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'There's no playbook for it': New MSU football strength coach tries to find his way amid pandemic

John Niyo
The Detroit News

There is strength in numbers, sure, but listening to Jason Novak, the new strength and conditioning coach for Michigan State’s football program, you get a strong sense of just how hard it can be to keep an accurate accounting of things in the midst of a pandemic.

Novak arrived in East Lansing the last week of February, “and we had a week’s worth of training before everything got shut down,” he said. With COVID-19 effectively closing Michigan State’s campus, spring practice was canceled on March 13 and much of the Spartans’ roster headed home soon after that to wait things out.

Jason Novak

So, just when Novak had learned everyone’s name in the Duffy Daugherty Building and things were starting fall into place, he and the rest of Mel Tucker’s coaching staff were sent scrambling again. In Novak’s case, that meant designing workout plans for players scattered across the country with little or no access to gym equipment — or the kind of supervision college athletes typically rely on in state-of-art facilities.

“I think the biggest challenge, honestly, is everybody’s figuring this out together for the first time,” said Novak, replacing longtime strength coach Ken Mannie, who announced his retirement Feb. 13 following a 25-year career at Michigan State. “There’s no playbook for it, there’s no blueprint for it, and everybody’s trying to figure out what the best practices are.”

That’s challenging enough for any staff, let alone one that already was being asked to hit the ground running after Tucker’s mid-February hire, barely a month before the scheduled start of spring ball.

“I think we were really just starting to scratch the surface of what he was trying to do with us,” linebacker Antjuan Simmons said of Novak. “We were just starting to get comfortable with the whole strength staff and with all the new faces, and I think they were getting real comfortable as well. I felt like we were really about to take off.”

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Novak spent last year at IMG Academy in Florida after a four-year stint at Central Michigan, where he was a regular at Mannie’s coaching clinics, and more than a decade with the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. So he's written countless workouts over the years. 

“But it’s got to be things that they can do, things that they have access to, you know?” the 45-year-old Houston native said. “If I write a program, it can be the greatest program … but if they can’t do it where they’re located right now, then it’s not very valuable to our program.

“So it’s trying to find out what those things are, and then just being a source of support and resources for the guys, like, ‘Hey, tell me what you have access to’ and let’s build something off of that. And that can look 105 different ways right now with what we’re going through.”

Simmons said last month he bought a bench-press rack, weight plates, dumbbells and other equipment for him and his brother to use at home in Ann Arbor. Others have been forced to get a little more creative – cinder blocks on wooden sticks, gallon jugs filled with water, backpacks filled with sand or canned goods, and so on.

“Everything becomes a tool at our disposal at that point, what you have access to around the house,” Novak said.

At the same time, that limited access means strength coaches aren't allowed to do much in terms of actual coaching. They can design individual workouts for players, but those workouts can’t be mandated. Coaches also aren’t allowed to supervise any training sessions online or monitor results and provide feedback right now.

But Michigan State center Matt Allen, who’ll be a fifth-year senior next season, says players are staying connected in their own group chat, posting videos of their home workouts “and just making sure everybody’s staying accountable.”

Novak’s primary concern is that everybody’s staying safe as well. So the training plans have been more volume-based, with higher reps and lower loads and a baseline emphasis on simply maintaining conditioning.

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“It has had to be a little more vanilla, and across the board as a profession it’s had to be that way,” Novak said, “just because of what our players have access to and what is safe for them to be doing. I would never encourage our guys to be participating in highly technical exercises or training without having eyes on them that can protect them.”

That also applies to players in areas where stay-at-home orders are now being relaxed, including some cities and states where gyms or fitness centers are re-opening.

“That’s a touchy subject, right?” Novak said. “Because what are the rules, what are the parameters? A big thing for us, and we’ve been continually talking about, is sanitation of the equipment and things like that. To me, I would say with our guys right now, our focus has been solely on staying the course of what we have going on right now with the equipment they have. I have not encouraged anybody, ‘Hey, as soon as the gym opens up, let’s get in it.’”

He’s also none too eager to get into the ongoing public debate over when — or how — college football might return. (“I would leave that speculation to the professionals and the medical side,” he said.) And as for how much time he thinks he’d need to get a team physically ready for a season later this summer or fall — A month? Six weeks? — well, that’s sort of a loaded question, too.

“The selfish, strength-coach part of me says I want as much time as possible, right? I want the full spring and the whole summer and all of that,” Novak said. “But we’re obviously not going to get that.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo