Notre Dame football strength coach Matt Balis eager to see how culture translates after layoff
The rasp, so severe at times it almost begs for subtitles and throat lozenges, is as identifiable when it comes to Matt Balis as it is deceptively undefining.
More than the cumulative 33-6 on-field record since the one-time elementary school gym teacher was hired as ND’s director of football performance, more than the surging NFL Scouting Combine performances and 287-227 point differential in the fourth quarters of games since his January 2017 arrival, Balis’ most indelible stamp yet on the program is also likely its least visible.
For the moment.
Thrust into a virtual world by the COVID-19 pandemic almost two months ago with every other college football strength-and-conditioning guru, the 48-year-old Chicago native is navigating it with little more than his own core values and the culture he’s helped rebuild at Notre Dame in head coach Brian Kelly’s coaching reboot.
Not that that isn’t a potent formula, but the largely missing piece in the current snapshot is Balis himself ... and his rasp.
Notre Dame shifted quickly in March to resistance bands as the go-to, at-home conditioning remedy and Zoom-coordinated instruction from Balis and his staff during a time, under normal circumstances, the ND players would have been participating in spring practice. But then that new template had to be altered dramatically.
The NCAA’s eventual response to DIY/remote training was that not only must it be voluntary, but unmeasured and unmonitored as well by Balis and his peers. Instagram offers only glimpses of progress or lack of it.
What Balis saw in the Notre Dame weight room, though, in January and February, before it was shuttered during spring break, gives him solace that whenever the 2020 Irish football team reassembles it will be ahead of the curve, because its leaders in the player ranks will have demanded it.
That and because embracing adversity was already baked into Balis’ philosophy — along with heavy doses of sports science, accountability, Bible verses and an occasional quote from fictional boxer Rocky Balboa — long before most people knew who Dr, Anthony Fauci was.
Balis mentions it — and the mistakes he’s made and his relentless drive to grow and evolve in his profession — in every clinic he stages, in every presentation he unfurls and every time he looks in the mirror.
“I think that’s the main thing, when you go through hard times in life, you can either grow from it or you can make excuses,” Balis said. “I learned early on in life that no one’s going to help you. You have to find a way to get something done.
“And through faith, that had been the No. 1 way I had been able to do that — to overcome certain adversities. When this (COVID-19) all happened, it was a very smooth transition in terms of that, because again faith and belief that everything happens for a reason.
“Choosing to be an optimist, (I believe) that we’re all going to grow from this and be better from it, even though there are some very sad things that are happening. I think in the end, we’re all going to understand why and grow from it.”
Part of defining who Matt Balis is involves who the Notre Dame players are becoming in year four of his regime — now heightened by the separation and NCAA red tape.
“One of the things you look for as a strength coach is when you can sit back and watch the guys kind of take over,” he offered, “and that’s what we saw this offseason.”
The next immediate step is to fully integrate the nine freshman players who were to have started their on-campus experience in mid-June and their first face-to-face interactions with Balis at that time.
Instead that will be July at the earliest, with the Notre Dame administration set to announce on May 15 whether that will indeed be a reality. Even if on-campus learning is deferred to the start of fall semester, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday that bringing fall-sports athletes back to campus ahead of the general student population is a viable option.
That group of nine freshmen that includes elite prospects Chris Tyree, Jordan Johnson, Michael Mayer and Tosh Baker, already had access to a less-accelerated version of what the Notre Dame veteran players and January-enrolled freshmen were doing from a training standpoint via an app.
While Balis is confident results will trump rhetoric when the players do return to campus, he is not sure what to expect from them physically.
“We’re in uncharted territory in terms of how long we’ll go with unsupervised workouts,” he said. “We’re looking at the research and we look back at the NFL lockout, when they didn’t train for a while. So there’s a lot out there and what happens to the body when you don’t train.
“So it’s going to be an evaluation process. It’s going to be a very careful, well-thought-out plan that we’ll have put together before we get there. We’ll just take it one day at a time to bring the guys back to where they need to be.
“We’ve got a very self-driven, self-motivated team, and we may find that the team is a lot further than we ever expected. But we have to take the approach that they’ve been gone a long time and we have to take the safest approach possible for the guys.”
Even though no one is watching now, Balis continues to live his belief that the team’s culture should start with him.
So while he shelters in place with his wife and two sons, Jacob and Ricky, he’s pushed himself to stay in a structured routine.
Same bedtime every night. Same wake-up time every morning. Breakfast, Scripture, weight training himself, family time and whatever work-related interactions he can have within the NCAA boundaries.
“Eating as healthy as you can,” he added. “I’ve struggled with that. I’ve talked to some players. I love to eat and so that’s kind of my go-to during stressful times. So you’ve got to balance that with being healthy.
“So a lot of the things we talk to the guys about starts with me as a coach,” Balis said. “That has to be and you can’t change it, can’t waver.”
What does change — constantly — are the contingency plans Kelly, Balis and the coaches keep kicking around until “I don’t know” is no longer the smartest answer when it comes to college football’s 2020 timetable.
“Because you’re talking to a computer screen, there’s such an appreciation now of when we get back to be together on campus,” Balis said. “It’s going to be awesome.
“We’ve all had to grow in this. Everybody has had to do that, so I choose to be an optimist and choose to see all the positive things that are coming out of this.
“Like I said before, we’re all going to be better from it. And once we all get to get together again, it’s going to be great.”