We met in front of the Tom and Nancy Osborne Athletic Complex, which he was in charge of building.
Then he took me inside for a tour of the strength complex, past the pools and all the machines and incredible man-sized toys. The strength palace has Ndamukong Suh’s name on it, but everyone knows who really planted the roots here.
We’re going down a hallway with Heisman and Outland Trophy names and jerseys, legends stuff, and he had a hand in that, too. And the hall with the rows of All-America portraits, they all knew his name, too.
Now we’re heading down another long hallway in the Hawks Championship Center, back to his corner office. From his desk up high, he can look down and see the NU women’s soccer team hitting the weights.
Once upon a circuit, he couldn’t get Bob Devaney’s football lugs to lift a barbell. Now the soccer team is all over it.
Boyd Epley, the godfather of weight training himself, smiles like a proud godfather. And it’s like he never, ever left.
Wait a minute. Boyd Epley left Nebraska?
He was gone for eight years, working for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado. So much has happened here since 2006, it’s hard to remember Epley wasn’t here.
Moreover, why would a man who built so much of this with his chiseled arms, a man from Pawnee City, Nebraska, ever leave?
Epley always had time for a good story. And this is another one.
It starts back in 2003, when former Athletic Director Steve Pederson called Epley into his office and told the strength guru he would now be in charge of design and construction of the Osborne and Hawks buildings.
Epley was a strength coach. He founded the concept, for crying out loud. That’s all he ever wanted to do, split anatomical atoms and build top athletes.
Now he was being put into an administrative role. Why? He says Pederson told him, “You know what we need.”
Now, go to 2006. Epley wants $150,000 to spruce up the hallways of the new buildings with Husker sports displays.
Tough times were on the horizon at NU. Pederson had fired football coach Frank Solich. Fundraising had slowed. Pederson wouldn’t give Epley the money.
To this day, Epley is careful not to criticize Pederson.
“Steve and I were friends,” Epley said. “I had one bad day with Steve. ... Steve is one of the most creative people I’ve been around.”
Still, a lot of what caused Epley to pull away after 37 years was that $150,000.
“I told (Pederson) we couldn’t open these buildings without the displays, but he refused to approve it. I didn’t feel comfortable being here.”
So you leave everything you’ve done at NU over that? Not quite.
“There were other stressors in place,” Epley said.
Others in the athletic department were losing their jobs or being moved to other jobs. People were on edge, looking over their shoulders.
Epley himself was now handling facilities, snow removal and security.
Wait a minute. Snow removal?
“That’s not what I signed up for,” Epley said.
Now, flash forward to a couple of years ago, at a Husker golf fundraiser in Castle Rock, Colorado. New Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst invited Epley and former volleyball coach Terry Pettit to join the event.
“Shawn treated us like kings, like legends,” Epley said. “During that event, he asked me if I would ever be available to consult. I said, sure, whatever you need.”
Eichorst had hired Steve Waterfield as an associate A.D. in charge of strength and conditioning, among other things. Waterfield contacted Epley about bulking up the new research and performance lab. Epley recommended some folks to hire, then added, “If you can’t get them, I’ll come do it for you.”
Guess who they called first?
Epley has the simple title of assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning. But he’s not in the trenches anymore, didn’t look over James Dobson’s shoulder when he came back last October, and won’t do it to Mark Philipp now.
This is 2015, and the Huskers say it’s not uncommon for Philipp to walk into the strength room in bare feet and go up and lift a few hundred pounds. It gets the room jumping. It’s definitely not 1985. Epley never instructed in bare feet.
It’s a different day, and Epley is part of the administrative layers of a modern day athletic department. He used to be just past the rows of weight bars, in a smallish office, available for interviews, available to announce the winter workout results to the hungry world.
Now he’s in a different world, with a small army that answers to him, and working in a different trench, the performance lab in East Stadium. He’s still testing, all athletes now.
