With the news of Boyd Epley's return to the Nebraska athletic department, Big Red Report went to the archives to find the latest article done with "The Godfather" of strength and conditioning. We found one done last summer in our Big Red Report magazine.
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Catching Up with…Boyd Epley
By Shane G. Gilster
Boyd Epley is “The Godfather” of strength and conditioning. That’s what the March 2001 cover of American Football Monthly magazine tabbed him as.
He even sounded Godfather-like when he said, “At the end of my career, I would stand in my second story office and look out the window at the weight room. As I moved my hand slowly from left to right I could say that almost every piece of equipment in that weight room had been developed at Nebraska.”
As a child Epley was far from a model of strength and power. He was born in Pawnee City, Nebr. and grew up in Elk Creek. Then he attended Beatrice elementary, going to school there until the middle part of his 5th grade year. An asthma condition forced him and his family to move to Phoenix, Ariz. The thought was the climate would be better for the young Epley’s health.
It was a good move. Epley began to outgrow his condition and went on to attend Alhambra High School in Phoenix. He participated in sports and started to excel in track and field as a pole-vaulter.
“I was hoping to be a state champion pole vaulter but got hurt, breaking my leg a week before the state meet,” Epley said. “That set me back because I wanted to get a scholarship to a place like Nebraska or Arizona State.”
He ended up attending Phoenix College and dedicated himself to working out and lifting weights. Epley accomplished his goal, setting the national junior college pole vault record, and as a result earned a scholarship to the University of Nebraska.
“I raised the Nebraska pole vault record 21 inches. But before my senior year, I hurt my back and that short-circuited my pole vaulting career,” Epley said.
So he went back into the weight room on a regular basis to start strengthening his back.
“We didn’t have much of a weight room at NU,” Epley remembers. “It was attached to the athletic training room in the north field house. It was only 416 square feet and it couldn’t handle more than 5-6 people at a time.”
“One day I came to the weight room a little later than normal and I saw several football players waiting there. I asked them what they were doing and they said they were waiting for me to get here so they could follow me around and do my training routine. I didn’t realize it before but they were following me around doing what I did.”
So Epley started helping them. Assistant NU football coach Tom Osborne began to notice that some of the injured players were making it back to practice healthier than before they got hurt. He then contacted Epley and wanted to visit with him in his office.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Epley said. “At that time football coaches did not recommend lifting weights. They thought players would get too muscle-bound if they did.”
But Osborne asked Epley if he would help train the entire team. He said that Epley could run the weight room as a strength coach.
Epley couldn’t pole vault anymore as a result of his back injury, so he said he would. But he told Osborne that he needed NU to supply some things first.
“I said the weight room was too small, so he said they would knock down a wall and enlarge it. Then I said we didn’t have enough equipment, so he told me to make a list on what they needed to buy.”
The next day Epley gave Osborne a list of basic items that consisted of benches and squat racks. Osborne handed the list to his secretary and told her to buy what was on there.
Epley said he didn’t know how much money NU wanted to spend so that first list was just the basic stuff. He then told Osborne that he had a second list which included non-essential items. So the next day Epley gave that to Osborne and he told his secretary the same thing.
Osborne then said to Epley that they now have to go see Bob Devaney so they could get permission to do what they just did. Osborne began the meeting by saying that he would like to put the football team on a strength program and that Epley would be in charge of it.
Devaney said, “Why would we want to do that?” Then both Osborne and Devaney looked at Epley.
“I had to come up with an answer on the spot but I was so nervous I was shaking,” Epley said. “I can’t remember what I said but Devaney eventually approved it saying, ‘If Tom thinks this is a good idea then we will give it a try.’ “But then he pointed a finger at me and said, ‘But if anybody gets slower, you’re fired.’”
Osborne later told Epley the real reason Devaney said yes to this idea was due to a 47-0 loss to Oklahoma on national television in 1968. It was the worst defeat ever suffered by a Devaney- coached team. The coaching staff was looking for new ways to help their football team improve.
On August 15th 1969, Epley was officially hired as the first full-time college strength and conditioning coach in any sport. That fall NU won nine games after going 6-4 each of the past two seasons. And just a year after their 47-point loss to the Sooners, the Huskers beat Oklahoma 44-14 in Norman.
Following the 9-2 season and No. 11/12 national ranking, and with the help of Epley’s strength and conditioning program, Nebraska would go on to win back-to-back national championships in 1970 and ’71.
“They were hiring guys that were volunteering and not even getting paid,” Epley said. “So I went to Devaney and told him that we needed to start paying some of my assistants because I couldn’t afford to keep losing guys. As soon as I trained them, they were gone.”
One of the first assistants NU hired was Mike Arthur. Arthur is still at Nebraska and currently serves as the Director of Strength and Conditioning.
Epley’s program took off from there and established itself as the best one in the country. “I tried to make for my disappointment of not making it as a pole vaulter into being the best in the world at something.”
Epley said he wanted NU to be the best at three things: 1) Having the largest weight room, 2) Being the best program that produces the most results, allowing them to compete for national championships and having All-Americans, and 3) To have the best supervision and hiring the best people.
“I think we accomplished all three of those, and I couldn’t be prouder about that,” he said.
