Coach Lou a Big Part of the Success

There were many heroes in Illinois' big victory over Wisconsin Saturday, a win that lifted the Illini into the Top 25 for the first time in six years. Players and coaches alike deserve praise. But one of the unsung heroes is the man who helped the Illini face the Badgers on even terms physically, and that is Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez.

Ever since Barry Alvarez first lifted the Badgers out of the mud puddle of mediocrity and into the national spotlight, the Illini have struggled to match up with them physically. Every year, their offensive line would manhandle Illinois defenders, showing vast superiority in physical strength and conditioning. And every year, the Illini players were said to be bigger and stronger but were still no match for Wisconsin. That is, until this year.

Stopping the run is essential to stopping the Badgers, and the Illini did that this year. Finally, after so many years of frustration, the Illini matched Wisconsin's physical strength and nullified their advantage. Co-Defensive Coordinator Dan Disch was asked whether "Coach Lou" deserves some credit for Illinois' success this year.

"Oh, my goodness yes. He's talking about stopping the run down there (in the weight room). They've gotten bigger and stronger."

Indeed, player after player brags about his new "Body By Lou." It takes great dedication and perseverence to do all the weight training and conditioning to compete on a major college level. And it requires a coach who can motivate 105 players to work diligently in the offseason and instill a belief their efforts will be productive. Coach Lou Hernandez appears to be the perfect man for the job.

Arriving with Coach Ron Zook from Florida three years ago, Coach Lou set out a long-term development program to get Illini footballers strong enough and flexible enough to compete at the highest level. It has taken time, but the rewards are now noticeable, as Coach Lou explains.

"It's a long-term process. The first thing we had to do when we got here was to instill the work ethic, the goals and the expectations in the weight room. Of course, in that first year you want to get guys as big, as fast, and as strong as you can get them. But it is a process, and it takes some time.

"The offseason is about 6 or 8 weeks. Then you have summer, which is about 6-7 weeks. So realistically, the guys aren't in there as long. In the first year, the biggest thing we had to do was institute the philosophy of Coach Zook, the expectations, the intensity, the work ethic. And we had tremendous success with that. We actually went above and beyond what we were looking for in those goals that year.

"The second year came along, and we were starting to see more of the results of the work the guys are putting into the weight room. We started with one guy that could pull (power clean) 300 pounds, and last year we had 40 guys. That was a tremendous number. So now, we are starting to see a lot of results from the work. The bench presses were improving from one guy that could do 405 to ten. The guys were starting to feel real good about what we were doing.

"What we saw last year was that guys were hanging in the games physically and were starting to compete and feel real good about their challenges. And then we get into this year, and we are above and beyond the expectations. The intensity and expectation from year one were there, the results from year two were improving, and now we're working a lot on the specificity, the position work and those kind of things. The results are pretty obvious right now."

Hernandez is praised constantly by his players, but he prefers to credit them for all their hard work and dedication.

"I appreciate that, but the credit goes to the guys. They come down (to the weight room) every day. Now, here we are during the season, everybody gets to see football and thinks that is all the guys do. But actually, it starts in January where nobody can see them, working out as early as 6:00 in the morning.

"Physical conditioning is year around, and it is every day. It's done without any spectators. So the next thing you know we come into the season, and you get to see the results. It's a credit to the guys. They have great participation. They do everything I've asked them to do, from all the painful exercises to the discomfort they feel on a daily basis. These are the things guys have to go through to get better."

A growing number of people now use personal trainers, and some benefit greatly. But others may appear to make strength gains while creating imbalances in their bodies that can lead to physical problems. There's a right way and wrong way to go about it, and it appears Hernandez is doing it the right way.

"The way I feel about it, you can have a recipe for your grandma's chocolate chip cookies, you can follow it down to the T, but it may not come out just like grandma's. In our philosophy, having been with Coach Zook in the NFL and at Florida, the thing that's been most successful is that we are on the exact same page. We know what both of us like, what we believe is important for our program. This program is the things we do that we believe will help our program."

