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Successful college athletics programs typically follow a formula: hiring the right coach, recruiting prospects, developing them for the future. 

Fans know it takes all of those people — the “right fits” — as well as the support of boosters to help a program flourish. But ask any head coach who the most underrated piece of a program is and he or she will undoubtedly praise their strength and conditioning coach.

Mike Bradley has been the strength and conditioning coach for the Florida State men’s basketball teams since Leonard Hamilton arrived in 2002. After working together for years at Miami, Hamilton asked Bradley to come to Tallahassee and join the staff.

“We call coach Bradley the mad scientist in the weight room,” Hamilton said. “He is one of the foremost, knowledgeable weight training and conditioning coaches in the United States. It took me a year to do all my research, to go all over the country. I looked under every rock I could, trying to locate the person that I felt would suit us from a weight training and conditioning program, philosophies that I thought would be beneficial to basketball players. And believe me it’s a lot different weight training and conditioning as it relates to basketball players (compared) to wrestling and other sports.”

This begins a point of emphasis. Long gone are the days of one strength and conditioning coach and his assistant working with hundreds of student-athletes across every sport. College athletics is specialized with workouts geared toward body types but also designed for high performance on a specific playing field, court, track or pool.

“The field has come such a long way,” said Dave Plettl, who is in his 20th season at Florida State. “When I first got in the field, I assisted and I had all the sports. So there just wasn’t time for that. We just threw out a basic menu of things.”

There’s nothing basic now. Strength and conditioning has evolved and it’s a central piece of a program. Not just victories or winning seasons. But consistent success year over year, resulting in deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. That’s exactly what the Florida State men’s and women’s basketball teams have accomplished.

“There’s no better boss for a coach than Leonard Hamilton,” Bradley said. “He gives you so much autonomy. He’s not going to micromanage you, especially once you have his trust, he’s going to let you run with it. For somebody like me, that’s priceless, because it allows you to be creative in your own way. Leonard is a big believer in developing players. And he’s a big believer in the physical development of players. He understands how I train guys. And he knows this is exactly what he wants.

“Coach Hamilton is the most progressive coach in the country in terms of understanding strength training and understanding what it’s supposed to do. And he also understands what it’s not supposed to do. And that is a critically important thing. And so because we mesh so well with it, it couldn’t be a better situation.”

The commitment made to strength and conditioning is the lifeblood of the programs, which are afforded the funding to hire coaches like Bradley and Plettl because of the contributions from Seminole Boosters members.

“Membership in Seminole Boosters is the lifeblood of the athletics budget,” said Michael Alford, Seminole Boosters CEO. “Your membership funds scholarships and essential services for more than 550 student-athletes.

This is the third in a series of One Tribe Campaign articles that take a deeper dive into the quote above to share exactly how Seminole Boosters contributions are used to fund those “scholarships and essential services.” 

The One Tribe campaign seeks to fund the cost of the following student services, which account for $38 million of FSU’s $80 million athletics budget:

Basketball Strength and Conditioning

A portion of your contribution funds the cost of strength and conditioning ($650,000) for more than 500 student-athletes, including eight training rooms and 13 full-time strength coaches. Enhancing performance, of course, is an essential goal of FSU’s strength and conditioning program. Preventing injury is another goal but FSU’s student-athletes will tell you the strength and conditioning staff also plays a key role in their individual development and in establishing a team culture.

Mike Bradley helps Phil Cofer stretch before an NCAA Tournament game. (photo courtesy FSU athletics)

The relationship between coach and athlete

Bradley and Plettl are coaches but they aren’t allowed off campus to recruit or dive deep into high school game film like the basketball coaching staffs. When prospects are allowed to come to Tallahassee for a visit, which is something that’s been halted due to the pandemic, a player meets Bradley and Plettl.

“The recruiting aspect of it is a part I enjoy a lot,” said Bradley, who described himself as an athlete who fell into training 30 years ago. “When they get here or nowadays on the Zoom when we talk to parents, we have a strength program that is very appealing to players. We have a track record. We can show development. We show what some people think is spectacular development. We can also talk to parents about the reality, the reality of athletics, the dangers that are involved in some styles of training. (We explain) why you need to be aware of these things, why we don’t do certain things, why we do certain things, how we’re going to protect the health of your son, how we’re going to take care of them.”

Reflect back on the earlier quote by Coach Hamilton, the one about Bradley being a “mad scientist.” He’s half-joking, of course. It’s about evaluating their body type, building a connection with an athlete, understanding their goals and the coaching staff’s long-term view. It is a science but it is not an experiment.

“We’re not going to turn them into a physics experiment, we’re not going to turn them into a chemistry experiment,” Bradley said. “We’re going to train him in the hardest, the toughest, most intense way possible. But the smartest way possible. We’re not going to destroy his joints in the process, we’re not going to destroy his body in the process. We’re going to protect his joints in the process, we’re going to protect his body in the process. I can see the parents’ eyes light up with it.”

Why? Because they see it. Bradley will take a current player and run through a set of workouts with the prospect.

“There’s no surprises,” Bradley said. “And when they leave here, they really get it. It makes sense to them. Because there’s not a bunch of Hocus Pocus going on.”

Plettl was a weightlifter. After beginning in sports medicine, taping ankles but also learning by watching the coaches train athletes. Before too long Plettl tried training a few athletes. They soon were testing quite well and he made the shift to strength and conditioning.

