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Inside the attitude: Mike Barwis

Daily Sports Editor
Published October 2, 2008

In the excitement following last week’s 27-25 comeback win over Wisconsin, Michigan players were asked about the key to the historic victory.

They could easily have easily pointed to fifth-year senior linebacker John Thompson’s pick-six, redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet’s 58-yard run or junior Brandon Graham’s three sacks.

Those plays will live on in Michigan lore, but the Wolverines didn’t see them as the game-deciding moments.

For them, those moments happened months ago. It wasn’t just one, either. Rather, it was a summer’s worth of sprints, lifts, squats, sweat, and blood with Michigan’s new director of strength and conditioning, Mike Barwis.

The workouts put the players into “the best shape of their lives.” They are stronger, quicker and faster than ever.

After the third quarter Saturday, the Badger offensive line had its hands on its hips while the Michigan defense looked fresh, despite being on the field for nearly 28 of 45 minutes.

The Wolverines’ improved physical conditioning was integral to Saturday’s comeback. But its new level of toughness allowed the Wolverines to maintain their never-die attitude throughout.

“It’s mental conditioning just as much as it is physical conditioning,” Barwis said. “If we’re not committed 100 percent to everything we do in our lives, we start to fall short of our dreams.”

With the commitment instilled in them through brutal summer workouts, the Wolverines were able to give first-year Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez his first signature win in Ann Arbor.

For some, talking about the power of commitment is just a way to motivate people. The words are air with no support. That’s not the case with Barwis.

“It’s hard to instill toughness in people and commitment when you don’t do it yourself,” said Autumn Barwis, Mike’s wife, and an assistant on Michigan’s strength and conditioning staff. “That’s one thing that sets Mike apart. That’s how he thinks. It’s not a show. It’s not, ‘When I’m at work, this is what I am like.’ He really is like that all the time.”

That's the way Mike has been since he got to Michigan, and that’s the way he has been his entire life.

It wasn’t me

Mike Barwis refuses to take credit for the mental and physical changes that have occurred in the Michigan football program since he arrived.

“All I do is provide tools and direction, and they do the work,” Barwis said. “These kids have been very committed. Any gains that they have had have been because of themselves, not because of me.”

When approached at Michigan Media Day about the idea for a story about the source of his mentality, he was apprehensive. With stories floating around jokingly calling him a cage fighter, who owns pet wolves and made it to West Virginia football practice after crashing his truck off a cliff, he didn’t want to take focus away from the players.

“I would prefer to have stories about the team and the players or the program,” Barwis wrote in an e-mail four days later. “I am just one guy in a unit and am really not that important. I would rather not subject my family and friends to the public eye.”

But when his players were asked about the transformation, they were almost unanimous in saying it was the strength and conditioning program.

This is the first time his family has spoken to the media. They spoke under the condition that they would not be asked to discuss the Barwis legends.

When his mother, Judy, spoke about her son’s accomplishments, she showed the same level of humility he displayed when talking about his team.

“You just give them the tools to get where they are going,” Judy said. “Too many people think it’s all about them when in fact it’s not about them. It’s about the tools they gave these people.”

There are no shortcuts

Barwis grew up in Philiadelphia. In the household, everything was earned — nothing was given.

Judy grew up on a farm. Her family’s livelihood depended on the work they put in. Failing one’s responsibilities around the house meant letting the entire family down.

Mike grew up with this mentality. He and his two brothers never received a weekly allowance and completed household chores as a responsibility to the family.

Shortcuts didn’t exist.

Mike likes to tell a story about when he did some yardwork at his grandparents’ house.