For every year that men’s basketball captain Alex Gamboa ’05 has stepped onto the court as an Eli, he had a new strength and conditioning coach to help prepare him off the court.
Gamboa’s story is representative of every senior Yale athlete. Year after year, as he walks into that backroom in the “Ace” Israel Fitness Center that mystifies and entices so many “regs,” he finds a new S&C coach with a new style and new exercise plan.
“It’s difficult because each coach comes in with a different plan — not too different but definitely not the same stuff from the year before,” Gamboa said.
Since 2003 there have been six S&C coaches and only one of the six, Mike Ranfone, is still at Yale. For many of the coaches who have left Yale, it is all about the clout of the new job.
“If I was the head strength coach, say, at a Division IA program, I would probably only have to work with the football team,” Ranfone said. “Football is a convenient and direct representation of what most people’s ideas of what a strength and conditioning coach is. Most of them only take the job if they get to work with football because football is the apex of their careers, but they’re missing the point of what we do. It’s so egotistical in this industry.”
At Yale, however, the position is much more unique. Because the University fields 33 sports teams, managed by a small staff, the responsibility of each S&C coach extends far beyond training one squad. At this moment, Yale employs only two full time S&C coaches, Ranfone and Dave Emery, and they are each in charge of planning the workout regimens of 15 to 17 teams. Yale has also hired an outside firm, The Competitive Edge, to come in and work with the Elis. In order to develop relationships with the athletes, a few coaches from the firm make rounds consistently.
Unlike his predecessors, Ranfone plans to stay at Yale for years to come, precisely because he gets to deal with so many teams.
“I love the fact that I’m not specializing myself,” Ranfone said. “I’m establishing myself here at Yale, and not only do I get to work with the finest student athletes, but I get to work with people from all different countries. When I work with the squash team, I work with kids from five countries. I enjoy the diversity.”
Ranfone is the exception, not the rule, and Yale athletes have felt the effects of the rule. Erin Duggan ’05, captain of the women’s ice hockey team, said that certain S&C coaches, such as former coach Steve Plisk, make it clear that they would rather be working with the football team.
Plisk was Yale’s head S&C coach for eight years but left in 2002 to pursue a career in “the private sector,” Colleen Lim, the associate director for varsity sports said.
“The first year that I as here when I was a freshman and Steve Plisk was the [head] strength and conditioning coach — I definitely felt like I was being trained to be a linebacker on the football team,” Duggan said.
She did note, however, that the program improved over her time here, and the her new S&C coach, Emery, is eager to work with the team and learn as much as he can about effective workouts for hockey players.
Gamboa agreed with Duggan, saying that Plisk had an obvious propensity for training football players, as well as an obvious aversion to training other sports.
“The program [Steve] Plisk put together was definitely football-dominated,” Gamboa said. “He didn’t put a lot of thought into other sports. He had women’s golf doing football stuff.”
When asked to respond to these comments, Plisk declined to comment.
Like Duggan, Gamboa said that with strength coaches like Jason Novak — who left last year to take a job with the Tennessee Titans — and now Ranfone and Emery, the emphasis is shifting away from football and more onto individual sports.
On the other hand, the football team has been perfectly content with the S&C coaches and does not seem to have had as many qualms about the program as other squads.
“The strength coaches here have been great,” football captain Rory Hennessey ’05 said. “Each has had his own philosophies, so it took some time to adjust to the new programs, but Coach Plisk — was great. Now Coach Ranfone is doing a great job.”
Offensive lineman Jared Holst ’07 had similar feelings about the current S&C coaches.
“I really liked Coach Novak,” he said. “I felt like I got a lot stronger by doing all of his workouts. I also really like our new coach, Mike [Ranfone]. I feel like he’s really dedicated not only to our team, but to other teams as well. Also, he has huge forearms, so you know he works out and that his advice is meaningful.”
Holst said he feels Yale’s football team does not need its own S&C coach, even though most other Division IA schools have a S&C coach dedicated solely to football.
Other football players helped reveal the intricacies and politics of the system.
“I just feel that football brings in way more revenue than the other sports, and we draw the most spectators, so deservedly we should get more attention in the weight room,” said a football player on the condition of anonymity. “As well as the fact that I think the money football gets, although it isn’t that much, helps finance other sports.”
The player was careful to state that this year, things feel more “balanced” than they have in the past, thanks to the attention that Ranfone and Emery have given Yale’s other teams.
As is so often the case at Yale, the uniqueness of the S&C position here is what both draws coaches to stay and compels them to leave. And while the Bulldogs have seen more than their fair share of strength coaches over the past few years, it looks like the athletics department may have finally found the right fit.
“This business is solely based on trust,” Ranfone said. “I worked very hard last year trying to gain peoples’ trust — and making sure they believe that I believe in them and my commitments to them and their performances and success — I’m trying to create victors on and off the field, and I’m very fortunate to be here.”
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