From when Epley was hired in 1969 to when he stepped down from his position in 2004, the Nebraska football program won all five of its national championships. Every Nebraska football player that stayed for four years during that time attended at least one bowl game and got at least one conference championship ring. Those 35 teams under Epley’s tutelage posted 356 wins.
Two main reasons for this success was Epley maintained NU as the leader in strength and conditioning training and was innovative enough to help develop new equipment to always be on the cutting edge. The majority of that equipment would become top sellers nation-wide and around the world.
One of the more interesting stories that showed Epley’s innovativeness was how the “Hip Sled” came to be. It was a machine he created to help a football player named I.M. Hipp.
“He would squat 400 pounds the morning of the game and I couldn’t talk him out of it because he had to have his fix doing squats,” Epley said of Hipp. “You cannot perform your best if your legs are fatigued so I came up with a machine that would give him his fix but not take away his strength and power for the game.”
Epley took a sled and had Hipp lie down and push the weight with his feet. It caught on and a company in Iowa, named AMF, made it for Nebraska and they ironically called it the “Hip Sled” because it worked your hips and was designed to train your legs without overdoing it.
“I developed that machine for him (Hipp) but not to be named after him,” Epley laughed.
Nebraska’s weight training equipment not only helped the Huskers with its current players but future ones as well. When recruits would come and see the weight room at Nebraska, they saw things that they had never seen before. So this gave Nebraska a big recruiting advantage.
But just like they did in 1969, the time had come for the NU football program to once again look itself in the mirror and reevaluate how they did things internally.
The 1990 football season didn’t go very well for Nebraska. They suffered two devastating losses to end the season, one to Oklahoma and the other to Georgia Tech in the bowl game. The Huskers got detasseled in both contests, giving up 45 points in each and nearly falling out of the top 25 in the AP poll as a result.
“We had a disappointing season in 1990 and so we had a little ‘get right’ session on January 17th, 1991,” Epley said.
“We were averaging 30 absences a day which was ridiculous,” he said. “So we got the team together and gave the players and ultimatum, ‘If you want to be on this football team you have a choice to make, come and do the work or don’t come back at all.’ “As a result our lineman went 15,000 workouts without an absence. That put Nebraska physically in a different category and made them almost unbeatable in the 1990s.”
That meeting in 1991 changed the way the team handled their disciplinary tactics. Epley began to develop a point system for workout attendance. Now the Huskers had a way to discipline its players.
As a result of this, the formation of the Unity Council headed by Dr. Jack Stark was created. The council, which was made up of players from each position, would meet with teammates who missed workouts and had too many points against them. The council would then decide what disciplinary measure that player would receive.
The Unity Council was exactly what the NU football team was missing, and it helped pave the way to three national championships in the ‘90s.
Of course if it wasn’t for great players on those national championship teams and other high caliber Husker squads, NU wouldn’t have had that type of success.
Epley worked with some great ones at the University of Nebraska. Outland and Lombardi Award recipients and Heisman Trophy winners are included in a long list. But who was the strongest or the fastest?
“Pound for pound, Curtis Cotton was the strongest player in Nebraska football history,” Epley stated. “We only had one football player to ever Power Clean over 400 pounds and that was Cotton. He was fast too, running a 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds,” Epley said. “The fastest player ever was Keith Jones. He ran the fastest electronic 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. In the Performance and Strength Index, Dan Alexander had the highest index score in history.”
In terms of memorable stories on some of these great players, Epley recounts one of Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier back in 1982. Rozier had run his two 40-yard dash runs but he wasn’t happy with his time of 4.6. He begged Epley to let him run it one more time, but NU had a rule that two tries were the maximum, as they were afraid of hamstring injuries.
“But this was Mike Rozier so I said OK,” Epley said. “This was at the end of the workouts and we were putting equipment away. I turned around and I saw Rozier running the 40-yard dash naked. He had no shoes or clothes on. He thought this would make him run faster. It didn’t, it actually made him run slower.”
Epley went on to say that Rozier was one of the very few individuals that didn’t need the weight room. “He was naturally powerful,” he said. “He was the most natural athlete that I worked with. Heisman Trophy winners don’t need a lot of coaching, they are just natural, and that was what Mike Rozier was like.”
With so many years of service at the University of Nebraska, it was hard to see an icon like Epley leave the strength and conditioning department. But the athletic director at that time, Steve Pederson, asked Epley to take on another role which oversaw the construction and design of the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex and the Hawks Championship Center. After that three year project concluded, Epley officially left NU.
In 1978 Epley created the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Lincoln which is now located in Colorado Springs and has 33,000 members.
“After I retired from Nebraska, I wanted to get back into strength and conditioning coaching, so the NSCA asked me to join them and help coaches in high schools and colleges. I also work in getting sponsorships from equipment companies which brings back the memories because I used to work very closing with them in designing equipment,” Epley said.
Visiting the state of Nebraska also brings back memories for the 66-year-old Epley who received his bachelor’s degree in 1970 from UNL and added a master’s degree in education two years later. He and his wife Jayne miss their native state and try to make it back from Colorado Springs whenever they can.
“We really miss the people of Nebraska,” he said. “They were so good to us when we lived there. We had to move to Colorado to be a part of the NSCA but we hope to get back to Nebraska more now.”