Q&A with Chris Carlisle

Click below for an interview with USC strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle as he discusses a variety of topics relating to Trojan football:

Where do you see this team as we prepare for the season opener?


"I'm just so excited about this football team.  When we talked after I'd just arrived you asked me what the difference was between here and where Tennessee was at when I was there and I said depth.  Well, I'm telling you right now that it's not a question anymore.  Our top line athletes are as good as anybody in the country and our second line athletes are as good as anybody in the country, we're not gonna miss a beat. 


When we got here we went from first to third, there was no 1A and then 1B but that's what the great teams have.  With these young kids coming in now we go from a 1A to a 1B, we don't have a dropoff and when you can do that you can turn out eight defensive linemen during a game.  You've got to be able to do that.  If you look at the glory years of someone like the Cowboys, they had eight defensive linemen, they had eight offensive linemen.  Because we now have the depth our big guys don't have to stay out there as long, they can go out there and play hard and then get a couple snaps to rest so that when they go back out there they can play hard again.  We want our guys to be there at the end because that's the most important thing is to finish.  I think that's gonna be the biggest thing as we go for the Rose Bowl and the Pac-10 title, we need to be strong and ready to play at the beginning and at the end.  If you misstep anywhere then you're depending on somebody else to take care of your business.  We don't want that, we want to take care of our business.  We want to be the ones who decide how we go and how we end up." 


How much easier does it make your job heading into your 3rd season at SC now that the players have seen the results on the field?


"So much easier.  We have kids buying in all the time.  I don't think you have 100% of the team buying in all the time, some of them stand in their own way sometimes when they don't want to work that hard because we work our athletes hard.  It's a tremendous effort for these athletes to do what we ask them to do.  We put them under a lot of stress with an intense focus on doing things right. 


One of the great buy in stories is William Buchanan.  William ran a 4.5 last year and really didn't buy in because he had played off his natural abilities for so long and didn't realize that he could get so much better.  He really bought in last winter and through the summer and the kid ends up running a 4.33 40.  Ronald Nunn is the same way, he came back after his third ACL and ran in the 4.3's and jumped 41" in his vertical.  A lot of people say you can't come back from an ACL and we're not miracle workers but if an athlete really buys in and dedicates himself to the program then great things can happen.  We can show them Kenechi Udeze going from 350 pounds to what he is now which is just phenomenal but it takes a lot of extra effort and focus to get to that point.  It doesn't come easy, you've got to really want to get there but when we see athletes make that transition from being a naturally good athlete to being a great football player it's just so exciting for myself and my staff to see.  It's what we're in this business for." 


Kenechi has to almost be a poster child for what can happen with hard work and listening to the coaches.


"We put him up in front of everybody.  Kenechi is a very humble young man and won't really say anything about it but we keep telling the young guys that if they want to get to that point then they need to ask Kenechi what he did.  If you want to turn that corner from being a good football player to a great football player ask him what he does not only during the off-season but during the season.  He's just an animal when it comes to focus, intensity, effort and that sort of thing.  We don't talk about how much he lifts because how much isn't important, it's how he goes about his business that's very important.  He's one of the best we have in terms of coming in every day ready to go and training with his whole heart."


You added some new machines recently, tell us about them.


"Some may call them my new toys but I call them tools because specialists use tools while children use toys. There's a machine called the V-Coach.  We started using it during fall camp and what it allows me to do is video an athlete while they are training and then immediately show them a video of what they are doing right or wrong.  The video screen is the size of a laptop computer with a small camera attached to it.  You can take the screen and place it in a case so it's portable to travel on the practice field or in the weight room. We set up a file for each athlete and keep a video record of a how a workout is supposed to look.  We video the athlete and then can immediately compare the technique they used against the proper technique to see if they are better or worse. 


Now, some of these athletes we've been training for years.  Males are visual learners and so some of the guys may not be getting exactly what we're telling them in terms of technique but with this tool we can show them exactly what they are doing while they are doing it and we see results right away.  We don't need to film something on the field and then run back to the film room to study it, I can take this case with me wherever I need to go and review it on the spot.  It's everything I've looked for in a visual aid because I film everything but if it takes too long to review the point can be lost. 


It's an indoor/outdoor unit and it has great clarity when you take it outside.  It's great for the kickers.  We can video a guy striking the ball and review it on the field.  Both Coach Slu and Coach Pola like it because it allows them to make a change right then instead of waiting to get to a dark meeting room.  Practice makes perfect but poor practice makes poor effort.  It's just one of those things where the quicker we can get it to the athlete the quicker we can make change. 


There's not a lot of widespread use with the V-coach right now.  A few baseball teams, some track programs.  I learned about it from some friends who saw it at the Texas Relays so I called the guy up because I didn't believe what I was hearing.  It was too fantastic, it was everything I wanted in a video unit.  It was portable, I was able to take it outside and I was able to get my athletes to learn directly on hand how to do things. I'm a big believer in video taping athletes because they learn from their own mistakes.  We can show them great athletes doing a certain thing but until they see themselves in that place they can't transpose what we're looking for or what we're talking about.  A lot of times we can tell them what we want but from their ears to their brains to their bodies they don't have the ability to tie it all together.  A lot of the changes are subtle suggestions but once they see themselves in action they understand and it makes sense to them.  The important question comes afterwards when we ask them "did you feel it?" and they say "yes".  Once they start feeling it then they don't have to think about it, they just go through the action.  It's a lot like playing, you don't want them thinking out there because that slows you down, you want them to feel how to do it and how it feels right and then mimic what they just did because it was right. 


We also have a new machine called the Power Plate and it can be used for hamstrings, groins, shoulders, anything really.  It's such a great tool for warming up, stretching or expediting the healing of injuries by stimulating circulation in an area.  Some players don't have anything wrong with them, they just like to use it because it helps them warm up faster.  It doesn't take the place of warming up, it doesn't take the place of stretching but it helps them get to that warm place faster.  It takes 30 seconds to work a particular area so if you can do that it gets the athlete out there doing quality work for a longer period of time and that helps make them a better player. 


One of the things we're constantly doing is striving to make this a better place for all sports.  The more equipment we have allows us to warm athletes up better, to coach them better, I'm always keeping that as my biggest drive is to be a better coach so if the athletes are getting better I'm doing my job."


You received calls this off-season from other schools and NFL teams to ask about your program.


"I have a great deal of respect for the strength coaches at the University of Nebraska.  They were definitely the first ones to start our business back in the 70's and they've done so much for the strength training world and for athletes in general.  I'm very good friends with the strength coach in charge of their football program, Brian Bailey, and he's been there for 20 years along with Mike Arthur who is in charge of their Olympic sports.  Brian called me this past winter and said "hey, the coaches are real impressed with the way that you guys looked on the football field.  They want to know what you guys do to get to that point".  For so long every strength coach has made the trek to Mecca, or Lincoln in this case, and asked those guys about their program.  I think the game of football has evolved and I'm glad I'm thought of in their eyes as a guy who is on the cutting edge because that's what I always strive to be in an innovator and not a copier.  I'm always looking for better ways to get the job done, to be more efficient, to be safer.  So when a program like Nebraska calls it humbles me. 


We also had NFL teams sending their coaches to talk with us because they see how well our guys do in camp and they say "geez, what are you doing with these kids?"  To me, I guess that's my ego shot for the day because I'm just a coach.  I don't project myself to be anything other than a facilitator for our football coaches and our soccer coaches, our baseball coaches, etc.  We're just trying to give them better athletes but when people call and want to find out what we're doing with our volleyball program that makes them better, I say that Mick Haley recruits great athletes and coaches them better than anybody in the country.  I think we help.  We've got people like Jamie Yanchar with volleyball, Aaron Ausmus with track, Andrea Ausmus with women's golf, Charr Gahagen with basketball and Gary Uribe with swimming.  We just take what they want their athletes to do and we help them do it better. 


It's neat because for so long I was the one going up and asking the questions of them.  I'm always striving to know more.  I'm constantly reading.  Here on my desk is a book called The Inner Game of Tennis.  It's not about tennis so much as it's about trying to get athletes to focus better, it's more of a sports psychology book.  It's my new book that Dr. Sugarman recommended to me.  He asked me if I had read it and I told him I wasn't a tennis player so I didn't know if I should read about how to play better tennis because it wouldn't effect anything.  He told me no, it wasn't about that, it was about how to focus and be a better athlete.  I'm reading it now and as you can see I highlight everything so I can remember things. 


One of the sources for the book is a former USC tennis player named Shawn Brawley and I had a chance to meet him.  He's done work with kickers in the past and is a longtime practioner of the inner game.  On my bookshelf I have books from people like Phil Jackson, Lou Holtz, Tom Osborne, Dr. Covey.  I don't know if there's one right way to do things but I think you can learn from those who have done it right and form your own way to do things.  Take a baseball hitter for example.  There are a lot of different ways that batters will start their swing but they all end up in the same hitting position when it comes time to hit the ball. 


I try to take a look at all these winners and say how I can I them together, what it is about these people that allows them to be winners.  I watch Mick Haley because he's a champion, I watch Mark Shubert because he's a champion.  There's something about these guys that made them different.  Luck plays a part in winning but to be a consistent winner you need to make your own luck.  What better grounds for this than USC?  The coaches are the best in the country.  Think about it, we're surrounded by some of the best people in the coaching business.  We're talking about tried and true champions.  We've got Olympic coaches, gee whiz, how wonderful is that?"