“The position is very hard to define,” Plettl said. “All we know is what we kind of read a little bit in the media and it’s usually salaries or how does this guy get that job and get paid that? I was asked this before, in my own profession, of what makes the best strength coach. And they were expecting me to say, ‘Well, you’ve got to do a certain lift or you’ve got to do certain running or you’ve got to have a certain philosophy.’ And it’s not that at all. What it is: How well you connect with the principals, with the ideas, with the philosophy, with the atmosphere, with the personality, with the character values of the head coach. And I say that because we are extensions of them.”

What fans may not grasp is the amount of time a strength and conditioning coach has with a student-athlete. There is daily interaction with head coach and athlete or assistant coach and athlete in the preseason, during the season and the postseason. But then there are various NCAA-mandated limitations in the offseason. And that’s where strength and conditioning coaches have the ability to build relationships and mold athletes.

“When I help recruit, I talk about how we have 180 workouts, from running to biking, to weightlifting, to core work and how we break it up,” Plettl said. “We can have anywhere from 160-180 touches with these players throughout the year, and it far outweighs what the coaches get to. We’re seeing them every other day, whereas the coaches see them maybe almost every day, but it’s just during the season. And then there’s a lot of back off from there.

“What we do through our process, what strength coaches do is they just learn the personalities of these players, how they tick, how they work, what motivates them. What are their dreams and goals? And a lot of times we know this before the coaches do.”

Dave Plettl has helped Izabela Nicoletti shed weight as part of her recovery from surgery on both knees. (photo courtesy FSU athletics)

Building a foundation

That trust is built over time. And the principles of what they do is described by Plettl as the three C’s.

First is character.

“A gateway to learn about the person, to learn about the player, so that we can help the big picture on how to coach them,” Plettl said. “We find that we’re the first ones to put loads on them, we’re the first ones to stress them out and put a little pressure on them. And to see how they respond to it. And to help them deal with it, to help them accommodate it. To help them really have the capacity to go further. It’s really character development more than the physical. The physical is just a gateway to do that.”

Second is chemistry.

“We have an invaluable part of developing chemistry with these players, how well they work together, teaching them to not be individuals, but to encourage, to strengthen, to help build a camaraderie with each other,” Plettl said. “And that’s done a lot of times through hard work, through adversity, when they want to fray, when they want to go their own direction, that chemistry piece is so important. If we can get them to just stay together and work together, encourage each other. After all they’re the ones that have to rely on each other on the floor.”

Third is culture.

“Over time, there’s a culture that’s built and this encompasses the values of our program – showing up on time, paying attention when you’re there, going hard in certain drills and certain times, just being able to be an extension of the head coach and the overall culture of our program,” Plettl said. “What are the things that coach most values?”

‘Very blue collar’

There are no short cuts. The daily decisions and work ethic, pushing and straining to improve, add up over time. Days, weeks, months, years.

“The thing about sports is you start with basics,” Bradley said. “And then you move into higher level techniques, then you get into tactics and strategy. Strength training is not like that. You start with the basics. And then you just keep repeating the basics. Week after week, week after week. And the basics never change, the fundamentals never change. That is what my job is to stand here and enforce fundamentals all day long, week after week, year after year. It’s not glamorous. It’s very blue collar.”

How blue collar? Bradley takes video recordings of workouts with each men’s basketball player since he arrived with Hamilton in 2002. Nearly 19 years later, there are more than 32,000 recordings.

A recent example is redshirt junior RaiQuan Gray, who dropped 10-12 pounds in the offseason in preparation for what he would face now: More minutes and an expanded role. 

“RaiQuan got here and he has the genetics to be heavy,” Bradley said. “You can see it in him. He’s probably around 260 right now. That’s a kid who has made a bunch of decisions every day not to eat a lot. He is a breed of bulldog or St. Bernard in a game played with a bunch of greyhounds. And so what’s a lean weight for him. The amount of fat on a greyhound that would make that dog obese and overweight would be an underfed St. Bernard or Bulldog. He’s a different breed. This is who he is. Now the great thing is he’s a terrific player. He’s a 260-pound ballet dancer out there.”

Watching Gray now it’s obvious he’s not necessarily a different player but clearly one with more energy.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the weight room,” Gray said. “More of a muscular, toned feel. I’m using it to my advantage right now. … I wanted to be in the best shape so I could provide great minutes and help my team get wins and do whatever they needed me to do down the stretch.”

An example from the women’s team is redshirt sophomore guard Izabela Nicoletti. A McDonald’s All-American, Nicoletti lost a year to right knee surgery and a year to left knee surgery before making her FSU debut in a game in December.

“Changes like that are incredible,” Plettl said. “She lost 40-plus pounds and is just moving a lot better and has more speed. Now the game is another level and she just needs experience playing, but physically and through that process, we developed a great relationship.”

The success stories are evident from the past and present. Bradley will tell you about Al Thornton, a “freak athlete” who played at FSU from 2003-07 but was not a high-profile recruit. 

When Thornton arrived, he weighed 182 pounds, couldn’t run a mile and had a poor shot. When Thornton left, he weighed 228 pounds, ran a mile in 5:20, could jump seven inches higher (with a step) and developed into a consistent jump shooter and free-throw shooter. Initially, he wasn’t academically eligible but by the time he was drafted was a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree.

“And he’s a lottery pick,” Bradley said. “That’s developmental. Now the big part of that is his drive.”

But a big part of that drive is teaching an athlete how to drive, how to steer and get the most out of their mind and body.

Your contributions to Seminole Boosters are used to enable the development.