Leaner and fitter, Washington football players are buying Ivan Lewis' regimen as they remake their bodies and try to transform an 0-12 team.
In the same room where he found his passion almost a decade ago, Ivan Lewis returned to help the Washington Huskies rediscover theirs.
A sleeker, fitter group of football players is all the evidence many need that the Huskies’ new strength and conditioning coach already is succeeding.
“I don’t know why guys buy into one thing and not another when you are getting paid to go to school,” says senior defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim of Lewis’ conditioning regimen. “But they bought into that.”
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In fact, many players make it clear they really didn’t think much of the strength program under former coach Tyrone Willingham. That skepticism led to a lack of commitment and a team that often seemed out of condition. Some cite that as the cause of all those second-half flameouts the last few years, as well as some nagging injuries.
“I think a lot of guys felt like some of the things we did before weren’t really working,” said linebacker Mason Foster. “They didn’t buy into it fully. But with coach Ivan, you could see the results. Every day that we did triceps, it was like ‘my arms are killing me.’ And then a couple of weeks into it, you could see everybody getting faster, everybody getting bigger. And it was like, ‘Yeah, he knows exactly what he is doing.’ “
Lewis was one of new coach Steve Sarkisian’s first hires last December.
Lewis had been an assistant in the strength department at USC the previous three years, where one of his responsibilities was overseeing the conditioning of the team’s quarterbacks, the position coached by Sarkisian.
“The strength coach spends more time with our kids than we do,” Sarkisian said. “You want someone who can embody some of the same characteristics that we have as a coaching staff so he can continue to talk the way we talk to them when he is in the weight room.”
But a promotion isn’t what drove Lewis to UW. He also had fond memories of being in the UW weight room during a time he was a teacher at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie and still trying to determine exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
The native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, played football for a few years at Idaho, where he was coached by former UW assistant Chris Tormey, before knee injuries derailed his career.
Designs on being a teacher and coach brought him to Mount Si, where football coach Charlie Kinnune one day invited him along as a job shadow on a tour of football facilities at Washington.
Lewis recalls watching then-strength coach Pete Kaligis working with star receiver Reggie Williams.
“I saw how he would just get after him, the energy that he had here,” Lewis said. “This is where I found my passion that day.”
He found a strength-and-conditioning job at the University of San Diego, then a few years later landed with the San Diego Chargers. But he liked the college scene, and took a job as an assistant strength coach at USC before following Sarkisian to UW.
A family tragedy — the suicide of his younger brother, Ryan, who had battled depression for years — reinforced his decision. Ivan Lewis began to see his role as not just building bodies but helping shape lives. Seeing his brother’s struggles made Lewis see even more value in serving as a mentor.
“You can really mold someone and help someone’s life by giving them the confidence to be better,” Lewis said.
At UW, Lewis saw a group of players who wanted to work but needed a reason to believe.
“What I wanted to establish was a culture change in the weight room. It’s no longer ‘Oh, I have to work out,’ but ‘I get to work out,’ ” Lewis said.
It doesn’t hurt that Lewis is a fitness freak who looks the part of a workout warrior. Lewis, 30, is 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds.
“You just look at the guy and you are intimidated by him,” said cornerback Justin Glenn. “He has a way to get his message across to you.”
Like Sarkisian, Lewis believes in a high-paced, intense but shorter regimen. . He says an ideal workout can be 60 to 90 minutes.
The previous staff seemed to favor bulk, but Lewis and Sarkisian want players more athletic and mobile.
“I truly believe that football is a movement sport,” Lewis said. “You can get a guy who can squat 500 pounds and bench 600 pounds. But can he play football? Well, if he can’t play football, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.
“So I based my program on, I want to get these guys moving in football movements. It’s all about the movement, the speed, the agility. How quick they are at the point of attack. Who is going to win at the point of attack and get off the ball first?”
What Lewis says was his biggest specific goal was “slimming down the offensive line. That was a big problem because they were too big to play the way that we want them to play. We needed them to be faster and quicker.”
Lewis had the linemen awakened for 6 a.m. offseason workouts, and several lost 20 to 30 pounds.
Linemen who once wore T-shirts were suddenly cutting off sleeves and flexing in front of the mirror as their bodies were transformed. Confidence rose as pounds melted away.
“It’s an amazing transition when you believe in what you are doing and you see the results. Physically and mentally, you get tougher and stronger,” Lewis said.
And, Saturday in their season opener against Louisiana State, the Huskies will also begin to find out if it has made them better.