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. He put a shovel back where he found it, but there was still some dirt on it.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” his grandfather asked.
Mike didn’t know.
“There wasn’t dirt on the shovel when I got it, so what was the dirt doing on the shovel now?” his grandfather responded.
“Pop, what’s the difference? Why does it matter?”
“If the shovel were better with dirt on it, they’d have made it that way,” his grandfather said. “Clean it the hell up and put it back.”
Judy works in school administration. Every day, she sees what happens when parents let their children slip by.
“Too many times, I see a parent say, ‘It’s my fault they forgot their homework because I forgot to put it in their backpack,’ ” Judy said. “And therefore, the child sees no consequence.”
It creates an atmosphere where children don’t take responsibility for their actions. That’s not the kind of home Mike grew up in, and that’s not the impression he has carried with the Wolverines.
During summer workouts, players had to beat specific times for a series of sprints. If a player couldn’t make the times, he simply worked harder to achieve them.
That’s exactly what happened with senior nose tackle Terrance Taylor.
At one point, Taylor was one of the only players on the team who hadn’t met the standards, so he had to complete two extra hours of cardio work. Barwis sat down with Taylor.
“ ‘Son, don’t let it pass you by,’ ” Barwis said to Taylor. “‘You’ve got an opportunity in life, and this is your moment. You only get so many moments in life. Don’t allow somebody else to outwork you and put themselves in a place where you should be.’”
Taylor looks back on that conversation with Barwis as a turning point in his development.
In January, Taylor considered entering the NFL Draft. He weighed 328 pounds at the time and was projected to be a second- or third-round pick. He looked at the amount of work he would have to do to get ready for the Draft and didn’t think he would give NFL teams the best he could. During Michigan’s spring game, Taylor wasn’t listed as the first-string defensive tackle, and there were rumors that he wasn’t happy.
Then came Barwis’s talk.
“People look up to me and I can’t make the runs,” Taylor said. “To be a leader, I have to act like a leader. I dedicated myself to losing weight and running better.”
Taylor put the time in and eventually made the standards.
At the end of fall camp, players had to run four loops around the field. Non-seniors had to do a fifth.
But Taylor did the fifth loop, and he did it in “speed time.”
“I did it because I could,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t because I wanted to show off. I just had it in me.”
Now, Taylor weighs 295 and says he’s happy.
“If you let somebody take a shortcut one time, in the future, they’re going to take it five, six, or seven times because it’s easier to do it,” Mike said. “(But if they do it the right way), they start to see what they are capable of. I think because of that they start to change a mindset.”
Others before him
When there were rumors of the military draft going back into effect, Barwis wouldn’t let his brothers join the army. Because of a “one child per family” rule, just one of the Barwis sons could have enlisted. Mike insisted it would be him.
“He said, ‘Well, that will never happen,’ ” Judy recalls Mike saying. “ ‘My brothers will never go. I would go before I allowed that to happen.’ ”
Throughout his life, Barwis would always put himself on the line to help a friend, whether he thought it would put himself at risk.
“I can’t think of anything specific other than some instances that I have been sworn to secrecy about,” his father, Greg Barwis, said. “It’s not about him getting notoriety. It’s about helping other people.”
Judy describes Mike as the kind of caring and compassionate person who would do anything to help someone, but she was similarly reserved when asked to speak about specific examples.
“Somebody could walk into my house with Armani shoes on and say they don’t have any money and Mike would give them the last dollar in his pocket,” Judy said.
Throughout his life, Barwis has worked in jobs that allowed him to shape young people’s lives. He switched majors a few times at West Virginia several times, but never away from something that let him have an impact on kids’ development.
He completed his undergraduate program in the school of medicine, majoring in exercise physiology. Over the summer, he interned with the West Virginia University hospital and with the football team’s strength and conditioning program.
He decided to pursue a career in strength and conditioning because he felt he could influence kids’ lives the most in that field.
Being able to reach kids
There are about 100 players on the Michigan football team. Within a few months of his arrival, each one of them had bought into Barwis’s conditioning system.
For some, committing to the program occurred the first time they met. They saw his intensity and how much he cared.
For others, like Taylor, it required a more personal approach.
But he found a way to connect with every player.
“He’s a great motivator,” Greg said. “That’s an absolute gift. He could get you to do things that you yourself didn’t believe that you were able of accomplishing.”
For Mike, the key is building a kid’s self-esteem.
When he worked at West Virginia, Judy coached high school field hockey. She didn’t like what she was seeing out of her team, so she called the best motivator she knew — her son.
Mike told her to continue to build up her team’s self-esteem because taking a negative approach to the situation would only make it worse.
“ ‘A lot of the high school and junior high coaches need a course in sports psychology,’ ” Judy recalled Mike saying. “We always tried to build our boys’ self-esteem and not humiliate and embarrass them.”
Through Barwis’ positive approach, players see his genuine desire for them to achieve their potential. If they sense he’s being unauthentic with them, they’ll have trouble connecting.
“You can fool an adult, but you can never fool a kid in terms of how you feel about them,” Judy said. “It’s a given that you can take a child and put them in a situation and they can tell who’s faking and who really cares.”
Between his genuine attitude and his ability to read what works for each player, Mike is able to get them to buy into his system.
Actually, Greg can only think of one person who hasn’t been fully motivated by Barwis’s conditioning program — himself.
“I’m probably his only failure in life that he hasn’t gotten his father in the same shape he has gotten his athletes in,” Greg said. “I’m 60 years old, and I’m sure, given a little time, he could probably whoop me into shape.”
Pay the Price to run faster
Pay the price to get stronger
Pay the price to jump higher
Pay the price to stay the same.
This message is on a sign above the door from the Michigan weight room to the practice fields in Oosterbaan Fieldhouse.
His parents have paid this price.
His father worked 16-hour shifts in construction — often through the night. His mother would stay at school five hours after it closed.
Early on, Mike learned the importance of putting in the necessary effort.
“No matter what he was engaged in, he gave 110 percent,” Greg said. “He was raised that way, that you only got out what you put in.”
In academics, he graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia.
Over the summer in high school and college, he either worked construction with his father to earn some money or took classes.
During college, he would work on the weekends or take jobs that required him to wake up at 5 a.m.
At Michigan, Mike regularly works 15-hour days. But if a player needs help with anything, he won’t hesitate to stay even longer.
Whether it be in the training room, movement science homework or assisting with their personal life, he doesn’t hesitate to lend a helping hand.
“The kids see that, and so they are willing to give everything they have because he sacrificed for them,” Autumn said.
At the end of the day, Mike comes home from work and spends time with his 16-month-old son, Ray.
“I’m not going to be the guy who goes home at night and looks in the mirror and says I let anybody down,” Barwis said. “That’s not going to happen.”