How much does it help you in your job to be a former coach?


"I think it's very important.  I couldn't imagine doing this job without having that background.  Being a former player and a former coach allows you to know what the athletes are thinking and what the coaches are looking for.  The coaches are gracious to let me into all their meetings and when I'm sitting in on a defensive meeting and I'm listening to Coach Carroll or Coach Orgeron talk about how an athlete needs work on this or that I can just put it down in my notes not only for that athlete but it gives me a sense of what they're looking for.  I don't develop athletes to be what I think is good, I develop them the way their coaches want them to be developed.  It's not like they sit down and draw up a map, I sit in the meetings and watch on the practice field.  I hear some strength coaches talk about how they hate practice because they just sit there the whole time.  How are they doing that?  It's an education for me every day to listen to these coaches, we've got the greatest coaching staff in the country, and I listen to their cues and their keys on how to get better.  Listening to Norm Chow talk is a clinic every time I'm around him.  Same thing with Pete Carroll.  These guys have developed the best athletes in the NFL and in college so to listen to what they're looking for gives me a blueprint for what I need to do.  Without them sitting down and saying "Chris, this is what we want", I can take all my notes and apply when they say "our corners need to do this or we need our offensive linemen to do that".


Coach Carroll seems to have done a terricfic job as the "CEO" of the football program by setting the message and communicating how things should be done.


"I think communication is the key.  He is a great communicator and he demands that of us.  He wants us to be able to communicate with the athlete and to have them all understand that there's only one way to do things and that's the Trojan way.  When you start getting on the cover of magazines and people are talking about your program in a national way then they start to question how you do it better than anybody else.  Well, it's like this, my mom is a very good cook and my wife has tried to duplicate some of her recipes but she can't do it.  The recipe is the same recipe that my mom uses but there's something different, there's just something missing.  People can try to copy what we do here but unless you have Pete Carroll and Norm Chow and Ed Orgeron and all the others involved, you may have a duplicate but it's not going to be the same thing. 


I was fortunate to be a part of Tennessee's national championship team but we do things in a totally different way here.  There's very little that's the same because there's a chemistry that you just can't take from one place to another.  We're buying a house because this is a special place and I want to be here to keep things going on my end.  I told Coach Carroll I want to be here as long as he is.  He's the key to why we're doing so well.  I developed a new word to describe him, he's a micro-leader.  You've heard of a micro-manager and that's a bad thing because it's a person who is trying to do everything.  My definition of Pete Carroll as a micro-leader is that he has his hands in everything but he allows us to do it our way as long as it falls under what he needs to get the whole company to run.  This is his show, as you said he's the CEO.  Pete Carroll knows everything I do but he lets me do it.  He sets up the design of what he wants from his athletes and it's my job to fill that design.  He's a guy who runs on a 25 hour day, he never stops." 


Talk about striving to build a better program here at USC.


"If you're just satisfied with what you're doing, if you're just coming to work, why?  Why not try to be better?  I would be insulted professionally if I didn't walk out of here every day knowing that I made an effort to be better.  It may not even be with training, it may be with interpersonal communication.  We had a situation with Terrell Thomas where he came in to camp and then had shoulder surgery.  I told him "Remember all that stuff we talked about with the Trojan family when you were being recruited?  Well, you're gonna find out about right now because we are a family".  He can't play football right now, he can't even do anything with me until they remove the stitches, but he's still part of the family.  It's not a matter of one day you're playing for us and the next day you can't help us.  Joe McGuire is helping us right now in the weight room with his student work and so he's still part of the family even though he took a medical and can't play.  We don't cast people aside, we still carry them with us and they want to be part of it because they believe in it like we do. 


This isn't a job for me, it's a passion.  I love it.  The university does a good job to pay my wife to let me come work here.  I get to come and play, I get new tools to work with, I get to laugh with these kids.  The athletes are so much fun to be around.  These are intelligent young men, they have senses of humor and they'll fight their ass off for the Cardinal and Gold.  John Papadakis talked about how Marv Goux said the Cardinal was the blood that we bleed and it's passed down from year to year and it's the way we bleed while the Gold is what every man strives to attain.  When I heard that I just thought it made so much sense and I'd never heard it put that way before.  We're fortunate to be part of this.  I'm a historian, my masters degree is in history, and it was great to see the 78 team up there at Salute to Troy last week, to see John Robinson up there, these are the guys who helped establish USC so now we have the great fortune to carry that on.  How special is that?"

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