Penn State football: Galt takes over Nittany Lions’ strength program

tjohnson@centredaily.comJanuary 29, 2014 

— Dwight Galt has the hands of a weightlifter.

They’re big, offer a firm handshake and are wrought with cracks and callouses between the thumb and index fingers.

It’s these weathered hands Penn State football players found themselves in when they returned from winter break earlier this month. These are the hands that are leading them through winter conditioning and workout regimens which began early last week.

And they’re good hands to be in.

“(He’s) probably the most important hire we’ve made,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Penn State’s new strength coach. “I think that was one of the biggest changes that you saw in our program at Vanderbilt over the last three years is how much bigger, stronger, more athletic, and more explosive we got in a very short period of time.

While Galt met Franklin at the University of Maryland, Galt’s ability to turn a program around from it’s most fundamental level was most evident in Nashville.

There, the Commodores had been consistently bad and their efforts in the latter portions of seasons had been futile. In ten years before Galt brought his free-weight, dynamic movement-based system to Nashville, the Commodores went just 4-32 in November, December and January.

Vanderbilt tripled its win total in the three years Galt spent as strength and conditioning coach, going 12-3 in the latter months of the season. Meanwhile, during his last two seasons with the Commodores, Galt-trained squads outscored opponents 367-282 in the second halves of games and gave up seven points or fewer in the second half 12 times.

“I’m not a big talker in front of the team,” Galt said. “I’m more of a doer and let’s get to work.”

It didn’t take long at all for Penn State players to adjust to Galt’s systems. After all, they had been taking cues from one of Galt’s top pupils for the last two season.

“It’s pretty similar to Coach Fitzgerald’s,” Penn State linebacker Mike Hull said. “Power cleans, bench press, squats. There’s not too much of a transition there.”

Fitzgerald learned a lot of what he knows from Galt who was Maryland’s strength coach when Fitzgerald made the team as a non-scholarship linebacker in the early 90s.

After Fitzgerald’s playing career ended, Galt offered him a job as an intern on his staff, a post Fitzgerald held for six months before he became a graduate assistant at Arizona State. It didn’t take long for Fitzgerald to find full-time work after his stint in the desert.

“I got him back. When I got him back I didn’t let him go. I kept him for six years,” Galt said of Fitzgerald. “He was my number one assistant and we just developed a great personal relationship and we talk regularly, every week for 20 years. He’s one of my closest friends and I respect him as much as anybody in the world. I’m sure proud of him.”

When Fitzgerald joined Bill O’Brien’s Penn State staff two years ago, he made sweeping changes to the team’s weight room. A lot of his thoughts were filtered through his mentor — Galt. In the end, Fitzgerald had completed a complete overhaul of Penn State’s facilities.

The majority of the team’s weight machines were replaced with free weight equipment and former Penn State strength coach John Thomas’ high intensity training was replaced with Fitzgerald’s blend of power lifting and dynamic, unorthodox exercises. Players were running in a sandpit on campus and bludgeoning tractor tires with sledgehammers shortly after Fitzgerald arrived.

Not much has changed with Galt now leading the winter conditioning sessions.

“My philosophy and Fitz’s are very similar — it is a lot more Olympic, movement-based, dynamic-based than John’s was,” Galt said. “So we’re just taking a different approach to achieve the same result.”

And Galt’s own transition has been made easier following talks with Fitzgerald over the last few weeks. Galt also had a previous connection to someone who was already on staff at Penn State — his son, Dwight Galt IV was an assistant under Fitzgerald.

“He’s been on (Fitzgerald’s) staff and he’s on our staff now,” Galt said. “So I know a little bit about what (Fitzgerald) inherited and what he had to go through and he called me a bunch at the very beginning to bounce some stuff off of me and so I knew kind of what had happened but I also knew the program he designed. He did a phenomenal job in the two years, really converting Penn State to the system it is now.”

Galt’s official title at Penn State is Director of Performance Enhancement and he laid out his approach for winter workouts last Wednesday at a brief squad meeting.

And as Galt is quick to point out — lifting weights is only part of the entire plan.

“We are going to be extremely aggressive all year-round in strength and power training,” Galt said. “And despite the fact that I’m preaching the weight room and strength and benefit you get out of lifting weights, our specialty is movement-based. And our speed program, our agility program, our conditioning, our flexibility, our plyometrics, our footwork drills, our position-specific stuff is what we do. And our whole objective is performance in Beaver Stadium. Not in the weight room, not on the practice field, in Beaver Stadium. And that what’s the program is designed for.”

It’s worked in the past.

Galt has turned out some vaunted NFL prospects over the last few years.

Former Vanderbilt star Zac Stacy had a breakout season with the St. Louis Rams and posted impressive numbers at last year’s NFL Combine while Vernon Davis and Darrius Heyward-Bey went on to post impressive 40-yard-dash times to kickstart their pro careers.

Davis ran a 4.36, the fastest time ever by a tight end, while Heyward-Bey’s 4.3 was the fastest 40 time by a wideout in more than a decade.

Galt is looking forward to adding to the list of nearly 40 players he mentored who are now active in the NFL. He’s also looking forward to developing relationships with all of Penn State’s players.

Those players shared unique ties with Fitzgerald who was able to spend more time with them over the offseasons than O’Brien or other coaches could per NCAA rules. Fitzgerald’s tightly wound demeanor and wild-man antics during practice and gamedays — he’d often rip off his T-shirt despite freezing temperatures and belly out on the ground before hopping back up — was a hit with Penn State players.

New Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said Galt offers a different relationship dynamic, but one that is valuable nonetheless.

Galt, who is in his 50s, is older than any other coach on a staff that averages 39 years per coach.

“He’s been great and then the kids absolutely love him,” Spencer said. “He makes them work. I always tell them he tricks the kids. Because I’ve seen him run guys and he’s just talking to them all calm and they had their tongues coming out of their mouths, they’re sweating and he’s talking to them all nice but he’s actually killing them, you know? He’s got a great way about him with kids and he’s a valuable, valuable person to this program.”

And Galt has been a key component for Franklin’s development as a head coach, too.

Franklin called Galt the “Yoda” of his staff and said he often bounces ideas off of him.

“Yoda died and he was like 900 years old so I don’t know if he was referring to my age or what,” Galt said. “I think that he says that because of the experience that I’ve had with kids and I pride myself on, I love my kids and I’m really looking forward to developing a great, personal, father-son relationship with our players here at Penn State. And I think, more than anything else is what really allows them to maximize their greatness.”

Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.

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