The following is an article that was published in the latest issue of The Ole Miss Spirit magazine. For those subscribers who do not take the magazine, we felt this would be a good way to get to know one of our most important coaches – Strength & Conditioning Coach Don Decker. For those who do take the magazine, we apologize for the repeat.
A lot of strength and conditioning coaches have to turn sideways to pass through standard doors.
Ole Miss' new S&C guy, Don Decker, was a quarterback in college. He is not your "standard size" strength coach, but he is widely considered one of the best in the business.
"Not many quarterbacks become strength coaches," Decker, who has been the head strength coach with Houston Nutt at Arkansas the last 10 years, laughed. "I wasn't the most gifted athlete. I could be classified as an overachiever, I guess. I tried to outwork people.
"Joe Ferguson is a close friend of mine and he's a workaholic. He stayed in the league 18 years and it was because of his work ethic. Being around him, and seeing how hard he trained, set an example. You could see how it prolonged his career and you could hear what people thought of him because of his work ethic."
Decker applied the same work ethic to his career and ended up getting some NFL tryouts. It was during that time he had a revelation.
"Playing at a small college, I never had anyone showing me the ropes of how to do drills and have proper technique. I was at a disadvantage, even as much as I loved working out," he recalled. "I decided right then I wanted to help kids. I wanted to make sure every kid had an opportunity to get better and get the kind of training that would allow them to be their very best. It's where my passion is. Why not make it a profession?"
His altruistic nature has paid off. Decker is now regarded as one of the top strength coaches on the planet.
"I think it is my passion that has gotten me as far as I have gotten," he continued. "When I look a recruit in the eye, I am truly able to say ‘you are looking at someone who cares as much about you being successful as you do.' I know they will know that about Coach Nutt and the coach who is recruiting them, but I want them to know that about the guy who is developing them too.
"I want to make sure that no kid leaves our program saying ‘if you just would have done this or that, I would have made it to the next level.' I never want them to say I didn't teach them a technique or give them an edge or an advantage. I never want a kid, after leaving Ole Miss, to come back from a workout and say why didn't you teach me that? I want to make sure they get everything coming to them and they never feel they could have been more productive had I done a better job. I always want to stay on the cutting edge of my profession so none of our kids ever feel slighted."
For Decker, that means tailoring workouts for ever individual player.
"Let's not kid ourselves, there are so many things we'll do that are universal to every position, but then we have to tailor things down to suit the needs of every player," Decker explained. "For instance, I had a corner at Arkansas who came on campus benching 365 pounds. He did not need strength – he needed flexibility and to protect his lower back and things like that. We tailored things to him and he now plays for the Atlanta Falcons and left Arkansas benching 450, but as a much more flexible and prepared athlete.
"I love the fact that I get to coach kids from every position and I get to address their needs individually."
Don learned his trade from one of the "Founding Fathers" of strength and conditioning – John Stuckey.
"Coach Stuckey was my mentor, He has turned out over 100 strength coaches in his family tree who are still in the business," Decker said. "Guys like Tommy Moffett at LSU, Johnny Long at Tennessee and Chris Carlisle at USC were protégés of Coach Stuckey. I was very close to him. In fact, I preached the service at his funeral recently.
"Coach Nutt believed in that heritage, in the Stuckey way, and saw we would be a fit. We have a tremendous relationship. Coach Nutt is a tremendous people person. He gets people to do things they don't think they can do because he believes so much in them. ‘I believe in you' are very powerful words, as powerful as ‘I can't.' Coach Nutt is someone who believes everyone can take whatever they do to a higher level than even they imagine and he trusts people around him to do that. I am very thankful to be associated with him and I thank the Lord for this opportunity."
Decker's goal is simple to understand, but takes a lot of time to accomplish.
"My goal is to make sure I give the position coaches a finished product when they step out on that field. I never want to hear a kid doesn't move well enough or isn't strong enough to lock out or whatever each position calls for from a skills standpoint," Don stated. "That does not happen over night, but it's the goal. I'm trying to give every coach an athlete who he doesn't feel like he has to overcome certain physical limitations. When I hand them the players, they can teach them philosophy, mentality, systems, plays, technique. I don't want a coach having to worry about if a kid can move well enough to do the job. Coaches deserve a finished product to work with and that's what I try to give them."
He said Nutt's philosophy is based on movement.
"With him, it's speed, speed, speed and more speed. We will do something every day that is improving linear or lateral movement. We'll do something every day that I call shooting the gun," he noted. "We will get our core right and work on balance and proper movement. Before we walk in this weight room every day, we will do something to fire the gun and produce quick, explosive, fast movement. We are going to move and get from point A to point B quickly."
Decker said emphasizing speed does not take away the importance of strength development, which is also tantamount to success and vital in his philosophy.
"Obviously, there are strength levels you have to get to, no doubt about it. You have to be able to squat two times your body weight to produce the power and speed you need to succeed. Every journal tells you that. Offensive and defensive linemen need to bench press 400 pounds," said Don. "Is there a magic in that number? Not really, but it makes guys feel good about themselves and it's a number that gives them the ability to use their hands and bodies to the max. Not every player gets there, but it's certainly a goal.
"While our top priority is speed, make no mistake about it, we will not become a track team. We understand you have to be physical. Coach Nutt's success has been grounded in hitting people in the mouth and pounding people. I know that and that will not change. We will be physical up front to run the ball and we will be physical enough to stop the run. But I can promise you it does not matter if you can bench press this building, if you can't get there to make the play, it won't make a difference how strong you are. We will attack speed and strength in a number of different ways, but speed will always be on the front burner."
Conditioning is also a trademark of Nutt teams. Decker is in charge of conditioning.
"Nobody in the business does as good a job of keeping guys fresh from August until the end of bowl season as Coach Nutt," Decker said flatly. "He keeps their tanks full, and that shows in having success in overtime games and having success as the season winds down. Some of that has to do with our conditioning program, but a lot of it has to do with the decisions Coach Nutt makes in regard to practices. He always keeps them fresh and well. When we approach games, we are always fresh. Some of that is conditioning on my end but a big part of it is how he prepares the team for games. We will be highly conditioned but we won't be worn out from it. You rarely see a Houston Nutt team with tired legs or a team that looks like they are out of gas. He has a wonderful feel on how to keep his team fresh. You won't see burnout."
Decker said Rebel football will not be a constant grind and the Reb football players will be better because of that.
"They will not dread coming to practice. They will not just grind, grind, grind. They will be fresh mentally and physically and they will appreciate it and flourish because of that philosophy Coach Nutt has," he added.
Don is a very big proponent of monitoring a player's fuel (nutrition) as well as their strength, speed and conditioning.
"Nutrition is a very specialized field now. Some schools have hired fulltime nutritionists because of its importance. You have to put fuel in the tank, preferably the right fuel," Don said. "We will discuss nutrition daily with players. We will keep diet journals and evaluate those for players who are lacking energy or not gaining weight or gaining too much weight or whatever their problem as it relates to nutrition and food may be.
"Generally what you find out is kids are not putting enough fuel in the tank, and it's not even really about what they are eating. It's that they aren't eating enough of anything. We try to educate them on that – the proper amount of food to put in the tank."
And if his expertise does not solve issues, Decker reaches out to experts in nutrition.
"We had a kid at Arkansas who could not gain weight and was eating 4500 calories a day. We brought in a specialist and we found out his metabolism was so fast that he needed 6600 calories a day. Once we figured that out, he started gaining good weight," Deck said. "Sometimes you run into situations where you've done everything you know to do, but nothing is working. That's when we bring in experts, even though I have a lot of training in those areas."
Don Decker does not have a "typical" strength and conditioning look, but it's obvious he knows his stuff and it's even more obvious Ole Miss is lucky to have him on board.
Don Decker -
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