Craig Fitzgerald is from the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, and sometimes he brings brash ways to his job as Penn State’s director of strength and conditioning for football.
He's what one would expect from a Philadelphia native. Hardened and opinionated on the outside. Understanding on the inside.
The personality helps this time of year, when Fitzgerald is responsible for guiding 100 players through summer workouts.
“He’s not going to sugarcoat,” senior wide receiver Justin Brown said. “He's going to tell you straight how it is and straight how he feels.”
Brown and his teammates are seeing plenty of Fitzgerald this summer. NCAA rules prohibit gameday coaches from working with players until preseason drills begin Aug. 6.
Summer workouts, which are led by Fitzgerald and his four assistants, are optional. But missing one has lasting ramifications.
“This time of year is no question the most important time of the year,” said linebacker Gerald Hodges, an All-American candidate. “You always know there’s something you can do better and right now that’s what we are doing.”
Fitzgerald used an Olympic analogy when describing what summer means to a strength and conditioning program. “Every day is gold,” he said.
That includes today. Penn State's annual Lift For Life event, which is from 5 to 7 p.m. at the lacrosse field, represents the strength and conditioning program's showcase workout. The event puts players through a series of competitive drills to raise money for the Kidney Cancer Association.
Establishing a competitive strength and conditioning program ranked high on coach Bill O’Brien’s winter priority list. His search for a vibrant strength coach led him to a former colleague. O'Brien and Fitzgerald worked together at Maryland from 2003-04.
“We always talked about when he would become a head coach,” Fitzgerald said. “He called up, said he was becoming a head coach. I said, ‘Where is it?’ He said, ‘Penn State.’ I said, ‘Let’s go.'”
Fitzgerald had two stops between Maryland and Penn State. He oversaw 41 varsity sports as Harvard’s strength and conditioning coordinator from 2005-09. He then spent the past three years working as the director of strength and conditioning coach for Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina football program.
The South Carolina gig was a good one. Fitzgerald was working for a famous coach and helping a program ascend to the top of the unforgiving Southeastern Conference.
But friends, familiar ground and significant resources awaited at Penn State.
Besides O’Brien, Fitzgerald works with another former colleague in John Butler. Fitzgerald and Butler, who were parts of each others’ weddings, worked together at Catholic University, Harvard and South Carolina. They both have Philadelphia roots, having played together at District 12 La Salle College High School. Fitzgerald said he grew up watching Penn State football. “How could you not?” he said.
Fitzgerald, though, didn’t fully understand Penn State’s commitment to the strength program until receiving his Lasch Building office this past January. O’Brien gave Fitzgerald freedom to outfit the weight room with new equipment.
Fitzgerald’s program uses free weights. Plates are blue and emblazoned with school colors. The room features a booming sound system. Fitzgerald allows players to pick their own music.
The school also found Fitzgerald a spot for outside workouts, with a facilities manager installing a 50-by-20-yard sandpit behind Medlar Field at Lubrano Park’s outfield walls. The pit is near a taxing hill players run throughout the summer.
The goal is to create energetic settings where an entire team can train.
Fitzgerald breaks summer workouts into defined phases. Group workouts are held Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The typical week looks something like this:
•Monday. Begins with pro-style speed drills such as shuttle runs and 40-yard dashes. Ends with lower-body explosion drills such as squats and power cleans.
•Tuesday. Begins with a series of 200- and 400-yard sprints. Continues with upper-body workouts. Fitzgerald calls it “our big conditioning day.” Many players consider it the most demanding day of the week.
•Wednesday. An off day, although players throw passes or lift on their own.
•Thursday. Begins with resistance-based speed work at the sand pit and hill. Ends with light lower-body work.
•Friday. A big group day, which begins at 6:30 a.m. and includes a full-team lift and intrasquad competition.
•Saturday. Another off day. Veterans often use the weekend to organize 7-on-7 drills.
“People are so used to working out that he leaves the doors open on Wednesdays and Saturdays and you see the whole team in here trying to get extra work,” Brown said. “That’s what he preaches to us and we have all bought into the system.”
Still, the system produces painful moments. Hodges, one of the team’s most imposing players, described himself as being “dead” after workouts.
“You can barely move,” he said. “But he gets you fired up to do that.”
Players said the adjustment from former strength and conditioning coach John Thomas and Fitzgerald has been an easy one. Fitzgerald left an indelible impression this past winter, when the team gathered before dawn outside the Lasch Building for workouts.
Sub-freezing temperatures didn't change Fitzgerald’s apparel — he almost always wears a T-shirt and shorts to workouts — or chill his enthusiasm.
“It’s freezing out,” junior guard John Urschel said. “We are wearing long johns and long sleeves, hats on our heads and stuff. He’s out there in a T-shirt and shorts coaching us and putting us through drills. Apparently the guy wakes up and gets here at 4 a.m. There’s nobody else around. He’s just doing stuff and working out by himself. The guy is motivated unlike anybody else. I have a ridiculous amount of respect for him like you wouldn’t believe.”
Fitzgerald’s passion for strength and conditioning stems from his own career. He played tight end at Maryland and bench pressed 405 pounds as a senior. His work in the weight room allowed him to play Division I football.
“I really wanted to do this because I want to help other people maximize their ability,” Fitzgerald said. “My ceiling was pretty low compared to most of these guys. I wanted to maximize my potential and that’s the goal for each of these guys. Some of these guys might just play special teams, but you want to maximize those guys. Other guys can have a career in pro football and you want to maximize those guys.
“It doesn’t really matter as a strength coach. You should never worry about what the potential is as long as you maximize it.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy