It's five minutes before 11 a.m. on a snowy Monday in late March when Victor Hobson walks into the Michigan weight room grinning. He glances into the small cramped coaches office and just nods. Hobson, a former Wolverine linebacker with a neck as thick as a tractor tire, is the first player to arrive. Hobson plunks down on a stationary bike and starts pedaling. Soon he will be joined cycling away by running backs Mike Hart and Avon Cobourne. Braylon Edwards, another former UM star, shows up totting an open laptop computer in the crook of his arm. Before Edwards gets on one of the bikes, the Cleveland Brown receiver hooks up the computer to the gym's speaker system so he can play DJ. Welcome to Camp Barwis.
Over the next three hours, every muscle in their bodies will be challenged as a gravel-voiced man alternately shouts encouragement and jokes with them. Following the bike warm-up will come a series of sprint starts where the players burst out of their stances while a belt harness rigged to a wall attempts to hold them back. After that, Barwis implores the players to snake their way in procession over, around and through a group of high hurdles. This is the warm-up portion of Camp Barwis before the heavy lifting begins.
Camp Barwis is like nothing Hobson or Edwards had ever experienced before. Hobson came back to Ann Arbor because he had heard stories about Mike Barwis, Michigan's new strength coach. Hobson, who had spent previous off-seasons working out with a boxing coach, was always in search of cutting edge training methods that might help him get better, so he asked Barwis if he would work with him. Barwis said he'd love to. He already was training some former Mountaineer players who had relocated to Ann Arbor. Cobourne, a compactly built CFL running back who starred at West Virginia in Rich Rodriguez's first season as the Mountaineers head coach, had even rented a one-bedroom in Ann Arbor for the winter just so he could train with the new Wolverine coach. Owen Schmitt, Steve Slaton and Ryan Mundy, a trio of former Mountaineer players, also had moved up to Michigan to have Barwis get them ready for the NFL Draft.
Hobson says after the first week he felt quicker and more explosive. He was so impressed with his gains, he told other former Michigan players. Edwards opted to join in, as did Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.
The buzz about the coach has grown from his days in Morgantown. Barwis had become a folk hero among West Virginia football players who say he is as responsible as anyone for victories over heavily favored Georgia and Oklahoma in BCS bowls in recent years. Kay-Jay Harris, a former WVU RB now playing with the NY Giants, says it's not just type of workout Barwis coaches, which is a combination of plyometrics, Olympic lifts, core training and generous amounts of sprint work, but it's the intensity he demands.
Barwis is a 190-pound Philly area native with the kind of presence that scares grown men. Football players, many outweighing Barwis by 100 pounds, speak in awe of the guy like he's some sort of Chuck Norris figure. His reputation, which quickly turned him into an internet star among Wolverine fans, is indeed larger than life. "I think he had a freakin' pet wolf at home," says Harris. "Now, c'mon, who has a pet wolf?"
It doesn't hurt that there is just enough info about Barwis' MMA background to spook his protégés, especially those who have seen Barwis roll with any of their teammates who have tried to submit him, regardless of how much of an advantage he gives them to start out. Barwis prefers to sidestep the MMA thing or detail his martial arts background. "I really try not to talk too much about it," he says, adding that he'd rather talk about the athletes than himself.
Says Hobson, "It's like he's in the CIA or something. Those are the kinds of guys you really don't want to mess with."
The training regimen the players are put through is something many wouldn't want to mess with either. A half-hour into the session, the players assemble in pairs in front of a row of squat racks as they begin to load bumper plates onto their barbells. Barwis' instructs the group through hang cleans, an exercise you probably won't see at your local gym.
Most of the guys in here had never done hang cleans. Many had never done squats either or taken nutritional supplements. (The old Michigan program didn't include any of that in the Wolverines regimen.) Proper technique is a major concern so Barwis harps on strict form and uses Cobourne as his model. Soon, a rhythm develops. Heels snap on the floor. The clink of the barbell getting hoisted up is followed by a "THUD-thud" as the bumper plates crash to the ground.
"With the clean, you gotta be explosive and aggressive, you can't fake it," Barwis barks. "Just like football."
Over the next two hours, the intensity level rarely dips as the players go from the squats racks to the bench press over to some grueling core work (the athletes try to balance themselves while kneeling on two stability balls) before heading back onto the field for some plyometric work and additional sprinting.
"You're either gettin' or you're gettin' worse," Barwis says, his voice cutting through the bass throb of Edwards' music.
Cobourne, the veteran of the workout group, says he's noticed a dramatic difference in the athletes, using Foote, an established NFL guy, as his prime example.
"I saw Foote come in at the beginning, and he'd try and lollygag a little," says Cobourne. "And Mike's like 'Look, that ain't how we do it here.' Foote wasn't used to it. But now he's going right through it. These guys see what they're getting from it, 'Man, I was never explosive like this before. Wow this is really working for me.'"
Hobson says the impact the program will have is more than just physical. "If there are some soft people, these guys are gonna get them out of there," Hobson says of the new Wolverine staff, adding that Ann Arbor could have a Miami-like appeal amongst NFL players hoping to get in better shape during the off-season. "Word is going to get around, and that can only help the program when young recruits see a Braylon Edwards coming back here to train.