The Process with Ryan Davis, Rodney Hill, Brian Johnson, and Dantonio Burnette

TAGS: Dantonio Burnette, Brian Johnson, Rodney Hill, Ryan Davis, athlete buy in, athlete development, staff development, strength staff, football, strength coach

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The things that take you from good to great aren’t just the X’s and O’s, whether that be in strength and conditioning, or in life. Though you should have a solid foundation of knowledge, knowledge alone isn’t going to separate you from those who have the same base of knowledge as yourself. What will make you great are the things behind the curtain that no one on the outside sees on a day-to-day basis.


RECENT: Meet Ryan Davis, Rodney Hill, Brian Johnson, and Dantonio Burnette


People on the outside see the bowl game wins, or the squat PR’s, but what they don’t see is the process. This process includes getting a job, keeping the job you have now acquired, building up those around you, and keeping the main thing the main thing with your athletes. The main thing refers to their physical and mental development – physical development to put them in the best position to succeed on the field of play, and mental development to put them in the best position to succeed in the field of life. In this second part of our two-part series, the coaches take us through:

  • what they look for in selecting new staff, but more importantly, what keeps a new staff member around once hired;
  • their views on staff development and how they help their staff achieve their individual, personal goals;
  • how have they broken the stereotypical molds set forth for minority coaches by others that we sometimes tend to get stuck in (i.e. hype man, sidekick), and what advice they give to others who may be struggling with those things;
  • and what they are doing now, in the present, to make a positive impact on their athletes’ futures.

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Ryan Davis: Director of Football Strength and Conditioning, Colorado State University

First of all, I am constantly interviewing, evaluating, and assessing those around me. I love the opportunity to speak or do professional development because it gets you around other coaches. At Colorado State University, the most critical piece that I evaluate is how a person can develop and sustain relationships with our players and staff.  I believe this is a direct reflection of a person’s character, and I want great character around our players. I look for people who are selfless, who are teachers, who communicate well, and who are about making the team better. The next thing we evaluate is our need versus their experience. If you are hiring, you obviously have a need to fill on your staff. We want to make sure that the experience is appropriate for the need. I think it’s critical to spend time around candidates socially and professionally. In my opinion, interviews don’t show the full picture of who a person is. My staff are the ones who know the most about me – they know more about me than a lot of my family. This is not just because of the time we spend together, but how that time is spent together. The staff has the ability to give a team a certain energy. That energy can be the very thing that promotes an environment in which your players can be the closest and truest version of themselves – that’s exactly what the weight room should foster.  

Staff development is about intentionally investing in those around you. Each one of my assistants wants the opportunity to be in the head seat and running their own program. In knowing that, we work together to find things that need to be developed. I try to find or create opportunities within our program to develop those areas. Ultimately, this is my responsibility as a head strength coach, because I want them all to be successful.

I was raised to never play the victim. I was raised to put time and energy into things that I can control, like my faith, my work ethic, my character, and how I treat others. I would tell any person aspiring to serve as a strength coach to:

  1. Not get caught up in the blessings of others. People around you are going to get opportunities, but so will you. The timing is never going to be what you want, and the road is rarely traveled according to your plan. Be patient!
  2. Do what you are doing for the right reasons. The right reasons have everything to do with the people around you, not the place – there are people where you are who need you. In time, those reasons may come to light, or they may not. Believe me, there is someone in your program right now whose life you are changing.
  3. Be where your feet are. Samford taught me to make it big time, right where my feet were. I had a blast being a part of building something special there.
  4. Maintain balance and perspective. Having a life outside of the weight room will give you balance and perspective, which you need in order to be successful. For me, my relationships and faith took a hit when I was younger because I was so caught up chasing where I wanted to be. Having that balance now has given me a much-needed change of perspective as a coach. It has, essentially, allowed me to be where my feet are.
  5. Control what you can control. Be committed to the right things for the right reasons, and handle yourself like a professional. If you do those things, your opportunity will come, and I believe that you will find success within the opportunity you want.

