Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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24 JUNE/JULY 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL T o be a virtual strength and con- ditioning coach is to exist as a contradiction. The job is built on face-to- face inspiration and motivation — or, in some cases, in-your-face jolts — and its purpose is to build more than muscle mass or speed. College football strength and conditioning programs, when done right, produce cohesion and a culture of account- ability. Players spend more time with the strength staff in the offseason than the on-field coaches, molding the resolve and toughness that will be put to use in the fall. Until now. With campuses closed and teams spread out, the chances to create community and have iron sharpen iron disappear. Players are on their own, and the NCAA's COVID-19 guidelines say coaches cannot man- date workouts or track progress. Until everyone is cleared to return, that is the reality for Notre Dame's director of football performance Matt Balis and every other strength coach in America. It's inherently awkward, like wearing a T-shirt backward. "You gain an appreciation for what you do," Balis said, "because you're basically talking to a computer screen." Balis and anyone else in his spot, though, cannot discard an offsea- son as a lost cause for making gains. Somehow, with limited equipment, no human contact and no ability to enforce and track workouts, his job is to find a way to keep Notre Dame players motivated and progressing for however long the sequester lasts. The teams that find a way to main- tain productivity amid the shutdown and come back without needing to catch up will be in the best position whenever the season starts. On that idea, Balis is optimistic. He likes his team's cohesion. In his view, winter workouts were productive. And as far as learning on the fly and making do with the new reality, he has been there before too. Balis, with the mix of a sturdy pre-existing cul- ture, creativity and experience, is well positioned to navigate the transition from ass-kicker with a hint of Tony Robbins flavor to a remote job with less influence — and thrive amid it. "It's taken some time to get used to the day to day," Balis said. "But I feel like we have a good routine now." 'HE RUNS TO IT' Two years out of college and try- ing to establish himself, Balis hopped across a west suburban Chicago school district, going from strength coach at state title-winning Wheaton Warren- ville South High School to Wheaton North. It was a turnaround job for him and new head coach Matt Foster, who inherited a 1-8 team. He was also add- ing on-field coaching duties. The new gig also greeted him with a foul surprise. Wheaton North's fields were be- ing renovated, which meant the approximately 220 players in the program had to bus two miles to a nearby school for practice every day for an entire season and still be back to catch the late bus. Buses to the replacement fields were sometimes tardy. It added about 30 minutes and meant shortened practice time. Balis, the freshman team head coach and varsity defensive line coach, needed to prioritize with the smaller practice window. Many of his fresh- man players had not put on pads or participated in a football game. There was technique to teach, habits to form, confidence to grow and team synergy to build. He had 70 freshmen spread across three teams, and this was his first on-field opportunity. "How is he going to get to practice, how is he going to keep the attitudes up and keep pushing in the direction it needs to go?" said Foster, who is still Balis' close friend and now the head coach at College of DuPage in the Chi- cago area. "That was his baptism." With less time available and none TRICKY TASK Matt Balis is in bizarre territory, but his past and his personality make it a challenge he encounters with confidence Balis, Notre Dame's director of football performance, has to navigate a weird reality that is the opposite of his job description, but he is equipped to do it. PHOTO BY MIKE MILLER

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