Jan. 29, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the job came open late last month, Kelly Poppinga did not immediately think of Shawn Griswold. But when Poppinga learned Griswold was interested in joining the University of Virginia football program, he championed the idea.
“I said, ‘Yeah, Coach Griz, that’s my guy from Utah State,’ ” recalled Poppinga, who coaches UVA’s outside linebackers.
Poppinga, a former NFL linebacker, began his college career at Utah State, where his first strength and conditioning coach was Griswold. (Poppinga transferred to BYU in 2005). They’ve been reunited at UVA, where Griswold took over this month as director of football development and performance.
“He’s not a yeller and a screamer,” Poppinga said, “but the way that he approached everything, he was very intense. He got his point across. You didn’t mess with him.”
Griswold, a former Utah State tight end, spent the past six seasons as Arizona State’s head coach for sports performance. (ASU dismissed Todd Graham as head football coach after the 2017 season.) He’s also run the strength and conditioning programs for football at Pittsburgh, Tulsa and Utah State, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1996 and a master’s in 1998.
At Tulsa, Griswold’s colleagues included Keith Thomson, now an assistant athletic trainer at UVA. Thomson recommended Griswold to the Cavaliers’ head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, after Frank Wintrich left late last month to become director of football performance at UCLA.
“When I was at Tulsa, we worked really well together — sports medicine and strength and conditioning,” Thomson said. “I know he’s a great guy, and from a football perspective, we won a lot of games when I was at Tulsa.
“Griz is somebody that expects a lot out of the guys and is going to push them to give a little bit more than what they think they have. But he does it in a safe way. From a medical standpoint, we had very few soft-tissue injuries while I worked with him at Tulsa.”
The Wahoos’ winter strength and conditioning program is under way, and the players are “sore in ways that they haven’t been before,” Thomson said, “but it’s not to the point where the next day they can’t get out of bed, or they’re so tired that they’re unable to do other things. It’s a good soreness that they’re getting.”
January has been a whirlwind for Griswold, who met with the Cavaliers’ coaches in Charlottesville on a Saturday early in the month and accepted the job the next day.
“When he came on his interview, he blew us away,” Poppinga said.
About a week later, Griswold moved into his office in the McCue Center weight room and started working with the returning players from a team that finished 6-7 in 2017, plus four January enrollees.
“It’s good,” Griswold said of his schedule. “I’ve done it before, so it’s not like it’s the first time. Even when I left Utah State and took the Tulsa job, it was the same thing. I was hired on a Saturday. We started training on a Monday. Same thing at Pitt. Same thing at Arizona State.”
He didn’t know Mendenhall before the interview process began, but Griswold has multiple ties to UVA.
Like Poppinga, special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield, whom Mendenhall hired last month, played at Utah State when Grisworld was on the strength and conditioning staff there.
Arizona State’s head orthopedic surgeon for football, Dr. Anikar Chhabra, is the brother of Dr. Bobby Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon who’s part of UVA’s sports medicine staff.
“I would sit and eat dinner with him every Friday on the road,” Griswold said of Anikar Chhabra. “I’d see him every Monday [in meetings].”
And then there are Bryce Perkins and Jack Powers. Perkins, a quarterback who enrolled at UVA this month, began his college career at Arizona State before transferring to Arizona Western Community College. He’ll compete this spring for the starting job vacated by Kurt Benkert.
“We moved all the way across the country, and we’re back working together,” Griswold said with a smile when asked about Perkins. “That’s pretty interesting.”
Powers, a defensive lineman, begin his college career at Arizona State. He played for UVA in 2016 as a graduate transfer.
“Coach Griz was the most respected guy on staff, by players, at ASU his whole time there,” Powers said in a text message. “Great man and great coach. I know he will do big things at UVA!”
Wintrich had two full-time assistants, plus a graduate assistant. Griswold will have four full-time assistants. Two have already started work: Tyler Shumate and Dwayne Chandler.
“Sports medicine is important,” said Carla Williams, Virginia’s new athletics director. “Nutrition is important. Strength and conditioning is important. Facilities are important. Recruiting is important. Personnel are important. There are areas within all of those where we can get better, and strength and conditioning is one of them, just starting with the staff and making sure we’re fully staffed.”
After the 2016 season, his first at UVA, Mendenhall stated publicly that his players needed to get bigger and stronger, especially on each line. The Cavaliers made strides on that front in 2017, when they advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years, but much work remains.
“Frank was top-notch, obviously,” Poppinga said, “I think the thing that Griz wants to establish is getting those guys pushing around a lot of weight.”
As he was walking into the McCue Center one day last week, Poppinga said, Griswold and outside linebacker Charles Snowden were walking out. Poppinga stopped to talk with Griswold and referenced the 6-7 Snowden, who was listed at 205 pounds as a true freshman in 2017.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get that guy up to 240 pounds to help him have a great season,’ ” Poppinga recalled.
In a limited role, Snowden had a significant impact in 2017, and “he could have done a lot more if his size and strength were there,” Poppinga said.
Griswold, who moved into coaching after his playing career ended at Utah State, said his philosophy is similar in many ways to Wintrich’s. Both, for example, use Catapult technology to analyze players’ performances in practices and games.
Still, the Cavaliers have noticed some changes.
“We squat differently, and we’re going to power clean from the floor,” Griswold said. “There’s some differences, but there’s lot of ways to do it. This is the way I’ve done it, and knock on wood I’ve been lucky to have great kids and great staffs. I’ve been able to implement things and not have a lot of injuries and produce great results and great kids and give them a chance to play at this level and then obviously a chance to play at the highest level.”
Running and conditioning are major parts of his program, Griswold said. In today’s college game, “teams go fast,” he said. “To try to prepare for those kind of things is key. Today’s football has changed. It’s different.”
He’s been impressed with the players’ attitudes and their technique in the weight room.
“They have great discipline, great work ethic,” Griswold said. “I told Coach, ‘I’m walking into a program where there’s already a foundation. I didn’t walk in the front door when you walked in the front door [after the 2015 season].’ ”
He knew from the seventh grade that he wanted to train athletes, Griswold said, and he had summer internships with Utah State’s strength coach as an undergraduate there. He started work at his alma mater as a GA in 1996 and has never left the profession.
Over the past two decades, Griswold said, his job has evolved.
“Styles have changed,” he said. “Athletic training has changed tremendously. Just player development in general has changed so much, because there’s so many more people involved.
“Lifting-wise, a lot of things have changed, but I clean, I squat, I bench, and then we add a lot of little things to it. I’m trying to blend more and more things in as we go.”