Chad Bumphis spotted Dan Mullen at the AFCA convention last month in Nashville. So the former Mississippi State receiver walked the lobby with his old head coach. Then Bumphis spotted some nostalgic news on his phone.
Matt Balis, the man behind the men at Mississippi State for Mullen’s first five years in Starkville, was headed to Notre Dame as its new Director of Football Performance. Bumphis and Mullen knew what that meant for Brian Kelly’s program.
“They immediately got better,” Mullen and Bumphis said to each other. “They just got better.”
Follow enough Notre Dame players on Twitter and it’s clear what Balis has meant to the program’s strength regimen. It shows in hashtags and tweets. It shows more in the shirtless pictures players post. Two months in, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to believe something good is happening inside the Gug.
Bumphis can tell you about it. He was a four-star recruit who exited Mississippi State as its career leader in receiving yardage and touchdowns. So could Tobias Smith, an overweight offensive lineman who dropped 30 pounds and cut his body fat in half. The same goes for running back Nick Griffin, who overcame two ACL tears to become backfield regular on a team that hit No. 1. Charles Bailey can attest too, a lightweight back-up receiver who believed he could knock out linebackers and tight ends on kickoff coverage.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Pit and the Cardio Club all helped define Balis at Mississippi State. So did running stairs in January, doing the entire stadium for each home loss. So did a Saturday morning obstacle course at a Starkville park followed by a team hike and canoe race. No, not every player could canoe.
“Oh God, we had people falling out,” Bumphis said. “It was bad.”
That was all input. And the output was worth it.
There was the No. 1 ranking during the 2014 season, a few months after Balis had left for Connecticut. There were the seven straight bowl games. There was the winning record in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss.
There was also the NFL Draft production. Mississippi State produced four total picks in the six years before Mullen and Balis arrived. The Bulldogs have produced 21 in the seven drafts since, including a couple first rounders.
“We were never that talented,” Griffin said. “We didn’t have a bunch of four- and five-star players. We didn’t have any 4.2’s. Our edge was that we out-worked everybody. We honestly believed that.
“Matt Balis is the man. That’s as simple as I can put it.”
‘He talked the talk and walked the walk’
Charles Bailey arrived in Starkville to play for Sylvester Croom without much of a reputation. The under-sized receiver struggled to get to 170 pounds and took a red-shirt as a freshman, Croom’s final season.
Bailey returned home to Florida that Christmas break after Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen. Then stories of Matt Balis started to come from the local players who stuck in Starkville between semesters.
“The rumor mill generated about this guy, Matt Balis, who is absolutely insane,” Bailey said. “He was right in here doing the workouts with us. It’s 100 miles per hour the whole time.
“I’m thinking, God, I have to go back to this. What’s going to happen when I get back to this and get a taste of it?”
For everything Balis brought to that weight room at Mississippi State, his ability to do the workouts he demanded ranked among his best imports. It created a credibility on the roster that needed some, similar to what’s happening at Notre Dame now.
During one workout Balis paired off the players. One had to drive the other the width of the field on a blocking sled. That meant one offensive lineman drew tackle Derek Sherrod, a future first-round pick. And that anonymous lineman quit the drill halfway through because pushing a 6-foot-5, 321-pound man across a football field is really hard.
So Balis did it instead. Wearing tennis shoes.
“Did it to demonstrate leverage and pretty much to show that he was a badass,” Bailey said. “Every workout we did, he and his staff would do everyday before the day started so he talked the talk and walked the walk.”
That Saturday morning obstacle course, hike and canoe race? The Mississippi State strength staff did it on Friday. In the 6 a.m. lift group? Be prepared to see Balis doing his workout when you approach the facility. In the noon Cardio Club? Balis will be just finishing his sweat as you arrive.
Even off days were on for Balis. He could be found in the weight room on weekends researching new techniques and scientific training, the kind of stuff that should pair with Notre Dame’s sports science department under Duncan French. Balis would even organize trips to a jujitsu studio or sign players up for yoga if they wanted it.
“His thing was if you’re only working when I’m with you, you’re not doing enough,” Bumphis said. “Saturday morning was an off day, but if you wanted to come in, do cardio, stretch, do footwork, the door was always open and he was always there.”
That helped sell workouts like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which Notre Dame did earlier this month with plenty of social media advertisement afterward. The massacre was an annual event, a notorious leg workout designed to create muscle failure. Then it demanded a few more reps.
“That’s what made you become a man,” Griffin said. “I thought I’d do 20 reps and stop. I started to rack the weight. Then he’s jumping on the rack. ‘What are you doing? You got more.’ I did 20 more.”
“He completely changed me,” Bumphis said. “He made me grow up. That’s the best way to put it.”
Bumphis later changed his Twitter handle to @Imso_BalisMade1.
Welcome to The Pit
Before Tobias Smith got married he wanted to call Matt Balis.
So from the car on the way to the church last April, the former offensive lineman dialed. Smith wasn’t the kind of player who would make Balis’ first draft resume considering he started just 13 games in five seasons during a career that included a total knee blowout, a torn rotator cuff and a broken ankle.
“Coach Balis was a great father figure to me,” Smith said. “To call him on my wedding day, that’s just how much love and I have for coach Balis.”
It took time to built that rapport. Much of the assembly was done in The Pit. It’s where Balis taught players the difference between being hurt and being injured. For Smith, knee rehab was being injured. Nearly everything else was being hurt.
Players who tapped out of practice were sent to The Pit, a patch of grass away from the fields that Balis cordoned off with yellow police tape. Inside he placed weights, kettle bells, stationary bikes, battle ropes and whatever else he could fit.
“The Pit is crazy,” Smith said. “The Pit is just unexplainable. If you’re hurt, you want to practice. I promise you, you’d much rather be in between the lines than in The Pit.”
Bumphis went to The Pit because of a broken collarbone late in his sophomore year. He missed the Egg Bowl that November and got stuck there during Gator Bowl prep too. When Mississippi State arrived in Jacksonville for practices at a local high school, Bumphis passed the time running stadium stairs. He was the only player sidelined.
“So Balis ran with me,” Bumphis said. “I couldn’t use my right arm, but I did a ridiculous leg workout.”
While it’s happening, the Balis approach can feel like he’s breaking players down. When it’s over, based on interviews with former Mississippi State players, the entire process feels more like a construction project.
Some of those builds turned into NFL contracts like Dak Prescott, Darius Slay, James Banks, Fletcher Cox and Derek Sherrod. Then there were ones like Tobias Smith, who said he went from 335 pounds to 305 while also cutting his body fat from 36 percent to 19 percent. Smith never sniffed the NFL. Balis shaped him just the same.
“I told him that I appreciated him giving me toughness,” Smith said. “Coach Balis told me I had to have it in me already. He just helped me to fine tune it.”