When Evan Simon arrived in January as the new strength and conditioning coach for the University of Wisconsin football team, he didn’t have a car at first.
Simon stayed at HotelRED, across the street from Camp Randall Stadium, and had to walk to wherever he wanted to go.
On one of his jaunts around the stadium, he came upon a statue of a badger, explaining the heritage of the animal that is the school’s nickname.
After a training run during winter conditioning, Simon asked the players to explain what they knew about the badger.
“What shocked me is no one could answer,” Simon said. “I started a saying, ‘The Badger Way,’ meaning we’re going to be the hardest-working animal, our forest is the Big Ten. We’re going to support each other in our football family. We’re going to work harder than anybody else.
“We’re going to work smarter scientifically and harder practically. What we’ve put together with their work ethic and determination is what’s going to make us that.”
The UW football team starts its seven-week summer workout period on Monday and Simon, 34, is going into it with lofty goals, saying he wants the Badgers to be the “best-conditioned team” in the Big Ten Conference and one of the top “all-around developed teams” in the nation.
“First and foremost, it’s about the players buying into the system we’re putting in, which they are,” Simon said last week in his office in the recently finished weight room. “Secondly, it’s about the work ethic they put in. Then it’s just about us laying out a plan. But that plan doesn’t mean anything without their effort.”
Simon knows he has big shoes to fill in replacing Ben Herbert, who spent 11 years in the department, including the last four as the head strength and conditioning coach. Herbert, a former defensive lineman at UW, helped develop 41 NFL draft picks, including six first-round selections, before going to Arkansas with former UW coach Bret Bielema.
Now comes Simon, who describes himself as “a little bit of an outsider,” having spent the last four years with new UW coach Gary Andersen at Utah State.
“It’s a daily process of me continuing to earn their respect and trust — which I believe I’m doing daily,” Simon said. “All I can be is myself. That’s good enough for these guys. They’re a phenomenal group to work with.”
Major change for the players
Of all the changes in the UW program since Andersen was hired in December, the switch at the top of the strength program — assistants Brian Bott, Jamil Walker and Jeff Zuhlke were retained — might have been the most jarring for the players. That’s because the players spend so much time with the strength coaches, especially in the summer months, when contact with the other members of the coaching staff is limited.
“I think the strength program has probably been the thing that’s been the most different,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said in the spring.
Lifts are limited to one hour and in addition to building power and strength, there is an added emphasis on flexibility, range of motion and stretching, which Borland said paid dividends on the practice field. Andersen also puts a priority on preventative care, with the slogan, “Pre-hab to prevent rehab.”
“I believe we’ve seen results already,” Simon said. “It doesn’t mean injuries won’t happen. ... Coach Andersen puts a big emphasis on it because he believes that’s one of the biggest components of our program. Other programs probably have a similar emphasis, but who knows from the top down if the head coach is stressing the importance of it that we do.”
Then there’s the difference in personalities. Herbert was known for his intensity and motivational tactics in the weight room. Simon can certainly be intense, too, but doesn’t feel a need to be a cheerleader.
“I’m not a guy that’s going to sit and clap 20 times when you do what you’re supposed to do,” Simon said. “To me, the game of football is a technical and tactical skill. It’s understanding those technical and tactical components to create an output that hopefully equals winning and great performance.”
Defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said the players have responded to Simon’s approach.
“He’s busy coaching and getting guys better,” Kauha’aha’a said. “I think he motivates in his own way. He gets them motivated, but it’s the tempo he sets. Sometimes yelling and screaming can be overrated.”
Before every lifting session, Simon gathers the players outside the weight room and goes over not only the lifts for that day, but what he hopes to accomplish with each one.
“We want to make sure as a staff, from bottom to top, we’re coaching these guys on what needs to be done,” Simon said. “We’re instructing them on how to be able to carry out the exercise most proficiently so they can technically and tactically improve in here as well.”
The new weight room, which is part of the Student-Athlete Performance Center on the north end of Camp Randall Stadium, was only partially complete when it opened a year ago. The spectacular, 17,500-square-foot facility was completed in the spring.
“To me, this weight room for years to come, I think, can stack up with anybody,” Simon said.
In addition to the latest equipment, it features a well-planned design by John Dettmann, the current program director. That includes the tiniest of details, like gray carpeting leading to the warm-up area, which has carpeting that resembles a football field.
It mimics the gray carpeting in the tunnel the players go through before stepping onto the field. To start a workout, players jog into the warm-up area. They are not allowed to sit during workouts, unless the exercise calls for it.
The weight room also includes a nutrition area and an on-site nutritionist.
“There’s no program in the country that educates them at a higher level than at Wisconsin,” Simon said.
The main area of the weight room includes 20 racks and dumbbells from 5 to 180 pounds.
Keys to the program
Simon grew up in Maryland and attended Frostburg State, located in the western part of the state. His best sport in high school was wrestling. He said he “dabbled” in football and also was a distance runner.
His parents were divorced and when he was with his dad, they often went to the gym to lift weights. That led to Simon becoming a powerlifter in college.
“Lifting was always something that was ingrained in me,” Simon said. “I was never an exceptional athlete, but what helped make me a better athlete was my work ethic, my attitude and my ability to learn the technical and tactical sides of any sport I participated in.”
Andersen refers to summer workouts as a time when he turns over the keys of the program to Simon, who gives them back in August for the start of preseason camp. The two first worked together at Utah, when Andersen was the defensive coordinator and Simon was an assistant strength coach. When Andersen got the head coaching job at Utah State, he hired Simon as his strength and conditioning coach.
“He trusts giving the keys to the car to me a little more now than he did earlier on,” Simon said with a smile.
Not only is Simon entrusted with the keys, it’s expected the car will be vastly improved and running even better when he returns it.
“He’s turning over the keys to the car and it’s almost like he’s giving me the keys at a garage,” Simon said. “I know what the car needs to look like when he gets the keys back.”