LINCOLN — When Bob Devaney hired Boyd Epley to start a strength and conditioning program for Nebraska football back in 1969, there was little reason for Epley to believe he was heading into his dream job.
The initial arrangement called for Epley to be paid $2 an hour and work two-hour shifts just three days a week.
Devaney didn’t make the workouts mandatory for his Husker players because, well, the head coach wasn’t entirely sure what Epley would do with them.
And the equipment in the Schulte Fieldhouse “weight room” consisted of a universal machine, five dumbbells and one Olympic set. It was so small that then-NU assistant coach Tom Osborne would have a wall knocked down to double the size.
“It was a film room, and that became part of the weight room,” Epley said. “I gave them a list of equipment that we needed. So we had to build it up.”
From those primitive beginnings emerged Husker Power. Epley would be on his way to becoming a household name in college football, and Nebraska raced ahead of the nation in the training of players.
For all of his work at NU and with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Epley last week was named a 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award winner by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. He will be honored at the organization’s annual meeting Sept. 16 in Washington, D.C.
Epley, 66, was nominated for the honor by former NU strength assistant Steve Bliss. He said the award is a credit to all of his former aides, and “about all the people that contributed to strength and conditioning being accepted by athletes to improve their performances.”
First it took Devaney giving him a chance 45 years ago, and Osborne taking it up another notch after he replaced Devaney as head coach in 1973.
Epley was an injured pole vaulter lifting on his own when he first started meeting NU football players in the tiny weight room. When he was a half-hour later than usual one day, he was surprised to find a handful of Huskers there on their own.
“I asked ’em, ‘What are you guys doing?’ ” Epley said. “They said, ‘Waiting for you.’ ”
Word started getting around, and Epley actually thought he was in trouble when first called to Osborne’s office. He then felt a little intimidated when the next step was to see Devaney.
He can still recall his first day — Aug. 15, 1969 — just weeks before a 9-2 season that would set up the Huskers for back-to-back national championships.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and there were not a lot of books or people to contact,” Epley said. “So I had to just kind of go on what I knew, and that wasn’t very much.”
Epley reached out to groups that knew power lifting, Olympic lifting and body building. He also sought advice from Dr. Carl Weir, the Nebraska physical education department chair.
Testing became a big part of the program. A competitive environment started to take shape, which Epley said was helped by four junior-college transfers from Arizona and California who arrived at NU with lifting backgrounds — Bob Newton, Carl Johnson, Keith Wortman and Dick Rupert.
“Fortunately we kind of tripped over a formula that worked in my career early on,” Epley said. “We tweaked it and tweaked it and tweaked it until it resulted in gains for those athletes.”
There was some player skepticism at first, but Epley said many were looking for any edge they could find after a 6-4 season in 1968 that ended with a humbling 47-0 loss at Oklahoma. Epley said Devaney made the workouts optional “because he didn’t know what he was approving.”
When players like Rich Glover, Jeff Kinney and Jerry Murtaugh started showing progress, Epley said momentum followed. Epley called Johnny Rodgers “a fanatic in the weight room” as a 173-pounder who could squat more than 400 pounds.
“So if you have people like that, other people on the team are going to pick it up a notch,” he said.
Epley said think of it as somebody not watering their lawn, then going around the neighborhood daily and noticing how green and plush the grass looked in the yards of people who did.
“It didn’t all come about by guys thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’ll work out,’ ” he said. “It came about by guys that saw the benefits and put it to use. This thing really caught on at a time when other schools were not taking advantage of it.”
Epley would serve 34 years as NU’s head strength coach before moving into an assistant athletic director position. He retired from NU in 2006.
He remains director of coaching performance for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs. He founded the organization in 1978.
Epley said he currently is working on gaining sponsorships for the NSCA and helping Division I strength coaches gain certification to meet an NCAA requirement that goes into effect in 2015.
Epley admits he never could have predicted the growth and impact strength training would have over the years. And he still recalls a chat with Murtaugh from those early days, when the NU linebacker was trying to figure out why a guy getting paid for six hours a week seemed to be in the weight room all the time.
Epley told Murtaugh he had a vision and that this program just might take off.
“He said, ‘Ah, I think you’re headed in the wrong direction. You should go out and get a job,’ ” Epley said.
Years later, Murtaugh was on a recruiting trip with his son when he came across Epley in the NU weight room, which had moved from Schulte to its palace-like home in West Stadium. Murtaugh asked Epley if he remembered that conversation, and Epley replied, “Every word.”
Murtaugh paused, looked around for a second and said: “Wow, now I understand what you were talking about.”
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