BY GABE EDELSON
Daily Sports Writer
Published November 11, 2005
Like the Wizard of Oz, Michigan strength and conditioning coach Mike Gittleson relishes his role behind the scenes and seems to possess magical powers.
Gittleson doesn't talk to the media. Most Michigan football fans don't even know his name. But he might just be the most influential figure in the program since he arrived in Ann Arbor 27 years ago.
Sophomore defensive lineman Alan Branch has lost roughly 60 pounds since his graduation from high school in 2004. He still tips the scales at 311 pounds, but he's a healthier, better football player because of Gittleson's tutelage.
"(Gittleson) has everything to do with my success here," Branch said. "I've gotten a lot stronger. When I got here, I'd really never lifted weights seriously. - I'd say (Gittleson has improved) almost every single player. Mike's programs on lifting and running are so intense that you have no choice but to get better. You could do it half-heartedly and still get better, the way he's working us out."
Redshirt junior center Mark Bihl, who's grown from 260 pounds to his current weight of 305, has paid the price many times over for taking part in Gittleson's demanding regimen.
"I've left my share of breakfasts out on the turf next to the weight room, that's for sure," Bihl said.
Gittleson is the first and only strength and conditioning coach in Wolverine history. In 2003, he was named National Collegiate Football Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. After so many years working in the field, Gittleson seems to have developed a preternatural ability to estimate players' weights just by glancing at them. He can even predict how much growing room individuals have left when they come to Michigan.
"This guy was on me every day," Branch said of his "Mike Gittleson Diet," which included eating less and drinking more water. "Every time he saw me, he asked me my weight, and if I didn't tell him the right weight, he would really just have a 'Mike Moment.' If I lied about it - he has something in his head that he knows your weight. You tell him a weight, and he'll just look at you, and he'll be like, 'Get on the scale.' And if he finds out that you're not telling him the truth, he has a little bit of a more intense 'Mike Moment.' "
Said Bihl: "The summer right before I came (here, Gittleson) told me I was going to grow a little bit. I never realized how much I really was going to grow, and I had to make an appointment with him during our Friday lifts. He'd just make me unbelievably strong. I don't think there's a better person in the United States that knows more than he does, and can develop a person more than he can."
Gittleson has adapted to a changing game. When he started working at Michigan in 1978, Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler mandated that all of his players weigh less than 300 pounds. Today, there are at least 15 players on Michigan's roster that exceed the old limit. But as a Vietnam vet with a master's degree in exercise science, Gittleson has taken what the athletic department calls a "scientific approach to Michigan's conditioning program."
"Mike is not a throwback," coach Lloyd Carr said. "He is a very intelligent guy and he understands the human body. What I really appreciate about Mike is his dedication, his commitment and his love for our players. He is a guy that is available (to our players). We have a program here in strength and conditioning that is based on safety first, and I'm proud of that. I have talked with a lot of our players, and about three years ago, I took almost a year to study our program in relation to other programs across the country. I talked to a number of our players who have been in the NFL and who have had a lot of experience in different training programs. To a man, they had great support for the way that we conduct our program. I think that Mike Gittleson has done a great job here."
Gittleson also has had his share of accomplishments nursing injured players back to health. Redshirt junior defensive end Jeremy Van Alstyne, who has gained 50 pounds at Michigan to bulk up to his current weight of 270, credits his quick comebacks from knee injuries during his freshman and sophomore seasons and torn foot ligaments last year to Gittleson's program.
"He's helped me out so much, especially with my knee," Van Alstyne said. "He enabled me to come back after five months, when most of the time, it's eight to 12 for that type of knee injury. - We've always been able to spend a lot of time together, just one-on-one, since I've been injured a number of times."
To all the Michigan players he's helped over nearly the past three decades, Gittleson and his full-body workouts seem almost miraculous in effectiveness. But if you pull back the curtain, you'll discover that Mike Gittleson is a whole lot more than smoke and mirrors.