Husker Power Celebrating 50 Years Of Success
Naturally, Barrett Ruud felt honored when he learned he was among 28 former Nebraska student-athletes selected for the Husker Power 50-Year Team.
Yet, the always-humble Ruud couldn’t help but smile and roll his eyes when he scanned the list of his honored peers.
“In all honesty,” Ruud said from behind his office desk, “I may be one of the worst performance weightlifters of that whole group, I’m guessing.”
While that statement is probably a stretch, it’s easy to see Ruud pointing to, say, Scott Frost, who’s also on the Husker Power 50-Year Team, to prove his belief. Frost set the quarterback performance index record of 2,686 points and quarterback strength index record of 1,968 points.
Frost, who played from 1996-97, also had a 372-pound hang clean and could hang clean 300 pounds for 10 reps.
“No one on the team could do that,” former longtime Nebraska strength and conditioning coach Boyd Epley said. “I don’t know if anyone has done that since.”
So why, exactly, does Ruud believe he’s on this special team to celebrate 50 years of Husker Power?
“Uh, I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
Then Ruud, the former Nebraska linebacker (2001-04) who’s entering his second season as Nebraska’s inside linebackers coach, offered a more serious, reasonable answer.
“I will say, I used the weight room what it is meant to be used for, and that’s to make yourself a better football player,” said Ruud, the all-time leading tackler in Nebraska history. “That’s all I thought about. I really wasn’t chasing necessarily PRs or index points.”
Ruud also depended on weightlifting, somewhat ironically, for one of the same reasons that Nebraska became a pioneer in strength and conditioning 50 years ago.
“Honestly,” Ruud said, “what the weight room helped me with more than anything was battling through injuries. I had little nicks, and I didn’t miss any games, and I think I saved that in the weight room, in all honesty.”
The Birth of Husker Power
Rewind to 1969.
Epley, who transferred from Phoenix Junior College to join the Nebraska track and field team, lifted weights to make himself faster because he “was a tad too big” compared to other pole-vaulters, he said.
Epley also used weightlifting to help strengthen and heal his troublesome back. Some injured players on the football team took note of what Epley was doing, followed his lead, and sure enough, an assistant coach by the name of Tom Osborne noticed those injured players were returning to practice faster than others.
The rest of the story has become Nebraska football lore.
Osborne convinced the head coach, Bob Devaney, to let Epley share his weightlifting methods with the entire football team. Devaney, after all, was looking for any ways to turn the tide for his program, which had gone two straight years without a bowl, after having made five straight bowl games in as many seasons under Devaney. A 47-0 road loss to rival Oklahoma to end the 1968 season wasn’t setting all that great, either.
So Devaney hired Epley as the first strength and conditioning coach of any collegiate team in the nation.
“Then he put it on me when he said, ‘If anyone gets slower, you’re fired,’ ” Epley said. “Well, I was pretty confident they wouldn’t get slower. As an athlete myself, I had learned how to make myself faster.”
When it came time to test progress, Epley faced his first crisis. He couldn’t find a stopwatch. He had to go to the P.E. department to get one.
But, “They got faster,” Epley said, “and the rest is history.”
Indeed, it is.
To celebrate 50 years of Husker Power, the Nebraska Athletic Department is honoring 28 former student-athletes on the aforementioned Husker Power 50-Year Team.
Epley, now Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning, led a committee that selected 10 football players and two players from 18 other sports for the Husker Power 50-Year Team. Click here to see the complete list of honorees.
The committee also chose 20 other nominees for football, and two other nominees for each of the other sports. In all, 84 former players and three coaches, including former football coach Tom Osborne, will be recognized at a private event on Aug. 30, the night before Nebraska’s season-opening football game.
The committee considered All-America status, world records, Olympic champions, performance in the weight room and general overall talent in selecting the Husker Power 50-Year Team and nominees.
“Some of these winners are because of what they did in the weight room,” Epley said. “Some are because they were just so outstanding in their talent. So it’s a mixture.”
Ruud checks most of the boxes, hence his selection to the team.
“I’m proud of the fact I used the weight room to make myself a better player,” Ruud said. “That’s why you lift weights as a football player.”
In addition to Nebraska being a pioneer in strength and conditioning, Ruud is proud to point out that Nebraska was the first team people nationally recognized that would win games based largely on its work in the weight room.
“We won in the fourth quarter, and we won because we were better conditioned than the other team,” Ruud said. “You gain a huge mental confidence doing that.”
Ruud is convinced current strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval is bringing that back under Frost, who’s entering his second season as head coach. Duval was named the 2017 National Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year at UCF.
“Zach is making us a bigger, stronger, faster team, which is what we were down at UCF, too,” Ruud said. “We were a weak team when we got to UCF, and two years later we were a really strong team.
“Going into the second season, we’re going to be a lot stronger team here.”
Husker Power Produced Results
Again, rewind to 1969.
Among the first Nebraska players to see an increase in speed after undergoing Epley’s strength and conditioning program was wingback Johnny Rodgers. The 1972 Heisman Trophy winner said he dropped his 40-yard dash time from 4.8 to 4.4 by simply doing squats. He’s representing receivers on the Husker Power 50-Year Team.
"We lifted weights in high school, but when I got to Nebraska, I was taught how to get stronger, quicker and faster without getting bulkier," Rodgers said. "I was benching 300 pounds while still maintaining the flexibility of a gymnast."
