By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Evan Marcus looked out his office window and spotted Marques Hagans in the McCue Center weight room.
Marcus smiled. The opportunity to again train young players, as he once worked with Hagans, was a major reason Marcus left the NFL to return to UVa for a second stint as the football team’s head strength-and-conditioning coach.
“For my family, we made this decision to give them stability, but you also miss impacting the kids,” said Marcus, 43, whose official title is director of football training and player development.
He pointed to Hagans, UVa’s starting quarterback in 2004 and ’05.
“There’s a primary example — Biscuit,” Marcus said. “This is my 21st year doing this, and he’s one of my top five kids. And when he came in the room the other day and saw I was back, it was really neat.”
Marcus spent four seasons at UVa under Al Groh — 2003, ’04, ’05 and ’06 — during which he trained such players as Hagans, Alvin Pearman, Heath Miller, Chris Canty, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jason Snelling, Chris Long and Branden Albert.
In January 2007, the Atlanta Falcons offered Marcus the job of head strength-and-conditioning coach. He accepted.
“Maybe it was my ego, or whatever,” he said recently. “I had always had a goal to be a strength coach in the NFL, so it was very important to me.”
After one season with the Falcons, Marcus took the same position with the Miami Dolphins. He remained in South Florida until this month, when he replaced Brandon Hourigan at UVa. The Cavaliers’ head coach now is Mike London, a man Marcus knows well. They worked together at UVa in 2003, ’04 and ’06.
“Mike and I had a very good relationship,” Marcus said. “He was somebody I could go see in his office, and we could sit down and talk. I enjoyed Mike. He was a really good person. That came out right away. You can tell he cares about the kids. He’s passionate about what he does, and that was really exciting for me to be able to come back now and help him.”
Marcus’ assistants are Josh Zidenberg and Everrett Gathron, who was hired by Ed Nordenschild, director of strength and conditioning for UVa athletics. Zidenberg, a former Virginia fullback, was one of London’s graduate assistants last season.
“It’s going to be a small staff,” Marcus said. “I think with really big staffs sometimes, the message gets watered down.”
Marcus also has been reunited with Jim Reid, who was the Dolphins’ outside linebackers coach in 2008 and ’09. Reid is heading into his second season as the Wahoos’ defensive coordinator.
Their relationship dates to Marcus’ schoolboy days in New Jersey. Reid coached at Massachusetts then, and “I got the typical form letter from him,” Marcus recalled. Thanks, but no thanks.
“I tell him, ‘You never really recruited me hard,’ ” Marcus said, smiling. “He says I wasn’t big enough.”
Marcus played at Ithaca College and helped the Bombers win the NCAA Division III title in 1988. He has a bachelor’s degree from Ithaca and a master’s from Arizona State. He’s been an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach at five colleges — Arizona State, Rutgers, Maryland, Texas and Louisville — and with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
Among the peers for whom Marcus has great respect and whose philosophies he shares are Auburn’s Kevin Yoxall, Iowa’s Chris Doyle and Virginia Tech’s Mike Gentry.
The Cavaliers’ offseason conditioning program started Monday. For the most part, Marcus has been in perpetual motion since arriving in Charlottesville, but he sat down with me on Friday for a quick visit. Here are some of his comments:
JW: What has changed at UVa since you left in January 2007?
Marcus: “Well, the facilities, the locker rooms and the hallways. The locker room [at the McCue Center] is as good a locker room as I’ve ever seen. The locker room here is outstanding, with all the TVs and the set-up, and the players’ lounge, that is first-rate.”
JW: How did your experience with the Falcons and the Dolphins change you as a coach?
Marcus: “From a pure training aspect, what we do in the weight room, my philosophy has stayed the same as far being free-weight-oriented, being about strength and power and lifting heavy weights. That hasn’t changed. That’s probably been reinforced. Because in the NFL, you start training players from so many different schools, and you have an image of what a kid from Ohio State should be like, and a kid from Alabama should be like, and what you think of as big-time programs. You kind of find out that a lot of schools now don’t do the basics, and we had to re-teach these guys basic movements: how to squat, how to clean, how to dead-lift. I saw which college programs were really good at it and which college programs really weren’t. And it reinforced my belief that you have to do these basic things, and you have to do them well.”
JW: Are you a better coach now than when you left UVa?
Marcus: “Absolutely. Last time was my first time being a head coach, and you do make mistakes. And that’s not to say I won’t make mistakes again, but I won’t make the same ones. I think you learn a lot. I think I might have some different credibility with the players, and that helps. Having some old players around the program who knew me the first time, they’ll tell some of these younger guys. That helps too.”
JW: What are your impressions of Brandon Hourigan’s program?
Marcus: “From what I’ve seen, Brandon did an excellent job. The guys I’ve seen, they seem to know the basic movements. They know how to clean, they know how to squat. I think Brandon did a very good job with them that way. I know what my message to these kids will be, and I think it’ll be similar as far as doing the basic barbell exercises.”
