Texas Tech strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt recently started his second year in the football program. Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury hired Whitt from Louisiana-Lafayette.
Several weeks ago, during the Red Raiders’ six-week winter conditioning program, A-J Media sat down with Whitt for a wide-ranging discussion. The more than hour-long conversation touched on his program, Tech’s personnel, his time as a U.S. Army Special Forces staff sergeant in Iraq and how he takes what he learned in the military and applies it with college athletes.
In the first installment of this series, Whitt discussed the eight player captains who led the Red Raiders’ offseason workouts, a couple of whom already earned a lot of respect without being on the team for long. Whitt also revealed a significant change he made this winter: the players themselves now set accountability standards and punishments.
This is the second in a series from that conversation.
A-J: When you got here, how did you coordinate with Kliff? Is the program more you saying, ‘This is what I’m accustomed to and this is my program?’ Or did Kliff say, ‘This is what I want?’ How did you blend the two?
Whitt: “There was give and take. Coach Kingsbury’s been doing this for a little while. His exposure in the NFL, we have a common relationship with the strength coaches now with the Tennessee Volunteers. Rock Gullickson coached coach Kingsbury at the New Orleans Saints, so we had a common knowledge of fundamentals of lifting weights properly.”
A-J: And you knew Rock Gullickson from?
Whitt: “He was my boss at the University of Texas and at Louisville. There was give and take. There’s certain players that you have to understand their background before you can be just cut-and-dried with them. You can’t just say, ‘Hey, this is this kid’s third strike. He’s out.’ This kid might come from a background we don’t quite understand, and so there’s got to be some give and take and firmness.
“Everybody wants to have a program where everybody gets treated exactly the same, but sometimes you have to stretch some boundaries a little bit. We’re not going to win a national championship with a bunch of choir boys. My job is to be a guidance counselor. I have to be a mentor. I have to teach. I have to coach and I have to be consistent and help mold young men, and sometimes some of these kids need extra molding.
“There’s some give and take on that. I’m a pretty hard-charging disciplinarian, but you can’t run off all your good players. And we understand that. When I did the job interview here, I gave (Kingsbury) my ideas how I want to do things, and he would say, ‘What about this?’ I’d say, “Yeah, we can implement this and that.’ I’d say it’s probably 60 percent what I want to do and 40 percent what he wants to do, and he’s the boss and I conform to that.”
A-J: What seemed like his guiding principles? What was the main thing he conveyed to you that he wanted? In other words, “We’re making the change (in strength and conditioning coaches) for a reason. I’m bringing you here for a reason.” What were the one or two key points?
Whitt: “I think a discipline structure, like we have implemented now. A discipline structure and daily accountability and just an extremely detailed development program where we get baseline figures on these kids from a mobility standpoint, how well they bend, and we improve them from day one.
“We do what’s called a functional movement screening on our players, and it basically is a predictor of future injuries. And we get a baseline on them. We’re going to improve their ankle mobility, their hip mobility. If you can improve an athlete’s ankle mobility, you’re going to help mitigate ankle injuries and knee injuries. It’s a very structured development program, and he wanted that. I think that was one of the main selling points that I brought.
“And then I brought in – you can ask any coach this; they’re going to say the same thing – but I have an exceptional staff. My associate director, Jeffery Earls, has been at the University of Texas. He’s been with the Cleveland Browns, the Raiders. He’s seen every echelon. He’s a very educated, articulate guy who can help motivate.
“Coach (Scott) Salwasser, he trained (quarterback) Jared Goff, the number one draft pick last year in the draft. He’s trained a lot of draft athletes. We stole him from Cal-Berkeley last year. He’s one of the brightest speed minds in the country. He goes and speaks at clinics. He writes journals. He’s exceptional in the speed and power.
“Adam Hymel was my very first graduate assistant who graduated University of Louisiana-Lafayette with a master’s in exercise science. He was the first GA that we had. He played nose tackle at LA Tech and is a very tough, structured guy. He’s our director of mobility and agility. I have such an exceptional staff and I have two GAs that played under me, who know my style. They’re very consistent, so that helps me out a ton.”
A-J: You referred earlier to the situation at Oregon. (Editor’s note: Oregon suspended its new strength and conditioning coach without pay for a month in mid-January after three football players were hospitalized after workouts.) How do you — and for any strength and conditioning coach these days — balance pushing players to their limit to get the maximum performance versus the risk of what rhabdomyolysis presents?
Whitt: “That’s a great question. Normally, I guess 20 years ago, there were so many things you could do in house that wouldn’t leak out. And so you could be extremely tough, almost like a military basic training, and nobody would have an avenue to complain or have an avenue where it would get out and be publicized. Well, now with social media, it’s immediate. Seven billion people will find out what happens right now.
“So the main thing I look at is, these kids are athletes. They played in high school at a high level. They’re young men. We’ve given them detailed physicals. If they have any heart conditions or sickle cell or any of those kind of traits, we know about it. We all carry a card that if a kid’s prone to dehydration or he has asthma or he has sickle cell, we know, and we have an exceptional training staff, which we assign to those high-risk kids.
“So during the workout, if we’re running and there’s a sickle-cell trait positive kid, there’s a trainer watching him, with a water bottle keeping him hydrated. So we have all our problem kids identified. Then we give them a period of reconditioning, which we’re doing (in January). I’m not going to come out and just sock it to them day one. But then when you understand who your problem kids are, you indoctrinate them a little bit, you can start turning up the volume a little bit, turning up the heat in the oven. So far, knocking on wood, we haven’t had any real issues.
“But these kids can take … They’re very resilient. I have confidence these kids can take (it). And then they take their five-week winter book pretty seriously. Most of them did. Initially, we showed up in really good shape, I believe.”
A-J: How many players have some kind of health risk you referred to such as sickle cell or asthma or … ?
Whitt: “Every team you look at is going to have between two and four sickle-cell trait positive, eight to 10 asthma kids, and if they’ve ever been prone to cramping. You’re going to have three or four kids that we notate for that as well. Well, that’s just saying they don’t drink enough water. You’ve got to educate them on the importance of hydration.
“We had a team meeting, and I said … You’ve got to speak real with these guys and you’ve got to be candid. Alcohol consumption is reality and excessive drinking is reality in the culture. We told them (in mid-January), ‘This weekend you’re going to have all these welcome back to school functions at different pubs and different bars. Be intelligent. This is what this much alcohol can do to you. Make sure you show up hydrated with H2O on Monday. Be properly hydrated. If you’re dehydrated, this could happen to you.’ So we try to educate them at the same time.”
A-J: How much have you incorporated your military training into what you do with players?
Whitt: “Well, I was a strength coach for 10 years before I was in the military, and a lot of the things I implemented I learned before the military. What the military taught me was stress adaptation and knowing where my weaknesses were and how to address those. Like, I found out quickly my main deal was frustration. When I felt frustration, I would tend to get violent or I would lose my temper and everybody would see, ‘Hey, that guy’s out of control.’ I had to fix that.
“And so it helps me see these kids and see what their pressure buttons are and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to work through this problem.’ Life is about problem solving. It’s kind of created a mister-fix-it mentality, where I’ll see individuals, where stress takes them. I try to work them through that and help mold them a little bit.
“As far as discipline goes, showing up every day prepared with the right uniform so to speak, the right attitude, on time with an open mind and a good attitude. It taught me that. It taught me, value what I have.
“You go to Iraq for a year and spend a year in that environment, it’s like going to a different planet and you come back to this environment and they’re so blessed to be here, with all the resources and the food, the equipment, the clothing, the access to education. It’s remarkable.
“So I try to make these kids realize how blessed they are to be at Texas Tech and respect your opportunity. So many guys I enlisted in the Army with didn’t have degrees, and the education was part of that incentive to enlist and go in harm’s way and use the GI Bill later on. Well, these guys are getting that up front. You understand what I mean? And if they’re a walk-on, they have the opportunity to get that scholarship. It taught me to really appreciate the country you live in and the resources and opportunity you have.”