This is something that is ongoing. As you can see by my previous answers, relationships are of the utmost importance to me as a coach and as a person. It is the greatest thing of value in this life. If you are working on a relationship on a daily basis, it will carry over long after football is done. Investing in lives is about more than coaching a clean or a squat; it is about helping that person or athlete in any area of their life. Athletes do not undervalue or underappreciate time. I think if that time is spent well and with purpose when they are athletes, it should also be spent well and with purpose when they are done playing.

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Rodney Hill: Assistant Director of Football Strength and Conditioning, UCF

If I am looking to hire someone onto my staff, I would like to hire someone that I have previously worked with because I know that I can trust them. If I cannot hire someone that I know personally, I will ask those that I do know personally for recommendations of people that they trust. If that person gels with the staff, has knowledge of what we are trying to do as a strength program, and can build relationships with the athletes, then they have a good chance of getting hired. Assistants should bring a holistic knowledge of strength and conditioning to the table, but they should also have a skill set that no one else on the staff has. That way, we can all continue to learn and grow from each other and be better off for our next positions, whenever or wherever those may be. I mentioned getting along with the rest of the staff earlier; they do not need to be best friends, but they need to be able to work together and keep the athletes’ best interests in mind to accomplish our mission: developing the athlete. Assistants also need to make the head strength coach’s life easier as well. Any head strength and conditioning coach who wants to run a program at a high level knows that they must have a good staff in order to do so. The head strength coach should be able to rely on their assistants to get done whatever was asked of them, the way it was described, in a timely fashion to make sure the program is running smoothly. There is a lot of pressure on the strength and conditioning department, especially during the off-season, to deliver the head coach’s message and build the team up both physically and mentally. The assistants need to be able to help do that and help elevate not only the athletes, but the other coaches on the strength staff as well.

Staff development is very important in my opinion; it is your job as the head strength and conditioning coach to not only develop the athletes, but your staff as well. The assistant strength coaches need to be taught what they don’t know, so that way, they are ready when it is their time to be a head strength and conditioning coach. The last thing that you want is to have a strength coach that worked under you, that you recommended, go into a situation and be underprepared because that will reflect back on you. You need to take the time to help your staff understand what it is that you are trying to accomplish, both physically and mentally, in and out of the weight room. Another big part of staff development is looking the part; with that being said, you need to give your staff time to work out and train. If your staff does not look the part (this doesn’t mean veins popping out everywhere –  just looking like you practice what you preach), then you will have a hard time getting buy-in from the athletes. As much as research changes in this field, it is important that we are up to date so we can be as practical and research-based as possible. With that being said, time to read and learn is also imperative in this field.

There is one thing in this field that seems to take precedence over everything else, and that is hard work. I try to work hard and learn everything that I can in order to be as prepared as possible for whatever challenges I may face. I think we all know that there are certain stereotypes that come with being a minority working in this field: “He’s just a rah-rah guy that brings energy”; “He’s an ex-player”; “We need someone who can relate to the athletes”; “We had to fill the HR quota”. I think it is important to control what you can control, continue to work hard, have a strong faith in whatever higher power you believe in, and everything will work itself out. There is no need to try and validate yourself as a minority in this field; you just have to make sure that when you’re given an opportunity, you exceed expectations and leave no doubt that you are the right person for the job. If someone is playing the minority card, it is most likely because they are insecure and have some self-confidence issues that they need to work out. Do not let those things bother you – rise above them.

As cliché as it sounds, you can learn a lot in the weight room that translates to the real world. If you don’t work hard in the weight room, then you will not get the results you want, which is to get stronger. Just like in life, if you aren’t willing to put in the time and effort, you will not garner the results that you want (unless you’re looking for subpar results). Also, as I mentioned before, building relationships with the athletes in order to gain their trust helps a lot. Once they trust you and see that you care, they will listen to what you have to say. This is when you can begin to drop the knowledge that they will be able to take with them beyond the game of football and into the rest of their lives.

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Brian Johnson: Director of Football Strength and Conditioning, University of Arizona

I look for diversity of knowledge and skill set that match the structure and role of the position that I am looking to fill. I like to see how their skill set has been enhanced and evolved over time with the various jobs and positions they have had previously. I also look for common threads in their network and mine – whether or not there are people we both know or have worked with in the past. I use that to assess their background and style of coaching, but more importantly, their style of teaching. Do they have experience teaching Olympic lifts ground-up, or are they top-down? How much will I have to teach? I evaluate that against the role of the position at that particular time. I consider what keeps someone on my staff, how quickly they learn, and how well they execute what I need them to execute (even without my constant direction). I don’t need a group of “mini-me’s” in the room; I need strong individuals who can execute what I direct, think critically, and problem-solve, moment to moment.

Staff development is very important. I love learning and growing as a coach, and I foster that in my staff. If I’m learning, they are learning. If there is something that they are interested in, they know they can bring it to me and we will investigate it. My goal is to help prepare each individual to achieve whatever their goals are.

I think the idea that I need to validate myself because I am a minority does a disservice to me and other minorities in this business. I had to learn that I cannot concern myself with other people’s discomfort, insecurities, and false perceptions.  I’ve heard the label “hype-man”, or “you relate solely because you’re African American”, and “you played football”, as if I don’t also possess qualities that other coaches in this profession have. Yes, I played at the highest levels, won a National Championship, and spent a little time in the NFL, but those were accomplishments I achieved 15 years ago. I refuse to let those things define the strength coach that I am today – review my resume, check my references, and let’s sit down to talk shop. I am not validating my education and my experience any more or less than any other minority or non-minority, male or female. Young coaches do not allow stereotypes to become limitations as to how far you can get in this business. Don’t make this a job – make it your life, and dedicate yourself to doing everything possible to improve your athletes. You do not have to be considered a genius; there is nothing wrong with pulling from what you’ve always known, but also understand that there is a learning curve with no end. I had to do my own reading and put myself in uncomfortable situations; doing all of those things enhanced my growth as a strength coach. In this profession, we are so ready to put each other in certain boxes, and it causes division. As a profession, we need to start treating each other with respect in order to secure a better quality of life for ourselves, including better salaries and job security. If we don’t, nobody else will.

The weight room is a training ground for life. If they need me, I’m there – always. I use my experience and my testimony to educate them – not to make the road easier, but maybe a little smoother. I hope to be an example for them, whether that reinforces the example that they already have, or serves as a stand-in for the space where one should have been. Football is four to five (maybe six for some) years of what is hopefully an 80-plus-year life, so it’s a blip on the screen. If they are not ready to be successful in life, then maybe I haven’t done my job. Hopefully, football will be the hardest thing they ever have to do. I have to leave them better than I got them, mentally and physically. Hopefully, that experience will continue with them and they can live a life of service as well, in whatever way that might look for them.

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Dantonio Burnette: Assistant AD/Director of Football Strength and Conditioning, NC State

The way I go about selecting a staff member is through building relationships. I’m a firm believer in getting to know people because I enjoy learning. You can learn from anyone, so I always tell people that I am an open book – always open to giving and receiving information. More than likely, if I have to fill a vacant spot on my staff, I’ve already had an opportunity to network with guys that I may feel could be a qualified candidate for the position. As we know, in this profession there is always turnover, so I like to keep a short list of candidates who I may consider if a certain spot opens up. I believe in having a staff of guys that all have different strengths and that aren’t necessarily exactly like me. On my staff, I have strength coaches that come from different backgrounds and can do multiple jobs – and that allows us all to grow. On a resume, I look for the good, but I also look for red flags as well. I want to see that a candidate is certified for one; secondly, I like to see that someone has spent more than a year in one job. Oftentimes, guys in the profession will jump from job to job each year. This makes me think that the candidate doesn’t stay put in one location very long, is only interested in a job, and is not completely committed. I love seeing that guys have had experience working with long-term injured groups, because that helps me understand that they are mindful and sometimes have to think outside the box due to an injured athlete’s limitations. The last and most important thing for me is hiring someone that I can trust – someone that I feel is loyal, faithful and confident. Once a newbie is hired, he has to learn our way of doing things and buy into the educational process. My staff and I do continuing education three days a week. Some people may ask, “How do you do that?” The answer is by making time for what’s important. I believe in having a staff that can explain what we do and the reason why we do it. On Tuesday we do roundtable discussions, on Wednesday a staff member will do a PowerPoint presentation on strength and conditioning, and Friday is always our day of leadership to serve our players, and mainly our developmental squad. One of the staff members will speak to the group on one of our pillars of our Wolfpack Standards.