And still working and pushing the envelope with his old friend and colleague, Mike Arthur, who has the department stressing the use of the squat exercise. Epley calls it “the king of all exercises for increasing muscle and strength and power.”
There’s one key difference this time around, and Epley’s extremely proud of it: Philipp reports to Epley, not head football coach Mike Riley.
Epley isn’t planning to micromanage. But he told Eichorst he wouldn’t come back unless the strength coach reported to the assistant A.D. for S&C. It’s the same reason Epley spent the last seven years getting the NCAA to pass a rule requiring all strength and conditioning coaches be certified.
“There are too many deaths in college football, and they aren’t related to the field,” Epley said. “It’s in training. The strength coaches need to be certified. And not be tied to the football coach. A coach might want to punish his players in the offseason, and the strength coach has to be able to say what’s right.”
It’s a long, long way from 1969, when Devaney told his first weight coach, Epley, “If anybody gets slower, you’re fired.”
I love this story, so work with me here. And Epley brought it up, anyway, pointing to a photo on his wall of the Husker weight room in 1968 — the size of a walk-in closet.
How did strength and conditioning start? Here’s the CliffsNotes version:
Epley lived in Beatrice until the fifth grade, when his family moved him to Phoenix because of his asthma.
His next door neighbor in Phoenix had a pole vault pit in his back yard. Seriously. That’s how Epley got into the vault.
As a high school quarterback, he was small. He wanted to gain weight. He went to a local Phoenix gym, got to know a weight lifter, learned to lift weights, gained 20 pounds.
The rest is history. Almost.
Now a pole vaulter at NU, Epley missed the pit one time and hurt his back. He rehabbed in the smallish weight room. At the time, 1968, college football players didn’t lift weights, unless they were hurt.
An eagle-eyed assistant football coach named Tom Osborne recognized that the injured football players were coming back to the practice field stronger and in better shape. He asked them why. They told him about the pole vaulter who had helped them with weights.
Seriously, this story belongs on a wall somewhere in the Suh Strength Center.
So one day a guy pokes his head into the walk-in closet weight room and tells Epley he’s got a phone call. It’s Osborne. He wants to see Epley now.
“I thought for sure I was in trouble,” Epley said.
“I went to his office and he and Cletus Fischer were there. They were impressed that I had helped the football players. They were wondering if I could help the whole team.
“I said, ‘Coach, I can help you, but you don’t have enough equipment. We can only get six to 15 people in there at one time.’ Tom said, ‘We can remove that wall. Tell us what you need.’ ”
Look at him, already working on expanding facilities.
Epley loves these stories. His eyes and voice light up. How many direct ties to the Devaney era are left? Not many. No wonder Philipp and the entire football staff speak in reverent tones about Epley. He’s walking, breathing history.
Still chiseled, too. Yeah, he’s older. He’s 68. Ask him how much longer he plans to keep working and he says he’s got good health, a plan to maybe go to 75 if they still want him.
Why wouldn’t you want a resource this deep — a guy who created strength and conditioning — hanging around?
Epley likes the state of this thing he created. He once sent an army of his assistants out to be strength coaches in college football, and it multiplied from there. Epley talks about how the Dallas Cowboys have a 400-pound player and Sports Illustrated asks if there will be 300-pound skill players, and you can see Epley’s mind working.
He was always on the cutting edge, and now he’s back in the game, working in a performance lab that puts NU on the cutting edge again.
Alas, the lab is not open today. We walk back through the stadium concourses to his office. I mention to Epley that his name is nowhere to be found in any of the buildings he helped construct in one way or another. Ironic?
Wait. He takes me to the giant old stadium clock in the North Stadium concourse. Behind it, there’s a plaque with several names on it, including Epley’s. Pederson put it back there.
Whatever. Tributes are for the retired and dead. Epley is still very much into this thing. Very much.
“I’m very proud of all this,” Epley said. “Look at this place: It’s better than ever. You can feel it. We’re like a rocket about to blast off.”
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