From player to coach

During his four year career with the Kansas Jayhawks, Justin Springer experienced a little bit of everything - from the heights of success to the struggles of rebuilding under a new coaching staff. Now with his playing days behind him, he's found a new way to help the team.

There are so many facets of big-time college football that resemble nothing quite so much as an arms race.

Facilities, for example. Everyone has to have the biggest and best facilities, the most well-stocked weight room and the players lounge with the shiniest amenities.

Recruiting is the same way. The best teams recruit the best players, as major programs compete against each other in a never-ending tug-of-war for prep talent. And once those players finally hit campus, the battlefield shifts.

Suddenly, it's no longer a war for their signature. That part is over. It's about making them bigger, faster and stronger; getting the most out of their bodies and their talents while their eligibility lasts.

For four years, Justin Springer lived that life. A 6-foot-3, 237-pound monster at middle linebacker for the Kansas Jayhawks, he started all 12 games during his senior campaign in 2010, and earned All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors for his play.

He battled through injuries early in his career - one of which ended his season early as a sophomore in 2008 - to become one of the most physically imposing members of the Kansas defense. All of the early morning workouts, the summer evenings sweating on the turf of Memorial Stadium - all of the effort left in the weight room - paid off.

All of that effort takes a toll, however, and like most BCS-level football players, Springer expected graduation to close that chapter in his life. Would he miss the camaraderie with the players and the practices, the thrill of laying a solid hit on an unsuspecting running back and fall Saturdays on the field at Memorial Stadium?

Of course. Who wouldn't? But 5:30 a.m. summer conditioning workouts? Those...probably not so much.

An Academic All-Big 12 First Team selection from 2008-2010, at first Springer opted to try his hand at the work force. And a job opportunity sprung up almost immediately for the sports management major. With dreams of becoming a strength and conditioning coach still in his head, he interviewed for a personal training position and, in his words, killed it.

But while touring the weight room at the facility and being introduced to the clientele, something clicked for him. This wasn't where he wanted to be.

He wanted to be with his teammates.

"Right then and there I missed it so much," Springer said. "(I thought) I cannot take this job over being a graduate assistant."

See, one of the requirements of his major was an internship, and the dream of being a strength coach was something that had percolated within him since high school. Following the advice of first Chris Dawson - former KU strength and conditioning coach - and then current Jayhawks S&C coach John Williams, he acted as a student intern on the strength staff from January through May.

Working 60 hours a week and doing everything a full-time staffer would do, he became increasingly convinced he'd found his calling. By the time the internship was up - and he'd turned down the aforementioned job offer - things had been settled in his mind.

So Springer told Williams he wanted to stay on staff for two more years, working toward a master's degree in exercise science and obtaining his certification under him. Williams offered him the graduate assistant spot, and just like that the transition was complete - from player to coach.

Taking the first steps toward fulfilling his dream has brought with it challenges, certainly.

"The first hardest thing is the hours," Springers said. "I get up at 4:30 in the morning, I'm there at 5:15 and I'm there until 6 p.m."

Not only that, but seeing as how just 12 months ago he was going through the drills right alongside his former teammates, it can be difficult to slide into a position of authority.

"I used to be a player, so people look to me as a crutch," he explained. "They're like, 'Come on, Springer.' But I have to look at them differently. I'm not longer an athlete. I'm a coach."

Such situations are part of the reason why Springer insists on performing the exact same workout routine he's responsible for teaching and monitoring with the players.

So though he'll no longer strap on the pads on Saturdays, he's training like one who will. While some former players may revel in the additional sleep and freedom, Springer has come to appreciate the rigorous training regimen from another perspective.

"I love it, I love working out," he said. "I love running, I love working out in the heat. I just want to stay in shape. If (the players) are complaining about something, I want to say 'Look, man, I've done this, too.'"

In the weight room, Springer teams with assistant strength coach Shaun McPherson to show the freshmen the ropes, coaching effort and technique - whatever the workout demands. The position has also given him the opportunity to work with track and field athletes, which has been a refreshing change of pace.

When practice kicks up in the fall, he'll still feel the pull to be on the field. But pursuing this opportunity has given him a way to extend his time at Kansas a little bit longer. It allows him to have a hand in the continued development of the program he saw reach the peak of success.

"Even during the Spring Game, I got the chills," Springer said. "I got the chills just going through warmups like 'Man, we've got a game coming up.' I'll be watching what's going on. I'll know what's going on because I know our defense like the back of my hand."


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