Pitt football's new strength, conditioning coach Kolodziej proves to be big asset in hurry

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In the past few weeks, a constant theme emerged from any discussions with the Pitt football players about improvements over the winter and spring.

Every player has gotten better, more focused, more driven in the offseason, but these Panthers also cited another common factor in their improvements.

Nearly every player — from receiver Manasseh Garner to center Artie Rowell — has cited the strength and conditioning program introduced by new strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej.

Kolodziej, 35, is reluctant to say he changed too much from former coach Todd Rice, who left the program in December. Kolodziej also is quick to give credit to the players and the attitude they brought to the weight room.

But the players say Kolodziej is a big reason for that drive.

"They're detailed in everything that they want," Garner said earlier this spring. "They work with you one-on-one. That's one of the main things. I can go in there to talk to them, see what I need to get better at, just break it down."

Kolodziej joined Rice's staff before the 2013 season after spending the previous four seasons with Wisconsin. He was a defensive tackle for the Badgers from 1997-2000 and a part of two Rose Bowl teams, experiences he hopes can help the Panthers as they prepare for the 2014 season.

"Sometimes [players] might think they've gone far enough, but I think for every coach on this staff, we've -- either as players or as coaches -- all been on championship teams, all seen all-conference players, first-round picks," Kolodziej said.

The preparation started in January with winter conditioning. Kolodziej said his job wasn't to change the systems Rice had in place, but, rather, to create a mentality and energy within the weight room that encouraged teamwork and accountability.

There were small changes, altering things like squad technique and the layout of the weight room, which also will be expanded in the coming months. But Kolodziej adapted the theme of "Into the Furnace" for Pitt's offseason conditioning, drawing on Pittsburgh's steel history and comparing the refinement of strength and conditioning to the making of steel in the city's old mills.

"There's a lot of potential, but still a really raw material," he said. "The goal is pure steel. Something strong, something that's the foundation of this country. In the same way, it's a process when they come into this place. We work, we grind, we turn up the heat. You've got to burn out those impurities."

One of Kolodziej's main goals, other than developing brute strength and athleticism, is to foster a team atmosphere inside the weight room. He needs players to believe that they can rely on the guy next to them in the fourth quarter of a game, and, if someone sees his teammate slacking off during conditioning, it could lessen that trust.

That's why this offseason consisted of two main groups: big guys and skill players. Each group would be in the weight room all together at the same time.

"They say it's not always the best team that wins the game, it's the team that plays the best," Kolodziej said. "So, daily, we try to implement different things that call into question focus, call into question discipline, leadership. Looking for guys to take control of the group."

Kolodziej also works intimately with the coaching staff to develop refined plans for each individual. He is on the field throughout practice and in constant contact with position coaches to see which players are moving well and who needs to improve in various areas. NCAA changes to offseason workouts -- the coaching staff now has a bit more access to players -- has slightly altered the importance of a strength coach, but Kolodziej remains an integral part of the staff.

"Coach Chryst's plan is about as proven a plan as there is in terms of development, and we really stick to that," Kolodziej said. "We keep our lines open. I try and meet with those guys routinely to talk about their guys. What are you seeing? How's their movement? Is there anything going on?"

Of course, as much as Kolodziej, and the other coaches, can help the Panthers prepare for this offseason, he still will only be standing on the sideline on Saturdays this fall.

"[Our goal] is to provide that structure, that environment where guys are locked in," Kolodziej said. "Bring some energy, turn up the heat in here, put some responsibility and onus on those guys, because, ultimately, that's what it comes down to on Saturdays."

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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