In my opinion, staff development is the most important thing once a candidate is hired. I view my staff and myself as educators, not just strength coaches. We not only have to develop and educate our players, but we have to educate our coaches as well, and be the glue that connects the dots with the different components of our performance team (i.e. ATC’s, Nutritionist, S&C, Sport Psych). I enjoy doing PowerPoint presentations because most athletes are visual learners, so it’s part of the process of development in our continuing education program. I always tell my staff and our players that if you’re ready, you don’t have to get ready. Meaning that you never know when your big opportunity is going to present itself – so you can either work to be prepared, or work to be comfortable. I believe in preparing people for the job they want, not for the job they have. It’s my ultimate goal to see each and every one of my assistants become directors, but it doesn’t just happen; you can’t become who you are by just sitting on your hands and not serving.

I believe I am able to validate who I am as a strength coach in this profession by strictly being me, being a professional, looking at myself as an educator, and sticking to my beliefs. Oftentimes, our profession is the profession that people run to in order to reinvent themselves by hiding behind a certain persona. I don’t believe in trying to be anyone but myself, and I’m very confident in the person that God has made me. My faith is important to me, and I realized that my job is much bigger than the weight room and physically developing young men and women. It’s my job to develop them mentally, spiritually, and more than anything, to prepare them for life after their athletic career is over. I understand where I come from; I grew up in a single-parent home of six kids, and all I know is hard work through teamwork. It’s a bonus that I am a former captain and four-year starter at middle linebacker here at NC State, but I know the guys respect me more because I allow them to ask questions and to use me as a resource. I’m very consistent, fair, and treat every one of my athletes like they’re my kids, and that helps them understand the big picture. I would encourage other minorities in the profession to network and to reach out to as many strength coaches in the profession as possible. People like to hire people they know, respect, and can trust in the field. Also, it’s important that we all understand to whom much is given, much is required. If we get the opportunity to be in a position of leadership, it is important that we carry ourselves accordingly and be viewed as educators, not just “rah-rah” guys. I view myself as a very passionate, smart, energetic strength coach who loves to serve. However, I have always stated that I never want to be looked at or labeled as just “the energy guy”, or a hire to meet a quota. I believe those labels put you in a box and can sometimes hinder your growth due to someone’s perception of you. If that ever happens, it is your job as a professional to shake that stigma by identifying your strengths and working on your area of weakness.

What I do to make a positive impact on my athletes’ future is to continue to serve and reach out to them once they’re done playing ball. It is very important to me that I build on the relationships that we built during their tenure as student-athletes, because what they do once the ball is deflated is more important than what they did while playing. It’s my job to continue to be a friend and person that they can lean on by sending them and their families messages throughout the year. I use social media as a way to keep them connected with our program and our new ways of doing things. Honestly, the relationships I continue to build with our student-athletes and their families once they’re done is the most gratifying part of my job – those relationships make everything about my job worthwhile. Every year, we have our Alumni Players Reunion, and it is like a family reunion for me because I view all of the former players as my family. More than anything, I love seeing the former walk-ons or players who didn’t play a huge role on the field come up and show their appreciation because I treated them as an equal part of our family. The four or five years that they spend in our program are important. Sometimes, they can be the most challenging yet fun times of their lives, because they are away from home and have to depend on coaches to become their parents.

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