By KASSIDY HILL
GatorBait Special Reporter
“The strength & conditioning [coordinator] is the most important guy on your staff.”
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen laid out that declaration more than a year ago. He was holding court at his first SEC Media Days as the Gators head coach but the veteran SEC skipper knew how to spin a phrase and he caught attention with that statement.
This was the summer before Florida had played a game under Mullen, before fall camp had started, before anyone really knew what to expect from this new era. But with that proclamation the coach made clear how this program was going to be built; on the backs of the strength and conditioning plan.
In the time since, it’s proven to be somewhat prophetic as Nick Savage has transformed the Florida roster. From the quarterback to the punter and everyone in between, the Gators lost body fat, bulked up and found an endurance that had been missing. In a trenches league, perhaps the biggest impact came from the offensive line not losing a starter to injury during the 2018 season.
“Coach Savage knows how to take away fat and put on good weight,” explains defensive lineman Zach Carter.
It’s more than just putting the team through a different regiment though; Savage has helped transform the Gators mindset. “Don’t let go of the rope” has become a mantra and a rallying cry, stemming from an offseason workout that asks teams of six to run the entire campus while all holding on to the same rope. The practical application is simple. During games, don’t forget about the person in front of you and behind you, the person depending on you to hang on to the rope, to not give up and to keep pushing so as to keep the entire team moving.
When dealing with 18-22 year old kids, it takes a certain nuance to relate. And that perhaps more than anything concerning lift numbers or nutrition is what sets Nick Savage apart, with an energy that never seems to cease.
“From start to finish, he has the most energy probably in the building,” says wide receiver Trevon Grimes.
“He’s a phenomenal coach. He makes sure his players are at their highest point at all times. For example, if I come in a little tired, he’ll make sure I’m up, he’ll wake me up, he’ll scream, he’ll yell until I’m up. So he just demands the best out of you and I feel like players see that and that makes players respect him the most because at the end of the day he just wants the best out of you.”
Adds receiver Van Jefferson, “He just can relate to us. I think he comes in, he demands respect so I think we give him that same respect back and he’s all about the grind and when he came in you know, he just gave us what he’s all about and we just followed him. So I think now that we’re under him, and we’ve had a year under him I think now he just elevating the program and he’s just does a good job and everybody respects him.”
Savage’s ability to demand the most out of the guys while simultaneously earning that aforementioned respect should be a staple for a S&C coach, but as the college football has all to unfortunately learned in recent years, that isn’t always the case.
Before Dan Mullen would hire Nick Savage, he had to make sure the young coach had the right balance. So he made him “try out”.
Savage was in his mid-20’s, just on the backside of 25, serving as an assistant strength coach at Mississippi State, when his predecessor moved on to a new job. With a Belk Bowl quickly approaching, then State head coach Dan Mullen told Savage he had the bowl prep to prove himself. And he did.
“I kind of gave him an interim position at the beginning of December. ‘You have through the bowl game to prove that you’re ready to be the head strength coach. You have the next month. And then after the bowl game I’ll make my decision on what I’m going to do.’ You know, because he was very young,” recalls Mullen.
“I wanted to see that he was going to be — in a condensed version, but you touch on a lot in a bowl game. You have kind of a developmental lifting week and then you kind of have a mini- spring ball development training camp week. Then you have a game week and then a recruiting weekend. In that month of December, there is a lot going on that kind of touches on each little thing.
“He had great energy and juice. The players liked him. The players liked him, but he didn’t change. He was demanding. He wasn’t going to give an inch. But he understood. He didn’t push too far. He didn’t try to cross the line to impress me or cross the line to impress the players or anything it. He was just him and that kind of fit.”
“Just him” is an infectious personality that doesn’t rely on gimmicks or clichés that don’t feel true to himself. If he sees a guy walking to practice, he’ll race him. If he wants to give a theme to a workout, he’ll hang posters and make it a party. If he thinks it’s going to be hotter than normal, he’ll strap on a water backpack and walk around spraying guys down during an entire practice. And when he thinks they need a little extra inspiration, he’ll pull out Winston Churchill quotes, as evidenced by a recent video put out by Gator Football social media. That last thing is a common occurrence according to STAR Trey Dean.
“Savage, he's not going to put nothing on the videos he don't preach. What he says off the camera, he says on the camera."
At just the ripe young age of 30, and therefore one of the youngest S&C head coaches in the country, Nick Savage is now a seasoned vet. His three years at the helm so far have helped shape two programs and fuel inspiring seasons. His fourth football season is on the horizon but his work is largely done in the offseason, creating a foundation that can withstand an SEC grind. He proved himself at a young age, in a finite amount of time and has continued to do so since, earning respect from a tough crowd and never taking for granted the reins he’s been handed.
Explains Mullen, “Despite being young, I thought here’s a guy, I gave him the opportunity, he took advantage of it. He had juice, had energy, handled whatever got thrown at him in that time period. He knows what my expectations are and what I want, so a great opportunity for him. He hasn’t let me down since.”