One exercise Coach Lou emphasizes that was not important to previous regimes is the power clean. Hernandez says it is excellent for developing explosive power.

"Absolutely. The power clean for us, the Olympic movements for us. If we had to rate the importance of the things we do down in the weight room, it's going to be first and foremost the Olympic movements. Those are the things that develop explosiveness and power. And then we do strength movements like our benches and squats. Of course, we do some body building movements to work on injury prevention, and isolating a few muscle groups to keep them strong too."

Northwestern was highly successful a few years ago, and their players credited work developing their core (abdominal muscles, center of gravity) for helping them win. Coach Lou is in total agreement.

"The core is very important. If Coach only gave me time to work on one thing, it would be the core. We spend a lot of time on that, from different types of ab circuits to resistance kind of movements like trunk flexion and extension and lateral movement.

"That is the center of gravity for your body, so that has to be the strongest it can be. It's important because it helps keep the postural muscles strong when it comes to running. It's to keep your base when you've got to get into specific positions that are required on the field, so we spend a lot of time on abs in our core. It's pretty much part of our regular workout."

Coach Lou also individualizes his workouts to be specific for the unique requirements of the different positions on the team.

"With the demands on our team, the quarterback does something different than the offensive linemen, who do something different than the defensive ends, who are different than the kicker, punter and skill guys. Everybody is going to do the same exercises when it comes to just getting bigger and stronger. And then we'll start to manipulate depending on where we are in the season. You know, sets and reps and weigh in poundage. And then there's going to be some auxillary exercises that will be different depending on the specificity of what each athlete has to do out on the field."

Back in the day, any strength program was set aside once the games began. But Coach Lou and Coach Zook insist it be continued during the season.

"The only thing that changes for us in the offseason compared with inseason is the frequency the guys come on down to lift. In the offseason, the guys are going to come in four times a week, and sometimes even five depending on what particular stage we're in.

"During the season, the emphasis is on football. That's where we spend the majority of our time. So we have the guys come in twice a week. But the expectations never change, goals never change, the work ethic never changes, and the load they are required to do doesn't ever change. We want to take the strength gains that you've got back in the offseason and get back to that or better during the inseason. For us, that's the most important time of the year, when your body's got to be at its best. If you're not getting better, then you're staying the same. And we don't ever want to stay the same."

Scout team members don't receive playing time on Saturdays, but they are usually in a developmental stage in preparation for play in future years. Thus, they are given a heavier training load.

"Those guys come in one extra day, and it's usually the developmental guys or the redshirt guys. We start to work on the movements that will make them the best they can be. A lot of time on the platform, overloading on squats, and starting to pull from the floor again with more of the Olympic movements. That's an extremely important time for those guys to catch up and get better. For the freshmen, we want to create a better base for them."

Previous Illini strength coaches have struggled getting all players to work their hardest. They didn't have the large staff that is available now, so some players could slough off without being noticed or reprimanded. Coach Lou credits Coach Zook with making it possible to keep the players' attention and guarantee cooperation.

"In order for us to be successful downstairs, the thing that's most important for us is the amount of support and belief and understanding that we get from coach. He is probably the hardest working guy on the team, from waking up at 6:00am and running three miles on the treadmill, coming back twelve hours later and lifting.

"The guys don't even have to talk to me about having to bench and squat. They can go right upstairs and try to explain that to the man. That is the way we have the biggest success because of the amount of support we get from Coach.

"And it just continues to trickle down from there to the position coaches and how interested they are in their guys. It's just great to see that type of support because the guys have nowhere to run but to come down and do what's expected in the weight room. So without that kind of support from Coach, we couldn't do what we're doing downstairs."

Like his boss, Coach Lou Hernandez is an intelligent, high-energy guy who works out with his players and demonstrates his support and loyalty to them daily. He seems not to mind the lack of recognition, but the Illini would not be able to compete with top opponents without him.

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