doing something athletic, playing hoop or whatever.”
Boese decided he needed to be involved in sports. His brother-in-law was then a defensive line coach at Emporia State, a Division II program in Kansas, and helped Boese land a graduate assistant job as the defensive backs and assistant strength coach. Good thing Boese had saved up some money from his CFL career because his annual salary at Emporia was $12,000 a year.
But Boese found his happiness. He worked every football camp he could. After that first season at Emporia State, he had a free summer, went to Nebraska and worked 19 straight days of football camps.
“I worked little dude camp, quarterback camp, kicking camp, big man camp, contact, any camp they had," Boese said. "I think I stayed in the dorm for 17 days and the other two days I stayed at Kevin Cosgrove’s house, who was the defensive coordinator.”
During those weeks, he told Cosgrove he'd have interest in any opening at Nebraska -- any opening. Later that summer, Cosgrove called Boese. It was a Thursday. Nebraska had an entry-level quality control job available and it was Boese's if he wanted it. The only catch: the job started on Monday.
“On Monday morning, I’m in a staff meeting with Coach (Bill) Callahan and the staff," Boese said.
The stay in Nebraska was short. Nebraska fired Callahan after the 2007 season. But during that fall, Boese discovered his calling.
“At that time, I knew I wanted to be involved in football," Boese said. "I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But I also knew that every free minute I got, I was in the weight room every free minute -- whether it was 5 in the morning or 6 at night. If I needed a break from chopping tape, I was in here, working out.”
While Boese waited for new Nebraska coach Bo Pelini to hand down his fate, former Nebraska strength and conditioning coach Dave Kennedy called Boese with an opportunity: assistant strength coach at Texas A&M. Kennedy gave Boese only 24 hours to think it over. After hanging up with Kennedy, Boese called his parents to talk about it and then called Kennedy back within a half hour.
“That was on a Monday," Boese said. "I started my job that Thursday. I was there for probably three weeks before I realized it was the best decision I ever made.”
Boese made about $20,000 annually with no benefits in that first year at Texas A&M -- where he also led strength and conditioning efforts for the Aggies baseball team -- but it started him on the path that eventually led him to Illinois. He met Tim DeRuyter in College Station. When DeRuyter was tabbed for the head coaching job at Fresno State, he hired Boese to lead his strength and conditioning program.
Getting to work
Boese first met Lovie Smith a few years ago. The new Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach had an assistant strength coach opening and wanted Boese to interview. The match didn’t work out. Boese and his wife, Aimee, didn't think it was the time to move their two young sons.
But when Smith called this spring, the timing and the opportunity felt right. Boese wanted back in the Big Ten.
“It was an opportunity that me and my family are really excited about,” Boese said.
Now, he has a lot of work to do. But Boese hasn’t had much time to accomplish his goals because he didn’t arrive in Champaign until late March.
“(The coaching staff) got all of their time. They got all of spring ball. I got none,” Boese said. "So our first extended period of time with these guys has been these four weeks. The coaches have a good understanding of what the guys can do on the football field after spring ball and where we are and then what we need to work on.
"Because we didn’t have an offseason, it is a unique situation. We’re in Week Four now and we’re finally feeling like, ‘OK, we finally have things in place.’ We know who this guy is. They know what we’re looking for. Certain agility drills and speed drills to the players, I’m explaining it all. ...Where normally, you would have February, March, April. You’d have those months that they’d already done a lot of this stuff. A little bit of that has been challenging, but it’s been good. The players’ effort has been great. We got a lot of older guys and a lot of younger guys who will be a good complement to those older guys.”
The Illini currently are in the middle of their summer program, which includes four workouts a week. Mondays and Thursdays are speed and agility work followed by leg workouts in the weight room. Tuesdays and Fridays include team conditioning and upper-body workouts.
“I think you got to hang your hat on something, and we’re going to hang our hat on effort and how we do things,” Boese said. “We’re trying to make better football players, so we’re going to do things that track people do, and we’re going to do things that powerlifters do with the whole design to make these guys better football players and better at what they’re asked to do on the football field. There’s some things we’re trying to address right now. We’re trying to decrease some body fat on our football team. We feel like if we decrease some body fat and increase some lean muscle mass that it gives our football team a better chance to move around a little bit better than they are right now. That’s our focus right now during the summer.”
Injury prevention is another key after Illinois has suffered several recurring serious injuries over the last couple seasons, including two torn ACLs for both wide receiver Mikey Dudek and running back Dre Brown.
“We take injury prevention very seriously,” Boese said. “How we train our players is critical for that.”
Boese said he and Smith chat constantly about the strength and conditioning program but that Smith is not a micro-manager.
“Lovie has hired me to do this job," Boese said. "We talk a lot, obviously, but there’s not been a, ‘Hey, I want to do this or do that.’ I think philosophy-wise, we’re on the same page. I know what he wants. He knows what I’m going to do and how to try to get that accomplished.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I am with Coach (Smith). I’ve known coach for a couple years, but this is the first time actually working with him and seeing him on a day-to-day basis with the coaching staff and the players, practice, organization, all those things that go into being a head coach. There’s a reason why he was so successful in the National Football League and went to a Super Bowl. I think our players understand what he’s trying to do for him, whether it’s little things, how we’re eating, what supplements we’re giving them pre- and post-workout, the little things we tweak here and will continue to tweak.”
Even though Illinois football is formulating plans for a new football facility that includes an even better weight room, he calls the current facilities under the north end zone bleachers “tremendous.”
“But it’s about the work you put in this room,” Boese said. “You can have the nicest stuff in the world or the nastiest stuff in the world. It’s about how you’re using it.”
When Boese played at Wisconsin, he respected Illinois as near equals. His goal is to get the current and next wave of Wisconsin players to think the same of the Illini.
“They’ve had some tremendous football players coming through,” Boese said. “Where we’re located and all that stuff, I’d hate to say sleeping giant, but I think that the upside at the University of Illinois is tremendous.”