Being a strength and conditioning coach for a college football program is never just about making the players bigger, stronger and faster.
Sure, physical improvements are the bulk of a strength coach's focus, and if the players aren't in good-enough shape, then the strength coach hasn't done his job. But the goals for Ross Kolodziej, who is in his first year as Pitt's strength and conditioning coach, stretch beyond physical development.
"This winter was really about forging an identity; 'Into the Furnace' was kind of the theme that I hung our hats on - drawing on the history of the city, this very spot," he said Thursday from a weight-room bench in Pitt's football facility, which is built on the site of the former Jones & Laughlin Pittsburgh Works. "There was a steel mill on this very spot. So understanding what took place here, what came out of these furnaces, and in the same way drawing the parallels to them in terms of, a lot of potential but still a really raw material. So the goal, the process, is pure steel; something strong, something that's the foundation of this country.
"In the same way, it's a process where they come into this place and we work, we grind, we turn up the heat. You have to burn out those impurities. Sometimes they might think they've gone far enough, but I think for every coach on this staff, as players or as coaches, we've all been on championship teams, all seen all-conference players, first-round picks; Aaron Donald was obviously be the most relevant example of a guy who literally transformed himself by his approach, his mental approach. That's what we try to do: try to simulate that environment in here."
Kolodziej was hired at Pitt in early January as Paul Chryst's second strength and conditioning coach. He had been a standout defensive tackle at Wisconsin and was a seventh-round pick of the New York Giants in the 2001 NFL Draft, after which he spent seven seasons with the Giants, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. Kolodziej then played two seasons with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL and served as team captain while the Locomotives won UFL championships those two years.
During the 2009 offseason, he served as an intern in the Wisconsin strength and conditioning program, which had just been taken over by Pittsburgh native - and Kolodziej's Badger teammate - Ben Herbert. After Kolodziej retired from professional football following the 2010 season, he returned to Madison to finish his bachelor's degree in sociology, and he served a second year as an intern with Herbert before spending a year as a defensive graduate assistant.
In 2013, Kolodziej joined Pitt's strength staff as an assistant, which led to his current position. And while he counts more than a few influences on his path, the time he spent at Wisconsin and the people he was around in Madison had the biggest impact.
When Kolodziej was a freshman, James Dobson was a student assistant on the strength staff; Dobson is now the head strength coach at Nebraska. Paul Goodman was also a student assistant on the strength staff while Kolodziej played for the Badgers, and he is now the head strength coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. And Wisconsin also had an assistant strength coach named Chris Doyle at that time; Doyle now runs the strength and conditioning program at Iowa.
"We had a lot of success on the field and we believed that was forged in the work we did in the offseason," Kolodziej said. "I think that group was tremendously influential to me because you saw the direct correlation between results and work. This is where I believe - and this is where Coach Chryst believes and knows - this is where you can get a real edge in terms of competitive advantage. You have the control. Coming in here (to the weight room) and selling out has nothing to do with talent. It has absolutely nothing to do with talent. You can control everything, you can invest everything you have in here and see a direct correlation to your performance on the field by what you put into it in here."
And Kolodziej has plenty of experience to back up that assertion. Wisconsin won 38 games during his four seasons in Madison, including back-to-back Big Ten championships in 1998 and 1999 and a pair of Rose Bowl victories. He, like assistant strength coaches Kenechi Udeze (former USC defensive end) and Brian Calhoun (former Wisconsin running back), has seen success. He has won on a lot of levels, and the lessons he took from those experiences inform his current approach.
"Those were the things that always struck me as a player: guys that really believe in each other," Kolodziej said. "Maybe not always the most talented guys, but again, getting back to their attitude and focus and understanding a process. They say, it's not always the best team that wins the game; it's the team that plays the best. So, daily, we try to implement different things that call into question focus, call into question discipline, leadership; looking for guys to take control of the group."
So while there are plenty of personal marks Kolodziej has put on Pitt's strength program - he is overseeing renovations to the weight room and affected a noticeable change in the sheer size of the players - he has also aimed to make an impact on how the players approach the game and the team.
"Put some responsibility and onus on those guys. Because ultimately that's what it comes down to on Saturday: it's that collective group that has to make that decision. The coaches can sit here and lay out the plan, they can schedule the practice for X number of periods, focus on this particular emphasis. But the ultimate ownership has to come from our players before we can have true success."
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