JW: What is your initial impression of the returning players?
Marcus: “The kids here seem very willing to work. It’s about gaining confidence, and I think that’ll come when you know you’re strong, you know you’re more explosive. There’s a swagger that comes with those two things, being strong and explosive, and a little bit of a tougher mentality, and an expectation that when you step on the field physically you should be able to do things now. I don’t know if they have that. It doesn’t seem like they have that thought right now. They’ve had a couple down years where they weren’t successful, and I think that kind of bred lower expectations. So right away I want to talk about winning, being physical, being strong, and having that swagger back.”
JW: What is the main difference between being a strength coach in the NFL and in college?
Marcus: “The biggest difference I see is, in the NFL you help those guys, but you don’t impact them. You manage them. You know what you’re doing helps them, but at the end of the day they’re grown men … Some have their own [training] gurus and stuff, and that’s another issue you deal with there. In both college and pros, it all depends on the support you get from the head coach. Now our head coach [in Miami] was great, and he basically told the guys, ‘You’re going to do what Evan tells you to do.’ He was really good about it. There’s stories in the NFL about coaches who don’t care, and that’s a bad deal. In both situations, if your head coach is a firm believer in the weight room, as a strength coach it’s going to be a good situation.”
JW: Did you find yourself missing the college game?
Marcus: “I think I missed the kids more. I kept in touch with a lot of the kids from my first time here. After a while you start realizing how special those relationships are, and that was nice. The other thing, too, as I talked about, in the NFL you get to work from kids from so many programs. You’d hear a kid talk about a strength coach in college and the impact he had. The kids from Auburn, the kids from Iowa, the kids from Virginia Tech, how those kids talked about [Yoxall, Doyle and Gentry] made you kind of think, ‘That’s why we should do this job.’
“Because those guys really impacted those kids. Those three guys came to mind like that” — Marcus snapped his fingers — “and those three schools, the job those guys do. And it’s funny, we all share the same philosophy in the weight room. Because I know all three of those guys. Kevin Yoxall, he got his national championship finally, which is awesome, and Chris Doyle, and then Coach Gentry, who left me a really nice message. I think we share the same philosophy in the weight room. I think it’s pretty old school: big, strong, physical, hard work. Those are just the cornerstone principles.”
JW: How much can you help a player get faster?
Marcus: “Everything’s based off strength. The stronger you can get a kid, the faster he’s going to be. I think obviously some kids are genetically gifted toward [speed], and some kids aren’t. But I always think you can make a kid better if he’s willing to put the work in, whether it be faster or stronger or more explosive or tougher. I think toughness is a quality you can work on just as much as the other ones.”
JW: What are your goals for this winter?
Marcus: “You want to try to teach them your philosophy and what you believe and what exercises are important and the techniques you want them to use. So you really do have to start from scratch a little bit. And that’s not a knock against the guys that came before me. It’s just that you want it your way and done a certain way, and you want to emphasize certain things. It’s just a chance for me to come back to square one with these kids, teach them the exercises the way I want them taught, show them what I think is important. This first phase might be real basic, and we’ll get a little bit more complex as we go along.”
JW: How long will this program last?
Marcus: “This one will go six weeks, so we’ll go two three-week cycles. One’s kind of an introductory phase, and then we’ll kind of progress from there. We’re going to find out where they are in six weeks. We’ll test them and see where we are before they go off to spring break.”
JW: Do former players who are trying to make the NFL take part in the winter program?
Marcus: “This is just the [current] team, but if there are kids that are UVa guys that are trying for the next level, I will help them. Absolutely.”
JW: How much can you help players realize their NFL dreams?
Marcus: “The bottom line, whether you can play in the NFL or not, is, can they play football? And it’s funny, it’s the same thing when they get recruited out of high school. You know sometimes you get caught up in height, weight, speed, but at the end of the day, can the kid just play ball? And it’s the same thing in the NFL. Sometimes a kid will be the workout warrior, and you get lulled in by what you think could be, but the bottom line is, can the kid play? Now, I’m not here to squash a kid’s dream and tell him, ‘Son, you ain’t gonna make it.’ But sometimes you feel like saying that.”
JW: Does it feel strange coming back to UVa?
Marcus: “I think it’s rare. I don’t know of any strength coaches who have had the opportunity to do that, so I feel pretty lucky. It was a special place, and the kids are good kids. Again, I still continue friendships with the players that I had the first time. I don’t know if I would have left the NFL if it wasn’t for this place.”
JW: When you were here the first time, UVa’s base defense was the 3-4. It’s now the 4-3. Does that change how you train players?
Marcus: “You have different body types, but the bottom line is, football’s always going to be a game of strength and explosion. It’s always going to be that way. And you’re still developing guys. It doesn’t matter what position. You’re still developing guys, and that doesn’t change.”