Feb. 11, 2013
"Champions are built on a thousand invisible mornings."
A sign bearing this quote hangs on the wall inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, a constant reminder of what it takes to build a championship team.
The message was in full force Monday at 5:30 a.m., in the depths of winter during the second week of February, as the Spartans went through their fourth offseason conditioning session of head strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie's "Fourth Quarter Program."
"This is what Coach Mannie lives for," said senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "The offseason is Coach Mannie's time."
On Monday, there were eight grueling, intense stations, 10 minutes apiece, focusing on agility and change of direction. Wednesday, it's speed and mobility. And Friday, an emphasis on power, including the use of sleds, harness pulls, and heavy ropes.
Agility. Speed. Power. Then repeat the process for five weeks.
"Every year, the foundation is being rebuilt," said Mannie, who is in his 18th year at Michigan State. "It's a brand new year, a brand new team. You've got to hold their hand to the fire as if they've never been there. The way we approach it, they've never done this before. They've never gone through a winter conditioning program before in our minds. We're starting all over again."
Maxwell, who has already suffered through four winter conditioning sessions, is currently going through the Fourth Quarter Program for the fifth and final time.
"You can look at it one of two ways: you can dread it, or you can really embrace it," Maxwell said. "If you embrace it, and look at it as a choice to work hard and come out here and improve yourself, you're going to find better results."
The conditioning program devised by Mannie and his staff couldn't be more aptly named considering the 2012 season Michigan State experienced. The Spartans played in nine games decided by four or less points, including a school-record seven straight during one stretch. What's more, two of those games went down to the final 10 seconds of regulation, and one went into double overtime.
"It's all about mental toughness," said senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti. "They don't call this the Fourth Quarter program for nothing. Last year, we lost a lot of games in the last couple of seconds. This whole winter conditioning is just going to implement the mindset just to finish."
"Come game time, there's not going to be one single coach on that football field," Mannie said. "When all hell is breaking loose all around, there are going to be 11 guys on that football field at any given time, making decisions, expressing different techniques, having to know their assignments, having to execute those assignments, and having to lean on each other. That really is one of the main purposes of the beginning of this program in the winter. As much as any of the physical stuff, to me, it's a lot of neck up components. Mental toughness, leadership, pulling together, chemistry - when do you think all of that is established? It starts getting established right now."
For the true freshmen on the roster who arrived last summer, it's their first go-around through the Fourth Quarter Program.
"It's the hardest thing I've done in my life, but it's what you got to do to get where we want to be," said wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, an All-Big Ten Freshman who ranked second in receptions (29) and tied for second in receiving yards (364) among the league's freshman last season. "Nothing's going to be easy - you just have to work hard.
"Coach Mannie loves what he does. He's really enforcing leadership and work ethic on us. We're getting there."
A select few who graded out on the high end of the scale by the coaches in previous workouts donned bronze shirts on Monday, but the color of the t-shirts worn by the players varies from workout to workout, depending on their performance.
One of those players in bronze was safety Demetrious Cox, who is looking forward to competing for playing time this year after redshirting last season.
"It's just a sense of pride and lets you know the coaches see your hard work," said Cox. "I can definitely take it up a notch (from last year). We always talk about no matter how good you think you are, you can always be better."
The 90-minute conditioning session on Monday closed with a new wrinkle - the leadership circle. Various seniors are called upon the middle of the team at midfield to send the group through a specific drill, e.g., a specialized push up or sit up.
"Coach Mannie just implemented that this year," said Fonoti. "You have the seniors all around, and he puts one guy on the spot. It's about a finisher and how much are you willing to give, and how much do you want it? So when that one guy does go up there, you turn around and face your classmates. That just shows that we can't do it on our own. By us facing them, that just gives us that much more motivation to get it done."
"We're trying to develop a team mentality of toughness, chemistry (and) leadership," remarked Mannie. "Those seniors that we put in the leadership circle there, they're not the only ones. I want them looking out and holding everyone accountable for what was being done, but I want them holding the guy next to him accountable too, all the way throughout the entire circle. We'll get there with that. It will take time."
"It's just another tactic to put a lot more emphasis on player leadership and player ownership of everything," said Maxwell. "(Coach Mannie) explained it well at the end. The coaches can work us as hard as they want to...but unless we buy into it and unless it's coming from us, then it's really not going to mean anything. That leadership circle is a way for the seniors especially, and some of the older guys on the team, to take some ownership and dictate what kind of work ethic we're going to have.
"Last year, I was thrown into that captain position without really having any playing experience under my belt. Now that I have that year under my belt, I do feel a little more comfortable and it feels more natural being out there as a leader."
After the workout, Mannie addressed the team and stressed the need for leaders to rise up.
"I think every year at this time you have to re-introduce that," Mannie said, regarding leadership on the team. "This is a completely different team than any team that's played here at Michigan State, even though a lot of them are the same guys. It doesn't matter. It's a new season, it's a new year. Nothing we did last year, absolutely nothing, good, bad or indifferent, win, loss, whatever, is going to have any effect on what we do this year.
"They're can be situations where a guy was a great leader one year, and then all of a sudden for some reason, didn't decide to bring it back. They need to know we're looking for new leadership, right here, right now, for 2013."
Mannie wasn't the only one who talked to the whole group. Fonoti quickly followed with his own speech.
"It's a big honor just to go in there and share some words of encouragement," said Fonoti. "Coach Mannie gives us the option to give a winning thought. Coming from a coach, that's nice. But coming from your teammates, the guys you're grinding with, it means that much more. This whole winning thought is a big-time thing. It's just nice to hear it from our teammates and how they're feeling and the words of encouragement that have for us."
Fonoti is enough of a veteran to see what the Fourth Quarter Program looks like on the other side. Not that it makes it any easier.
"Even though it's tough, you just have to see it as a blessing in disguise," he said. "If we just take every word (Mannie) says and implement it, he's going to get us right. He has the best interests for us. We just have to be able to utilize his resources. He's getting us right, so I'm excited."
Said Maxwell: "Coach Mannie's had all season and a little bit of the offseason to stew on this, and now that we're full fledged into the winter conditioning program, he's really enjoying himself and getting after it."
Just a week and a half in, Mannie claims it's too early in the program to judge how the team is doing so far.
"I think the effort is there with most of them, but the detail is not there yet," he said. "We're still working on the little detail things, whether it's technique, body positioning, or body posturing. Most of them are going with great effort. But now you have to fine tune it, and put the technique and details on it from that standpoint.
"I want them to get accustomed to manufacturing some adversity for themselves. I want to see guys step up and challenging other guys to step up. Not all those challenges I just mentioned have to come from coaches. As a matter of fact, my opinion is that most of the time it shouldn't come from us as coaches. It should come from them. (On) the great teams...the development of leadership (and) the cornerstones of chemistry come from the players, they don't come from coaches."
The Spartans will continue their winter conditioning program through mid-March, up until the beginning of spring practice on Tuesday, March 19.