The partnership works because Leach and Loscalzo have similar leadership styles and philosophies. Both men believe in efficiency over volume and value opinions and input from their staff.
Had Jason Loscalzo been a little more athletic, he might never have ventured into the world of strength coaching.
At least that’s the joke Drew Petersen likes to tell when asked to define the moment he knew that his protégé, Washington State football’s head strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo, had the makings of a good strength coach.
“He was destined to be a great strength and conditioning coach. He was a marginal athlete, but a great student and he had phenomenal work ethic,” says Petersen, the longtime strength and conditioning coach at Humboldt State, who coached Loscalzo when he was a fullback on the Lumberjacks’ football team from 1996-99.
“Never did anyone who was a great athlete get into strength and conditioning, because if they were, they didn’t have to work as hard,” Petersen says. “The ones who get into strength and conditioning are the ones who put their nose to the grindstone and worked hard and become decent players. That was Jason. He was a super hard worker, and with that, he developed a real quest to understand the science behind it and how it worked.”
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That industrious nature and constant quest to enhance his understanding of human physiology dovetailed to make Loscalzo the kind of strength coach that head football coaches covet.
“It’s a position where persistence is the most important thing,” says WSU’s Mike Leach.
Persistence got Loscalzo from Humboldt State to a graduate-assistant job at Arkansas, then to full-time assistant strength-coaching stints as Nevada, Marshall and Auburn and then — finally — his big break as head strength coach at Boston College in 2007. Still, he was mulling a change in profession when former Nevada colleague and WSU assistant Jim Mastro called to tell him about the Cougars’ opening.
“I was ready to get out and become a Virginia state trooper,” Loscalzo says. “I was gonna get out of coaching.”
But the WSU job intrigued him. Loscalzo connected with Leach during an interview over dinner at a Los Angeles hotel in January 2012, and five years later, he’s still in Pullman.
The partnership works because Leach and Loscalzo have similar leadership styles and philosophies.
Both men believe in efficiency over volume and value opinions and input from their staff.
“I have a great staff. Guys I can bounce a lot of stuff off, and guys who come to me and go, ‘Why don’t you try it this way?’ ’’ Loscalzo says. “I don’t want robots. Because then it turns into a dangerous situation, and all of a sudden you become the smartest person in the room.”
There’s a mutual respect between Loscalzo and Leach, who for the most part, sits back and trusts his strength coach to run his program.
“I wanted a guy who bought into my philosophy but who also had state-of-the-art knowledge of strength and conditioning and was really dedicated,” Leach says. “I consider Jason one of the most important assets of our staff, and in a lot of cases, I view his position as elevated above the full-time assistants depending on what the (situation) is.”
Loscalzo operates on a power-first philosophy that’s based largely on principles he learned from Petersen at Humboldt State, with some tweaks based on stuff he’s picked up over the years from Oregon strength icon Jim Radcliffe, former Nevada assistant Mike Robinson and Auburn strength coach Ryan Russell.
“There’s no strength coach out there that has his own style,” Loscalzo says. “It’s all borrowing and stealing from others. Most of what I know is from where I came up at a Division II program at Humboldt State.”
From Petersen, Loscalzo came away with the belief that strength is the keystone of athletic performance.
“The number one thing to keep people healthy is to keep them strong,” Loscalzo says. “In my thought process, being strong prevents a lot of injuries. It’s the catastrophic ones you’ve got to train for, the ACL (tears) and everything.”
WSU’s strength program emphasizes core work and the Olympic lifts — the snatch and clean — but is also tailored to help each player with his body’s specific weaknesses.
The Cougars also go through a speed module in the winter where they work on acceleration and movement techniques.
Between Loscalzo’s strength program and Leach’s long-held practice of limiting contact in practice to two days per week, the Cougars have in the past couple of years stayed pretty healthy and had relatively few season-ending injuries — River Cracraft’s ACL tear in 2016 and Connor Halliday’s broken leg in 2014 being the two notable exceptions.
“I think we’ve gotten in better physical shape, we’re stronger and more resilient and we do a lot of things from a lot of different angles so we develop collateral muscles,” Leach says. “And I think we practice better than most teams. We practice faster, shorter and with less contact than a lot of teams.”
But as with everything else in sports, there’s also some sheer blind luck involved in dodging the injury bug.
“We always say with strength and conditioning coaches that they get way too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when they don’t,” Petersen says.
That’s why it comes back to persistence.
Strength-training success is rooted in the mundane old values of hard work and consistency.
“It gets to a point where it’s repetitious, the coaches are tired of it, the players are tired of it,” Leach says. “But you have to resist that and continue to make it interesting and exciting and challenging, and do it consistently and effectively. There’s points where it’s going to be a grind, and you need a guy who’s going to lead the grind too.”
Loscalzo thrives in that environment, excitable and energetic enough to motivate athletes through the mundane, but steady enough to coax consistency out of them, too.
That’s why, even while watching Loscalzo take on opposing linebackers as a 19-year-old fullback, Petersen always knew he had the makings of a good strength coach.
“He was the basic plugging fullback of the ’90s,” Petersen says. “Jason was the blue-collar guy who got a few carries every game and did all the dirty work blocking.
“He can’t really run very fast, he’s not very athletic. But you’d watch him and go, ‘Oh, that’s why he’s on the field.’ He’s a tough, smart kid.”