'Balis Made': How Notre Dame's new strength coach helps transform players, programs
Matt Balis made a promise.
Improvement, by way of pain.
Balis — who currently operates as the first-year director of football performance at Notre Dame — honed his craft as a strength and conditioning coach under Urban Meyer, both at Utah (2003-04) and Florida (2005-06). He served as the head strength and conditioning coach at Virginia for two seasons (2007-08), before making his way to Mississippi State (2009-13).
It’s there that Balis first encountered a wavy-haired high school quarterback from Coldwater, Miss., named Cameron Lawrence.
Eight years later, Lawrence doesn’t look — or think — the same.
“When I was getting recruited, he sat me down in his office and said, ‘Be prepared when you get here. This is going to be the hardest offseason of your life,’” said Lawrence, who enrolled early at Mississippi State in Jan. 2009. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m a pretty tough guy. I’ve been through a lot. I can handle this.’ But when I got on campus, it was an eye-opening experience.”
Balis didn’t wait long to make good on his promise. Lawrence’s first college workout was also Balis’ first at Mississippi State. He introduced himself to his team with a soul-crushing conditioning session, and he even gave it a name:
“I’ll never forget it,” Lawrence said. “The first workout, we didn’t know what we were getting into. They just told us, ‘Put on your sweats. Bring your tennis shoes and your cleats.’ So we’re sitting there thinking, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”
It was barely above freezing in Starkville, Miss., just warm enough so that the waves of precipitation turned the campus into a muddy puddle. Lawrence and his teammates did up-downs in the pouring rain — up, down, over and over — a football team stretched across an empty parking lot, flopping on the unforgiving asphalt.
Then, they started to run.
“We get to this hill,” Lawrence said. “We’re looking up this hill, and the hill is probably 200 yards, and I don’t know what the incline is, but it’s a steep hill. We’re at the bottom of it thinking, ‘Oh, no.’
“They’ve got all these tires set out. There’s sleds. We thought we had accomplished something just by jogging the half mile over there. We get there and we see that we’d just begun.”
It would have been excruciating enough to trudge up and down that muddy hill in the relentless rain, to sink your tennis shoes into the grassy slush, to push a sled or flip a tire as you dry-heave and gravity pushes back, laughing. The Mississippi State Bulldogs did all of those things, but that’s not all they did.
“We had to carry people up the hill,” former Mississippi State offensive lineman Mark Melichar added.
That, in a soggy nutshell, was “Bulldog Initiation.” But even now, years later, Melichar calls it something else.
“Probably the toughest workout I’ve ever been through,” the hardened survivor said.
A hundred hulking men bound into the Mississippi State weight room at 11 p.m., on a night in March, yelling and lifting and nearly tearing through their ridiculous costumes.
Some are dressed as warriors. Some are G.I. Joes. Lawrence, of course, is Tarzan; he lets his flowing brown hair do most of the work.
From the outside, this is anarchy.
Balis dubbed the annual tradition “The Midnight Lift.”
“He makes it fun,” Lawrence said. “Every (academic) quarter we’d have some kind of themed workout. We had the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Our favorite one was The Midnight Lift.
“We’d show up at 11 o’clock at night and it was always before spring break, and we’d dress up in costumes and show up in the weight room, and man, it’d just be a freak show. Guys would be going crazy.”
One quarter, Notre Dame’s first-year director of football performance organized a UFC-themed workout. The next, he took the team to train with the National Guard.
The beauty of Balis was his ability to make you laugh, then make you cry.
“I’ve talked to the guys I played with,” said Melichar, who works as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch. “Some of them are still in the league playing. Some of the guys are done, just like me. Our best memories are in that weight room under his tutelage.
“I was telling my wife the other night that we don’t remember the walk-throughs. We don’t remember the days off that they gave us. We remember the hard workouts — the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre workouts — the ones where they were pushing us, because that’s molded us into who we are today.”
What does it mean to be “Balis Made”?
For one thing, everything matters. Every detail. Every rep. Every color, and every step.
“It was hard, getting up at 5 a.m. and running the stadium and then going to an 8 a.m. class. But he didn’t care,” Lawrence said. “He expected that when you showed up in the weight room, you were going to have on the right colors.
"We wore maroon on some days, white on others. He expected you to be right on point with everything.”
And, Balis monitored everything — run times, lift numbers, calorie intake, body-fat percentage. If you yawned in the weight room, you owed Balis 20 pushups. If you were late, God forbid, the entire team did up-downs until you arrived. Lawrence can still hear that voice — a grinding, gravelly croak — burrowing deep into the crevices of his cranium.
“Go get them! Where are they at? Go get them! Find them!”
Coach Balis got me holding back yawns when I'm walking around campus lol
— Ashton White (@awhiteuno) February 8, 2017
“He’s funny. But at the time, we were scared to death,” Lawrence said with a laugh.
Their primary motivator wasn’t fear, even after up-downs and early runs and tire flips on muddy hills.
It was respect.