Oh, and the 1969 Nebraska team, the first with Epley directing strength and conditioning, reversed fortunes with a 9-2 record that included a 44-14 whipping of Oklahoma. A year later, Nebraska won its first national championship. Then another the year after that.
"We all owe a big part of our success to Boyd Epley, simply because we were all able to perform at the top of our game when the stakes were winner-take-all," Rodgers said. "We bypassed injuries because we were all strong and in world-class condition."
Of course, Epley’s strength and conditioning program eventually enveloped the entire Nebraska Athletic Department.
Kevin Coleman, a member of the Nebraska track and field team from 1989-92, became one of the strongest Huskers in history with a 461-pound hang clean and 744-pound squat. He won the shot put at the NCAA Indoor Championships in 1992 and 1993.
Women’s track and field star Merlene Ottey credited leg strength to her success. Her personal best mark on the hip sled was 510 pounds.
“I feel this strength really helped me make a difference in my running,” said Ottey, whose nine Olympic medals tie for the most of any female in track and field history. “It really helped me get a better push off the blocks.”
Lori Sippel, the longtime Nebraska assistant softball coach, credited hang cleans for making her more athletic when she pitched the Huskers to three College World Series appearances. “When I was doing the hang clean,” she said, “I felt totally explosive when I was pitching.”
Volleyball standout Laura Pilakowski-Buttermore is the only athlete to ever own all Husker Power performance records for her sport at one time. She was the Husker Power Lifter of the Year in 2000 as well as the Husker Power Athlete of the Year.
All of these aforementioned Huskers are on the Husker Power 50-Year Team.
The Husker Power Tree
More than 100 former and current strength and conditioning coaches, along with special guests and donors, will also attend the ceremony and dinner on the eve of Nebraska’s first football game of the 2019 season.
Gary Wade wishes he could be one.
A native of Nebraska City who graduated from Weeping Water High School, Wade served as assistant strength coach at Nebraska under Epley from 1976-79 while working on his undergraduate degree.
At age 24, Wade became the Detroit Lions’ first strength and conditioning coach, in 1980. He later served as Clemson’s head strength coach for 12 years, and 10 of his graduate assistants became head strength and conditioning coaches at the NFL or collegiate level.
When he worked under Epley, Wade never gave thought to strength and conditioning as a profession, because it wasn’t much of one at the time. Today, Husker Power’s work in program, supervision and facilities has become the base of a tree that has produced more than 53,000 certified strength and conditioning professionals supervising athletes in every sport, at every level, across the world.
One of them is Joey Batson, the strength and conditioning coach who’s helped Clemson win two of the last three national championships.
“He just mentioned to me, ‘We’re part of the Boyd Epley Family Tree,’ and it never occurred to me that they look at it that way,” said Wade, who’s now Assistant Athletic Director of Facilities at Clemson.
“It was interesting. You can see the value that being associated with Boyd had, just by the way the guys who worked with me viewed getting knowledge and information directly from Boyd.”
Epley and other members of the Nebraska Athletic Department recently visited Clemson’s football facilities, and Wade mentioned how Batson “kind of flocked to Boyd when he walked into the room,” as he was eager to meet his protégé.
“More than just setting up a good program, to me, when I look back, I learned probably more about the administrative things,” Wade said of his time at Nebraska. “At that time, if you wanted to get a good weight room, you had to be kind of creative.
“The funding wasn’t like it is now. You had to find a good welder to help you build racks. You had to find an upholsterer to put pads on things. It was just a whole different time.”
Nebraska’s first weight room covered 416 square feet. Today’s Ndamukong Suh Strength and Conditioning Center is some 20,000 square feet.
“They were creative about finding a hole-in-the-wall room and making a great weight room out of it,” Wade said. “You could see the end result by how successful the Huskers were during that era. It’s almost like Boyd had a step up on everyone else.”
The Secret Behind Husker Power
When Epley introduced weightlifting to Nebraska 50 years ago, only three existing sports actually lifted weights: Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and bodybuilding. The handful of athletes across the country who dared lift weights on their own were generally scolded, the fear being they would become too muscle bound and slow.
What Epley and Nebraska did was evaluate what the three other sports could offer – not to see how much weight they could lift, but what benefit athletes could gain to improve their sport performance. Nebraska took three sets of 10 reps from bodybuilding to build girth, three sets of five reps from powerlifting to build strength and 1-3 reps from Olympic weightlifting done explosively.
None of these alone served as the answer, but when Nebraska implemented these components into a year-round program to build size, strength and power – and then called it strength training – it changed the landscape of college football.
“In the 70s, people were like, ‘We need to go call Nebraska and find out what they’re doing.’ A lot of it was surrounding Boyd’s program,” Wade said. “I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to absorb as much of that information from Mike and Boyd as I possibly could.”
Mike Arthur served as Epley’s assistant for more than 25 years.
“It’s tough for me to say Boyd without staying ‘Mike and Boyd.’ To me, they’ve always been inseparable,” Wade said. “They were such a great team together that it’s hard for me to think about one without the other.”
Epley is regarded as the most decorated strength coach in history, and for his national contribution in strength and conditioning, he was named a 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award winner by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
Epley served 35 years as Nebraska’s head strength coach for football, helping the Huskers win 356 games in 35 years and five national championships. He then moved into an associate athletic director position to oversee the design and construction of the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex and Hawks Championship Center before retiring from Nebraska in 2006. He returned in 2014 in his current role.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@GBRosenthal.