Troy’s Rusty Whitt shapes Trojans with unique offseason training

Published 10:03 am Thursday, July 27, 2023

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The strength and conditioning program is the backbone of a football program and the Troy Trojans are led by a former Green Beret in that department, in head strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt.

On Saturdays in the fall, Whitt can be seen from all the way up in the press box pushing the Trojans during a game. All throughout the practice week, Whitt is right there pushing his guys, as well. The summer and the offseason, though, is when Whitt’s strength and conditioning program really amps up.

Whitt grew up in Azle, Texas, outside of Fort Worth, raised by hardworking parents. His father, an Army veteran, worked for Bell Helicopter and his mother was a substitute teacher and librarian.

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“I had a great upbringing and great parents,” Whitt emphasizes. “They worked hard and I never wanted for anything.”

His love for fitness and strength training came at an early age and after an illness as an infant.

“When I was born, I had Osteomyelitis, a bone marrow infection, in my right leg. I was hospitalized for a long time as an infant and I was very skinny growing up,” Whitt said. “When I was 11 years old my parents bought me a weight set from Montgomery Ward and then I saw ‘Rocky’ and I saw ‘Conan the Barbarian’ and that was it. I was hooked. I got into the weights and started kind of leaning in that direction at an early age.”

Whitt went on to play college football at Abilene Christian University, playing safety and linebacker, and pursuing a degree in criminal justice.

“I thought I wanted to be an FBI agent or a secret service agent or something like that, or maybe even go into law school,” Whitt said.

Then, NCAA Hall of Fame discus thrower Cliff Felkins joined the coaching staff at ACU as strength and conditioning coach in Whitt’s junior year, changing everything for him.

“Cliff Felkins changed my body and my mindset in such a short time that I had a new revelation that I wanted to be a strength coach,” he remembered. “I finished up my degree and then basically restarted my education to be a strength coach. I had to go back and get a bachelor’s (degree) in exercise science to get into grad school for exercise physiology. I basically took the equivalent of two bachelor’s degrees to pursue my master’s and get into coaching.”

Whitt’s first job came at Midwestern State University before becoming a graduate assistant at the University of Texas. While at Texas, he also coordinated speed and agility development for the 1997 U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Whitt went on to serve as an assistant strength coach at the College of William and Mary and then moved on to Louisville in 1998 before becoming the head strength and conditioning coach for 11 different sports at Sam Houston State for five years. At Sam Houston, he was also an instructor in the kinesiology department. Then, in 2001, his life changed again.

“Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2011, I was coaching at Sam Houston State and I had just had an ACL reconstruction four weeks prior, so my leg was in a lockout brace,” Whitt recalls. “I had just finished a workout group and I went home to change into my teaching clothes and turned on the TV as the (Twin) Towers were collapsing. My grandmother was 24 years old when the Pearl Harbor attacks happened.

“She called me and said, ‘Rusty, this is just like your Pearl Harbor’ and when she said that I was completely overtaken by anger and I just felt the need to do something. It wasn’t just a spontaneous, emotional decision, though. I felt like I have got to do something. I think having that injury also made me feel kind of helpless or hopeless at the time. It really motivated me to rehab my knee harder.”

After rehabbing his knee, Whitt joined the U.S. Army and eventually the U.S. Special Forces, as a Green Beret. Whitt served as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, two Iraqi campaign medals and the Army Commendation Medal with Valor. Whitt said he believes the things he saw in combat, and how he dealt with those things, helps him relate to some of his players.

“Having seen some of the worst – if not the worst – in humanity, and knowing how I handled stress and how it changed me and the realties of combat, and being in all these desperate situations, I think it makes me a decent mentor for some of these guys,” he said. “Richard Jibunor is a guy that comes from a background that he saw war, he saw ethnic cleansing. He has some really awful things he saw and I can sit and talk to him about it and he understands that. A lot of players come from traumatic backgrounds, that’s just reality, and it’s helped me understand some of that. It’s also helped me appreciate what I have with this country we live in.”

Following his stint in the military, Whitt wanted to return to the coaching world and landed an assistant strength and conditioning job at Rice in 2009 before taking over the program at Louisiana in 2010. In 2016, Whitt joined Kliff Kingsbury’s staff at Texas Tech before joining the staff at Army in 2019. While Whitt raves about his time at Army, his respect for the program came long before he joined the military himself or accepted a job at West Point.

“Army-West Point has had a lot of things figured out for a long time about mental toughness and discipline and making the fewest mistakes possible,” he said. “When I was at Louisville in 1998, a long time ago, we played Army. They had one penalty for five yards and we had 12 penalties for 120 yards.

“They made it a one-possession game because they wouldn’t go away. So, I’m thinking if we had our level of talent and made that few of mistakes what that would do for us.”

While at Army, he learned of “The Gauntlet,” a grueling offseason workout regiment that puts players – and coaches – to the test.

“It’s all about stress application, being disciplined while you’re tired and just going as hard as you possibly can; that’s what ‘The Gauntlet’ is,” Whitt emphasized. “It’s kind of an ace up our sleeve. I’ve tweaked it from West Point standards to our standards, where I know what our guys need to be good at. I think it’s a very unique experience.

“There is a sense of dread but when you beat ‘The Gauntlet’ they legitimately feel like they won a football game. It’s not easy to do. It requires a lot of discipline and perfection under stress. It’s six stations, there’s no margin for error and everybody is being evaluated. Even the coaches running the drills are being evaluated. It puts everyone on notice and I think it’s an awesome team developer for us.”

Whitt joined Chip Lindsey’s staff at Troy in 2020 and was retained by Jon Sumrall when he took over at Troy.

“I knew some guys that knew Chip Lindsey at the time and got interviewed and got the job,” Whitt recalled. “I was fortunate enough to be retained when Coach Sumrall came in and I owe a lot of people a lot of gratitude for that, including him. It’s been a winding road for me; I don’t have the typical strength coach resume. It’s a little bit out there but I think it’s made me a much better person, too.”

While in the military, Whitt developed and initiated a comprehensive pre-deployment conditioning program for his Special Forces Team. At Texas Tech, he also developed his own comprehensive conditioning program he calls “Fourth Quarter Combatives,” which incorporates MMA training and velocity-based training. Whitt says it’s all about making players stronger at the end of games than their opponent.

“It’s kind of making the backend of the workout the hardest part. I call it our, ‘Strong for Long’ program. Your heart rate is up higher and we’re doing high velocity movements along with strength movements,” he said. “A football game is one hour on the clock but in reality it’s four hours of stresses up and down. I try to make our workouts at the backend stressful and tough and you have to be regimented and can’t make mistakes.”

The incorporation of MMA training came from seeing the training regiment that former UFC fighter Brock Lesnar utilized.

“When Brock Lesnar was fighting in his prime in the UFC he had a tremendous combative conditioning circuit he would do,” Whitt said. “It was fast. He was a 275-pound fighter and when you’re that big you’re going to get gassed fast. He knew if he was going to win a fight he had to close the deal quickly. So, it was very aggressive with short intervals of rest. We kind of incorporated that with our football players and I still believe in that. It involves a lot of equipment, MMA bags, MMA gloves, sledgehammers, all of that.”

With Sumrall’s arrival at Troy, and the successes that follow, Whitt emphatically says the differences in the program have been small but meaningful.

“That much of a difference. A couple of millimeters,” Whitt says holding up his thumb and index finger slightly apart. “The previous coaching staff was smart and they worked hard, they practically lived up here. They tired to do the best they could and everyone talked about alignment and doing things right. It’s a millimeter or two, the width of a piece of paper between your thumb and index finger.

“It just comes with a little bit more alignment from (the head coach) to me where the players know there is no wiggle room. Coach Sumrall is very aware of everything around the program and he understands the role of a head coach as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. Accountability is huge on his radar and I think that’s been that tiny difference, overall player accountability and just maximizing effort.”

Whitt, who describes himself as “a little bit crazy,” sees a lot of his own personality in Sumrall.

“He and I are a lot like. That might be scary to some people,” Whitt said with a smile. “There is a certain level of craziness you have to have to play football, coach football, to live the lifestyle and he has that. I think the players see that inside of him, it’s a reflection of that in them, and they’re very respectful of that.”

When asked what players Whitt has seen the most improvement of during the 2023 offseason, a big grin spreads across his face, the passion he has for his players beaming from the veteran coach. Whitt then proceeds to reel off more than a dozen names and the things they do well and the improvements they’ve enjoyed this offseason.

“The guys that do extra work stand out to me the most,” he emphatically said. “I have a lot of guys that have been impressive. I could just keep going down the list, there are so many guys that have done a heck of job this summer. It’s exciting to see these guys and the work they’re putting in. None of them have arrived yet but they’re all young and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

One point that Whitt makes sure to emphasize is that he’s seen no issues with entitlement from players that have come to Troy from the Transfer Portal.

“People bemoan the transfer portal and they think you’re getting a bunch of guys that have a sense of entitlement but I have not seen that at all,” he said. “Eli Russ is a guy that comes in from Oklahoma State weighing 285 pounds and now he weighs 320 (pounds) and is one of the strongest guys on our team.

“I have seen a lot of guys that just want to play and kick the door in and be assertive and Eli Russ is one of those. Zach Barnes from Louisville is another one. He came in and said, ‘Hey, I want to work. Put me with guys that are going to push me.’ I’ve seen a lot of positives from the guys from the portal.”

Whitt points to the offensive line as being a big emphasis during the offseason, as well.

“You lose guys like Austin Stidham and Jake Andrews, so my main priority has been the offensive line,” he said. “I’ve always said that your offensive line is the engine that pulls the whole train of the program. It keeps your quarterback healthy and keeps the chains moving and the offense on the field. Our main emphasis has been getting our offensive line bigger, stronger, more mature and cohesive and I think we have done a nice job of pushing that.”

Troy’s summer conditioning came to a close last week and now the Trojans set their sights on fall camp, where all the summer work can pay off.