How the University of Missouri Football Program Became an NFL Pipeline
The University of Missouri football team has spent the better part of the past 20 years mired in mediocrity. From 1994 to 2006, Missouri posted a losing record eight times, and their scarce bowl appearances featured names like "Independence" and "Insight.com"—games you watch when there is literally not a single other thing on television on a Saturday afternoon.
In 2006, Pat Ivey, associate athletic director of athletic performance, and Josh Stoner, director of football strength and conditioning, started a reinforced development system of training. In simple terms, this means the players would advance through a series of training levels. From 2007 to 2013, Mizzou went 63-26, participated in six bowl games and saw 17 of its players drafted into the NFL.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Head coach Gary Pinkel's ability to recruit players like Jeremy Maclin, Sean Weatherspoon, Sheldon Richardson and others has certainly helped turn the Tigers into perennial contenders. It's a team effort. But Ivey and Stoner don't mind taking at least a little of the credit.
"We like to believe part of that success is what we do from an athletic development standpoint to get these guys to maximize their potential," Stoner said.
Ivey and Stoner both came to Mizzou in 2004 from similar positions at the University of Tulsa. Both men were disciples of the church of Joe Kenn, the current strength and conditioning coach for the Carolina Panthers. In 2003, while on staff with the Arizona State Sun Devils, Kenn wrote The Coach's Strength Training Playbook, which featured his musings on a tier system of training, an idea similar to what Ivey and Stoner had percolating in their minds. It was all the inspiration the two strength coaches needed.
"We were really plugged into the concept of progressing your athlete throughout the course of their career," Stoner said. "I think [Kenn's] ideas and his philosophy really gave us the impetus to put a form to what we were already thinking."
The two men built a system of training at Mizzou that contained six levels, labeled Zero to Five, meant to keep their athletes from plateauing after performing the same workouts over and over. Each football player who stepped on campus would begin at Level Zero, and when they left, it was Ivey and Stoner's goal to have them at Level Five and prepared for life in the NFL.
"Each level has specific training and characteristics that we are trying to develop, be it physical, physiological or mental," Ivey said.
Here's a breakdown of each level.
Stoner and Ivey operate under the assumption that every new athlete who comes into the program is fairly raw. Level Zero acts as a test, to make sure the athlete can actually handle Mizzou's training program. Each athlete is first put through a functional movement screen (FMS), giving Ivey and Stoner an idea of specific areas the athlete needs to work on the most.
"Movement is paramount," Stoner said. "We have to make sure from day one when we get them that we are addressing that need."
After the FMS test, the athlete focuses on bodyweight exercises like Squats, Push-Ups and Lunges. There is also a mental training component.
"They need to understand what Missouri expects," Stoner said. "They are recruited and the coaches talk to them about it, but we put them under a little duress with our workouts just to make sure they understand and can apply those things that Coach Pinkel talks about from a football philosophy standpoint."
Athletes typically spend just four to six weeks at Level Zero, before moving on to Level One.
Level One introduces the athlete to exercises like the Hang Clean, Weighted Squat and Bench Press, Missouri's three major lifts. Level One focuses heavily on technique, making sure each athlete performs the lifts correctly and efficiently.
"[Level one] is higher volume. Building lean mass and improving body composition become very important," Stoner said.
Level Two adds volume to the three base lifts and continues to improve the athlete's body composition by increasing his lean mass.
During Level Three, athletes are introduced to a Tendo Unit, which tells a player how quickly he moves the bar on the Hang Clean, Squat and Bench Press. The focus here is on correct lifting form and increasing speed.
Speed is important, "especially with the Hang Clean," Stoner said. "There is a threshold where, OK, a guy cleans 300, now he can clean 400.Well that doesn't necessarily mean he's moving that bar as fast as he can to optimally maximize his rate of force and development."
Level Four essentially adds some tweaks to the lifts as the player continues to work on his rate of force development.
Many of Level Five's exercises dip down into Levels Three and Four, though it is not meant for the average football player. Level Five is there to prepare athletes who are getting ready to leave Mizzou for the NFL and the NFL Combine. Band tension exercises are added, such as Band Loaded Squats and Bench.
It should come as no surprise that Ivey named guys like Ziggy Hood, Jeremy Maclin, Sheldon Richardson and Sean Witherspoon as the athletes who accelerated through the program the quickest. Each of those players not only made it to the NFL, but has carved out a successful career for himself.
Former Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy, selected 60th overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2014 Draft, credited Missouri for how prepared he was as he trained for the NFL Combine.
"Everything I've been through so far hasn't been a surprise to me, just because we always do things a little bit extra than other schools do," Ealy said. "The mental conditioning that we did one day out of each week, it prepared me for a lot of different things. Being mentally ready for anything and ready to fight, giving you a mindset that you can succeed in anything."
Former running back Henry Josey, an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Philadelphia Eagles, echoed Ealy's thoughts. "Everything I've done up to the Combine through now, we've already been doing at Mizzou," Josey said, referencing things like the functional movement screen test. "Mizzou gets you not only ready to play for them but also NFL-ready."
Perhaps Ivey and Stoner should be a little less humble when it comes to talking about their contributions to Mizzou's rapidly rising success. But when pressed, no dice. It will always be a team effort, no matter how popular their training system becomes.
"It's something that's not just the weight room, it's not just recruiting, it's not just training, it's a team effort," Ivey said. "It's something that we are completely dedicated to and focused on: helping to maximize each of our guys' potential."