Second in a series
IOWA CITY - Remember Iowa Hawkeye football's old "Break the Rock" mantra?
Well, consider Chris Doyle both the hammer and the chisel.
Time and again, Doyle has, slowly but surely, turned gangly walk-ons into NFL draftees seemingly carved out of granite.
"Imagine if you took a class two hours a day, five days a week for the entire five years of college. Well, that's strength and conditioning," explained the 40-year-old Iowa assistant last season. "They're with us two hours a day, five days a week, year-round.
"So we get to find out what they're all about."
This professorial approach has helped Doyle mold countless Iowa farm kids into Big Ten-caliber men. Doyle, in his 10th year at Iowa, has helped 51 former Hawkeyes earn pro paychecks in the last six years alone.
And, he has earned national renown by transforming five former walk-ons into NFL draftees. It helps that Doyle's a people person - despite what his imposing frame might suggest.
"He's just got that look of an intimidating strength coach. He's a big guy with the bald head," said Derek Pagel, who went from a walk-on to a New York Jet due in part to Doyle's prodding. "I remember seeing him squatting once and there were so many (45-pound) plates on there that the bar was bending.
"But he was a very personable coach," Pagel noted, adding that Doyle often phoned his parents during the summers to update them on their son's training progress.
"Everything starts with the relationships. That's a big part of it," Doyle, a former Boston University lineman, told The Courier recently. "I see it as part of our job to teach these guys how to think. You're talking about 18- to 23-year-old guys, so you're (teaching) lifestyle habits they're gonna take with them forever."
By now, Northeast Iowans are well aware of Robert Gallery's stunning metamorphosis earlier this decade. A 1999 East Buchanan of Winthrop grad, Gallery arrived in Iowa City as a 215-pound afterthought.
In 2004, he left as a feared, 6-foot-7, 321-pound Outland Trophy winner and future No. 2 overall NFL selection.
How did it happen? Through repeated visits to Doyle's 10,000-square-foot labratory in Iowa's Jacobson Athletic Building.
Fellow projects like Pagel and Dallas Clark went from walk-ons to highly paid professionals under Doyle's watch. In fact, in the 2003 draft, three former Hawkeye walk-ons were selected in the first five rounds - a previously unprecedented feat nationally.
Doyle, however, winces when credited for such success stories.
"None of 'em came in here highly heralded as five-star, blue-chip recruits," the coach acknowledged. "All of them went through a tremendous transformation. (But) they all have similar characteristics: They were passionate, tough guys with work ethic.
"The credit goes to the athletes - they committed their lifestyles to reach their ceiling of potential."
Still, most of Iowa's recent overachievers agree that Doyle aided their ascent by providing a significant boost.
"I owe everything to coach Doyle. He gave me all the tools to be an NFL linebacker," said Chad Greenway, who, after arriving at Iowa in 2001 as a former nine-man prep quarterback, eventually became a first-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.
Doyle, said Greenway, "has put a huge number of players in the NFL - guys that probably shouldn't even have been playing Division I (college) football he's helped to play in the NFL. … He helps them realize their dreams."
Said Norm Paker, Iowa's defensive coordinator: "I don't think there's a weight coach in the country who can take guys from A to B like Chris Doyle. That's evident by the results."
Doyle's reward for ushering players on to the NFL comes during his all-too-brief weekend respites each fall.
"When we sit down on Sunday, turn on the TV and see 'em, we take pride in that," said the strength coach. "We get a kick out of it. You live to see kids mature."
The game plan
For the Hawkeyes, there are precious few shortcuts to success. That's why, when Doyle arrived with head coach Kirk Ferentz a decade ago, they knew they needed to follow a proven strength-training template. Wisconsin, which had won three Rose Bowls from 1993-99, served as the black and gold's standard.
"One of the most exciting things about coming to Iowa," Doyle recalled, was that "the coaches saw strength and conditioning as a key component of being successful.
"In 1999 we had zero Big Ten wins. Three years later we were undefeated in the Big Ten. That didn't happen by accident."
Upon arrival in Iowa City, Ferentz made player development a primary concern. And Doyle, in turn, sped up his learning process by observing others in his field.
The result was a weight-training regimen that evaluated each player in 11 areas, including flexibility, ability to change directions and overall body composition.
Doyle also made "explosive movements" a staple of his strength program, harnessing each Hawkeye's core strength through innovative exercises like tractor-tire flipping.
"They went right out on the farm, disassembled the biggest combine you could find and brought in those tires," joked Plainfield native Pagel, a former walk-on safety selected in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
"I didn't look forward to flipping tires," Pagel laughed. "After your workout your shirt would be ripped or you'd have tire burns on your arms.
"But it was all for the good. Look at some of the guys that walk in as freshmen and how they walk out as seniors," added Pagel, who was so lightly recruited as a prep that he nearly played at Division III Wartburg.
Though just 40 years of age, Doyle's resume reads like an extended warranty.
Earlier in his days as a strength coach, he helped propel Utah's men's basketball squad to the national title game in 1998. Prior to that, he helped steer Wisconsin toward a Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship.
In 1991, he toiled under Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame.
In Iowa City, he has watched his pupils play in seven bowl games over the last eight seasons.
Perhaps the biggest testament to the respect Doyle has earned nationally is the fact his longtime former assistant, James Dobson, was hired last year as the head football strength coach at Nebraska - a tradition-rich program renowned for its weight training since the 1970s.
Now, in 2009, some might wonder what's left to be accomplished for Doyle at Iowa. But, although he admits "the NFL is intriguing," Doyle also notes that his wife and three sons are entrenched in Iowa City's comfortable surroundings.
Thus, for the foreseeable future, the Hawkeyes' strength coach will keep hammering away at "the rock" until Iowa's Big Ten foes are reduced to rubble.
"We have a bright future at Iowa," said Doyle. "We have tremendous stability."
But, the coach noted, "our work's not done."
TOMORROW: UNI's Jed Smith goes the extra mile - literally - to aid Panther athletics.