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Shift in football culture increases MU’s athleticism

Like any team with a 2-26 record over two seasons, the Miami University football team had a list of problems begging for answers when it entered the 2015 season. Rebranding the team culture became a focus of the coaching staff. The result: the first season-opening win in seven years.

But the change wasn't a new workout and nutrition regimen; it's a change in the level of accountability throughout the team.

"From the top down, it's a new level of intensity, accountability, as well as transparency," Director of Strength and Conditioning Paul Harker said. "Everybody, without a doubt, is unequivocally on the same page. There's no hiding behind anything … expectations are the same across the board whether you're a fifth-year guy or an incoming freshman. The accountability is at an all-time high."

Both Harker and Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning Adam Thackery worked at Miami during the RedHawks' 2013 winless season. Both are impressed with the quick culture change they've seen.

"It's changed immensely in the past year," Thackery said. "Mental toughness has gone through the roof."

Harker said the results are starting to show in how the players look physically, how they carry themselves and how they compete. As for attribution, he said it's the team's drive - the players understand they must earn their positions every day.

"You're getting praised one day in practice, but the moment you start feeling good about yourself or the moment you start feeling good about getting praise in the weight room or you hit a PR, the next day if you're not living up to that same level, you're gonna hear about it," Harker said. "You're gonna hear about it from me, you're gonna hear about it from the position coaches, you're gonna hear about it from Coach Martin."

The newfound accountability manifests itself in all areas. Take, for example, a Wednesday morning lift. The sessions are scheduled for 5:45 a.m., but players walk through the door and begin prepping at 5:20 a.m.

The culture shift began in the offseason.

Because the offseason is long and monotonous, the training coaches recognized the need to provide opportunities for daily competition. During the summer, they held a team weight lifting competition. After senior players drafted teammates to their lifting squad, teams would receive points for using the weight room, progress in the classroom and community service involvement.

At the end of the summer, individuals were nominated by their peers to run through what was dubbed the "proving ground" - a 200-yard obstacle course that tested a combination of strength, power, endurance and mental toughness. A 300-yard sled drive over 20 yards, an atlas stone strong lift, a farmer's walk carry and a tire flip were just some of the drills. Senior linebacker Kent Kern won the championship belt.

The training staff also educated the players on making healthy food choices and how to monitor calorie input and output. After every workout, the staffers evaluated each player and designated which ones were to lose, gain or maintain weight.

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After the offseason, the results were clear, and to prove it, the training staff took before-and-after pictures of the players with the biggest transformations and posted them to Twitter.

"Seeing is believing," Harker said. "Being able to take a step back and see what you looked like January 5 or what you looked like May 5 or what you looked like August 5 and see that transformation … it's a pretty impactful visual to see. Hopefully it serves as motivation for them."

"They definitely get excited about getting to flex and pose and see what they look like and seeing who's got the most definition. And you know, putting it on Twitter doesn't hurt either … boost the ego a little bit."

A number of offensive linemen put on weight as well. Redshirt freshmen Zach Swarts and Jordan Rigg and sophomore Zach Hovey began the offseason in the 240-pound range and are now in the 280-pound range. As for junior Colin Buchanan, Harker noted an increase in strength, flexibility and agility.

"A lot of guys put on good muscle mass, and now they're looking the part when they're on the field," Harker said.

When asked for his thoughts on the transformations, Thackery immediately pointed across the field.

"Chris Hudson," he said. "Chris Hudson by far. He's one of those guys where every day you see him and you're like 'gosh - I remember when you came in as a lazy, immature freshman.' He did not buy into the weight room, wasn't excited about lifting. And he's probably our highest-energy guy in the weight room right now."

"He has transitioned from worrying about himself to taking everybody else with him. In my racks upstairs where we workout, he's the leader."

Hudson said he feels the change, too.

"I feel like I made a lot of progress," Hudson said. "I've lost 35 pounds since the start of camp last year, so I feel pretty good."

Now that the season is underway, the themes of accountability and energy become more important.

"Everybody knows their role on the team," Hudson said. "Everybody knows where they stand. Everybody knows who the leaders are and who can step into those roles."

And while the players keep working, Thackery and the training staff will continue to push them harder.

"We've got a team feeling in here where hard work is encouraged and all the players are going to push each other," Thackery said. "In the past, we've had guys who are concerned with themselves and pushing themselves, but now we've taken that next step where everybody's taking care of themselves and bringing other guys with them."