Penn State football team gets big lift from new strength coach

Craig Fitzgerald, a La Salle High School graduate, encourages the Nittany Lions to do full-body workouts that mimic motion on the football field.
Craig Fitzgerald, a La Salle High School graduate, encourages the Nittany Lions to do full-body workouts that mimic motion on the football field. (EMILY KAPLAN / For The Inquirer)
Posted: November 14, 2012

 A big lift is on the agenda for Penn State's football team, and strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald wants to make sure players are ready.

So what does he do? Fitzgerald, a 40-year-old father of three, stands still. He waits as, one by one, the players charge at him with full force - headfirst.

"These are guys in their prime, their necks are pretty strong," said Fitzgerald, a La Salle High School graduate. "Is it crazy to let them head-butt me? Yeah, probably. But, man, does it get us fired up."

Not many coaches are willing to get head-butted by Division I football players. Not many coaches are like Fitzgerald.

Penn State's fitness guru might be a bit wacky - "Nothing he does would surprise me," senior Jordan Hill said - but he has a plan. And, albeit untraditional, it seems to be working.

Compared to last year, "I'm stronger and I'm more agile," right guard John Urschel said.

"Our legs are a lot more fresh," linebacker Mike Hull said.

Penn State (6-4, 4-2 Big Ten) has succeeded this season behind an up-tempo offense, which often includes "NASCAR" packages. Coach Bill O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, is the mastermind behind most of that. But perhaps just as important to the team's success is the work of Fitzgerald.

"I've been very impressed with the level of conditioning, really, since the beginning of the season," O'Brien said. "That has a lot to do with the offseason conditioning program of Fitz, and that helps in the up-tempo way we play."

Fitzgerald was hired after two years at South Carolina. He replaced John Thomas, who was with the Lions for 20 years.

Fitzgerald - a lifelong gym rat who, in high school, was given the keys to La Salle's weight room because he was there so often - overhauled everything. Within days, every machine in the Lasch Football Building was discarded. They were replaced by free weights, loud music, inspirational quotes, and a large American flag - as well as some untraditional methods.

Fitzgerald will often ask the equipment manager for extra helmets. He paints them the color of Penn State's opponents, then gives his players 20-pound sledgehammers.

"I tell them just to start slashing," Fitzgerald said. "We all get jacked up after that."

Thomas' program relied on machines. Fitzgerald describes his program as "all inclusive," working on explosiveness by having full-body workouts that mimic motions on the football field.

Fitzgerald's program also ensures players are getting stronger throughout the season - not just maintaining their strength.

"We're asking the guys to do a little bit more than they did the week before," Fitzgerald said. "And if you're going to ask a lot, you better give a lot."

Fitzgerald wakes up at 3 a.m. six days a week. He lifts four days a week and runs four days a week - the exact program the Lions go through.

And if his players need extra motivation? When cornerback Adrian Amos struggled with a 300-pound lift earlier this season, Fitzgerald got down and did it himself. Inspired by his coach, Amos tried again. He did it.

"When I come home, reach for the Advil, and get in the ice bath, my wife always says, 'You know, you're not in college anymore,' " Fitzgerald said. "I tell her I know, but it's my job. And I love my job."

NCAA rules prohibit game-day coaches from working with players until official preseason practices. So between the Blue and White game in the spring and Aug. 6, it was all Fitzgerald, all the time.

That was the case even though Fitzgerald is as much a part of Penn State's game-day routine as any assistant.

It begins in warm-ups, when Fitzgerald rivals the Nittany Lion as the best motivator in Beaver Stadium. The mascot does one-handed push-ups. Fitzgerald does the worm.

"Is that what people think it is? It's actually supposed to be up-downs," Fitzgerald explained. "Guess my form is getting worse with age."

"I'm going to recommend him for Dancing With the Stars," O'Brien said. "Since he's been at Penn State he's become a rock star."

Against Purdue, when it was 38 degrees and cloudy at Ross-Ade Stadium, Fitzgerald did his pregame routine shirtless.

"That was crazy," center Matt Stankiewitch said.

"We have our leaders that rile us up and then it's him," senior Gerald Hodges said. "He gets everybody riled up. Every day he comes to work and he takes his job so serious."

Most strength and conditioning coaches are anonymous to the fans. Not Fitzgerald, who jumps up and down on the sideline and shouts just as loudly as the assistants.

When Penn State's team bus arrived at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 27, some fans held huge cardboard cutouts with pictures of the team's most notable faces.

They included O'Brien, McGloin, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges - and one of the head-butter, Fitzgerald.

More than once, players have sent Fitzgerald pictures of themselves in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a certain statue stands.

"I guess it makes them think of me," the coach said.

But the Lions don't have to rely on fictional underdog boxer Rocky Balboa for motivation. They have Craig Fitzgerald.

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