Strength coach Ken Mannie helps MSU Spartans get strong on and off field

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — This started with some Sears and Roebuck Ted Williams weights delivered to a sixth-grade fullback, continued with a small group of Akron players getting together for improvised sessions with homemade barbells, then got serious when Ken Mannie was proclaimed the first full-time strength coach in the Mid-American Conference.

And a 20-season run at Michigan State, during which Mannie has become one of the most respected members of an industry that has gone from musclemen to master’s degrees and biomechanics, started with a 3 a.m.

phone call from Nick Saban.

“Did I wake you, Ken?” Mannie recalled of Saban’s words in late 1994.

“No, I’m just getting my last set of push-ups in,” Mannie joked.

Silence on the other end.

“I’ve been named head coach at Michigan State,” Saban said. “You coming or what?”

Coach Mannie is our heart and soul. He’s with us 24-7, basically. And he develops you into the man you become, the player you become. Mentally and physically …he’s gonna push you to your limits.
— RJ Williamson

He was, without hesitation, and now he has been through four bosses — one of whom had to be persuaded to keep him — to see Michigan State reach heights under Mark Dantonio that Mannie always thought possible. More accurately, he has helped MSU reach them.

“You know, he’s the man,” MSU defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said of Mannie, who will be on the sidelines Thursday when No. 7 Michigan State (10-2) plays No. 4 Baylor (11-1) in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas — the program’s eighth bowl in a row under Dantonio. Previously during Mannie’s tenure, the Spartans reached six bowls in his first 12 years.

“One of the great mentors I’ve had in my life,” MSU fifth-year senior offensive guard Connor Kruse said of Mannie.

“Coach Mannie is our heart and soul,” MSU junior safety RJ Williamson said. “We see him more than we see Coach Dantonio and our position coaches. He’s with us 24-7, basically. And he develops you into the man you become, the player you become. Mentally and physically, as [much] as he can, he’s gonna push you to your limits.”

Mannie, 62, is part of a quartet of long-timers in the MSU football program whose tenures have survived multiple coaching changes, along with head athletic trainer Sally Nogle, athletic equipment coordinator Bob Knickerbocker and director of personnel/player development Dino Folino.

But as Williamson said, no one in the program has more interaction with the Spartans’ players. Mannie and his football staff — associate head strength coach Tommy Hoke, assistants Bill Burghardt and Lorenzo Guess — are exclusively in charge during icy winter mornings and the summer months, when players are built.

“Discipline with compassion” is how Mannie describes his approach, and while some say kids have changed over the years, Mannie disagrees — it’s the world around them that has changed, he said.

“That’s why, to me, coaching and mentoring is as important as it’s ever been,” Mannie said. “Role models are needed. And I don’t take that lightly. I take it very, very seriously. It’s not lip service. I want them to be self-sufficient adults.”

He tells them, among many other things: “Be a great man, father, husband. Make your life a masterpiece. They aren’t mass produced.”

Sometimes, he helps Dantonio get players — MSU senior receiver Keith Mumphery said his meeting with Mannie on his official visit was “to be honest, a big part of why I came to Michigan State, because he was so real.”

And when someone comes up short, they know it. MSU junior defensive tackle Joel Heath recalled an “iron man” lift when he was a freshman, one of Mannie’s traditions, in which Heath had to succumb to his fatigue. Mannie went drill sergeant on him.

“I won’t explicitly say what he said,” Heath said with a smile, “but he said some words I’ll never forget.”

If a player is so much as one minute late to a lift, he’ll pay. Mannie often will have that player grab the “little buddy,” a small wooden board with grooves in it that make it difficult to push along the ground. But that’s what the player must do, up and down the indoor practice field.

“It’s hard,” MSU sophomore receiver R.J. Shelton said. “It makes you not want to be late to lifts anymore.”

Sometimes, Mannie improvises. Kruse had an alarm clock issue before the last lift of his first off-season and showed up 15 minutes late. Mannie told him to go roll up and down the field, much like he’d do if he were on fire.

“I was like, ‘This is ridiculous,’ ” Kruse said of his only tardy arrival in five years.

Some, such as junior center Jack Allen, have been able to maintain perfect attendance and promptness.

“Because I’m too scared,” Allen said.

Ken Mannie writes;”Be a great man, father, husband. Make your life a masterpiece, they aren’t mass produced.”

— Dan Hickey (@hickeygroup) December 28, 2014

Fear can be easily instilled by Mannie’s booming voice and hulking presence — he puts in an hour of lifting and cardio at 4 a.m. during off-season training periods, before players filter in for 5:50 a.m. lifts — and he’s outspoken on a number of things. He stresses the importance of academics. And he rages against performance-enhancing drugs.

Many of Mannie’s 300-plus articles for various publications, in fact, have been devoted to that issue, and in 2006 and 2007 he was named to Who’s Who Among American Teachers for his efforts in bringing awareness to it. In 2002, he received the highest honor in his profession — the title of master strength and conditioning coach from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association.

Mannie’s coaching tree includes six other college head strength coaches: Aaron Wellman at Michigan, Rick Court at Mississippi State, Frank Piraino at Boston College, Paul Harker at Miami (Ohio), Chris Stewart at Olivet and Andrew Bates at Jacksonville State. Two of his disciples are NFL assistant strength coaches — Mondray Gee (Seattle) and Aaron McLaurin (New York Jets) — and eight others are assistants at various colleges.

This is an industry of science and certifications and postgraduate degrees now. When Mannie was a walk-on offensive guard at Akron in the early 1970s, it was barely an industry at all. He got into weights as a middle schooler, with that Ted Williams set and after reading an article about Minnesota Vikings running back Bill Brown and his controversial decision to lift to increase his strength.

After playing offensive guard at Akron and getting his degree in health and physical education in 1974, Mannie taught and coached high school football, wrestling and track for 10 years.

After playing offensive guard at Akron and getting his degree in health and physical education in 1974, Mannie taught and coached high school football, wrestling and track for 10 years.

Mannie and about 30 other Akron players would meet at various places and come up with their own routines — some bringing weights crafted at a local steel mill. He turned himself into a two-year starter and discovered a mentor in coach Jim Dennison, then spent a decade teaching and coaching football, track and wrestling in his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio.

Mannie put together a weight room at Steubenville Catholic Central. He was all set.

The Mannie File
Who: Ken Mannie
From: Steubenville, Ohio
Born: July 1, 1952
Family Wife, Marianne; daughter, Alaina

But on a trip to Penn State to learn more about strength training, he met a man who would become another mentor. Dan Riley was Penn State’s strength coach at a time when few schools had one, before moving on to a long career with the Washington Redskins.

In observing Riley, Mannie saw the value of the position and, in particular, the time that could be spent with the athletes. So in 1984, when Ohio State offered a one-year graduate degree program that involved strength training for the Buckeyes and local high schools, Mannie signed up and was accepted.

He was an Ohio State grad assistant along with Dantonio and “we hit it off immediately,” Mannie said. Mannie got a stipend of $200 a week.

“Marianne, God love her, she got a job at a local bank,” Mannie said of his wife. “And she packed my lunch every day.”

After that year, Toledo coach Dan Simrell hired Mannie and congratulated him on being the first full-time strength coach in MAC history. Saban took over the program for one season, going 9-2 in 1990. He was so impressed with Mannie that he asked Bill Belichick to take on Mannie when Belichick hired Saban to be his defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns in 1991.

Belichick already had a guy. But in 1994, Mannie was Saban’s guy.

Mannie stayed at MSU through the transition to Bobby Williams, then wasn’t sure what would happen when John L. Smith took over the program in late 2002. He said some MSU administrators vouched for him to Smith, and Smith kept him on after they discussed changes to Mannie’s program.

“Did we see eye to eye on everything? No, we did not,” Mannie said of Smith. “But I’m working for the head coach.”

The transition to Dantonio was “smooth as silk,” Mannie said. And MSU football has become what he always thought possible when he arrived with Saban.

“I knew this place was a sleeping giant,” Mannie said, and 20 years into his tenure, there’s no end in sight.

“I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said.

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