“If you don’t respect somebody and they’re coming up and telling you to flip this tire or bench this, you’re going to tell them to screw off,” Lawrence said. “We had the ultimate respect for coach Balis. The last thing we wanted to do was disrespect him or let him down.
“When he said jump, we asked, ‘How high?’ If he asked us to run through a wall, we would have run right through it.”
And if the team did run through a wall, Balis would have been right there with them.
“One of my most vivid memories, in the summer it was 110 degrees in Starkville, Miss., and he’d be right beside us, running, calling out the times,” Melichar said. “‘3, 4, 5.’ He was literally right beside us, pushing us. He was not going to let us fail.”
The Bulldogs respected Balis for his commitment. They respected him for his heart. They respected him because he wouldn’t put them through a workout he couldn’t complete himself. They respected him because he pulled each one into his office and asked them about their lives.
Because they respected him, they worked for him. And because they worked for him, they improved.
“A lot of the guys on the team used to say, ‘We’re Balis Made,’ ” Lawrence said. “We’d be sore. We’d be banged up, but what’s crazy is the type of bond you build with those guys when you go through those workouts. You have no choice but to bond with your teammates.
“When spring football rolled around and training camp rolled around, we were the toughest guys out there. If we went through Balis’ offseason, we could go through anything. That’s just how we thought.”
Coach Balis workouts will strengthen the body and the MIND.. mental toughness is required ! ☘️
— Nyles Morgan (@Obey_Pride) February 20, 2017
About to put that work in & Finish the week strong! #Balismade#Hailstate
— Dak Prescott (@dak) February 22, 2013
Lawrence arrived at Mississippi State as a 6-foot-2, 195-pound quarterback.
He left as a 240-pound linebacker and the team’s leading tackler in back-to-back seasons.
“We took 'before' and 'after' pictures,” said Lawrence, who finished second in the SEC with 123 tackles in 2011 and fourth with 120 tackles in 2012. “We took them when I first got there as a freshman, and we’d take two or three pictures a year with our shirts off after a workout to see our gains.
“I’ve still got my pictures all the way from my freshman year to my senior year, when I graduated. It’s just unbelievable.”
The question is, what will Notre Dame’s "before" and "after" pictures look like?
As for “before,” Balis — who most recently served as the strength and conditioning coordinator for all of UConn’s athletics programs from 2014 to 2016 — inherits a group that finished 4-8 and out of the bowl picture last season. Under seventh-year strength and conditioning director Paul Longo as well as a vastly different offensive and defensive staff, the Irish lost seven games by eight points or less and were outscored 94-62 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
But what about the “after”?
“He’s truly made to mold men in that weight room. That’s what he’s called to do, and he will make Notre Dame football better,” Melichar said. “When those players go on the field in the fall, you’re going to see a different body type. You’re going to see a different mentality.
“He was a guy that accepted nothing but the best, so as players, we didn’t want to let him down.”
Thus far, that attitude has been evident at Notre Dame. On Feb. 14, early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes tweeted, “Best Strength and Conditioning staff in the country resides in South Bend, IN. Constantly has me wanting to better myself.”
Four days earlier, following Notre Dame’s own version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre workout, freshman defensive end Daelin Hayes tweeted, “#MyValentineIn4Words Body Built By Balis”.
They may not be “Balis Made” just yet, but the Irish have survived their initiation. And while the pain seems insurmountable, the improvement is still to come.
“Looking back, it was just insane,” said Lawrence, who played with the Dallas Cowboys from 2013 to 2015. “We were in the best shape of our lives. We felt invincible at the time.”
Mississippi State recorded a winning record only once in the eight seasons leading up to Balis' arrival in 2009. Since finishing 5-7 that fall, the Bulldogs haven't missed a bowl game since.
“When I heard the news he was going to Notre Dame, I was fired up for him,” Melichar added. “But I was more excited for Notre Dame football — for the man that they were getting.”
Body by Balis #SAFTBhttps://t.co/p6NXJVspVw
— Mike McGlinchey (@BigGlinch68) February 18, 2017
Notre Dame really is family....great talk with Coach Balis today
— DAVID ADAMS (@David_Adams1335) February 18, 2017
Best Strength and Conditioning staff in the country resides in South Bend, IN .. Constantly has me wanting to better myself. ☘️
— ㅤ (@CjHo1mes) February 15, 2017
Body Built By Balis ☘
— Daelin Hayes (@DaelinHayes_IX) February 10, 2017
Great morning of training, I promise you the Irish got better today. Players 100% locked in & emptied the tank in the weight room.
— David Ballou (@ND_CoachBallou) February 10, 2017
NEVER LEAVE MY BROTHERS!!! ☘️ #SavageMode#TicToc#NDFB#DBoyzpic.twitter.com/R3b2ZCdgjx
— Ashton White (@awhiteuno) February 10, 2017
"We are training to compete at the highest level mentally and physically for all 4 quarters". (emphasis on the "all 4") - @CoachBalis_nd
— Alizé Mack (@AlizeMack97) February 15, 2017