— Bill Tate, the UI's star fullback and MVP of the 1952 Rose Bowl: "I lifted some weights on a small scale, but some of our guys thought weight training was a sissy thing. We concentrated on cardiovascular work and prepared for the (Ray) Eliot mile and running the stadium stairs."
— Jim Grabowski, Illini All-America fullback a decade later: "I had a summer Highway Department job that allowed me to save $800 or $900 for school. After work, Gregg Schumacher and I ran about 2 miles home in working boots. That was our conditioning."
— Newly retired UI administrator Dana Brenner, lineman for College of the Pacific in the early '70s and assistant coach at Fullerton in the late '70s: "We had a running program and were expected to lift weights in the summer. It wasn't nearly what's happening today."
We are harking to a time that today's 24-7 one-sport athletes wouldn't recognize.
In the post-World War II period, college football stars kept in shape by playing baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter. I know about Tate (no relation). Stan Wallace and I were on his UI intramural basketball team. Everybody played multiple sports, some combining them at the varsity level.
I was freakishly skinny and, without knowing what I was doing, took a weightlifting class at Kenney (Men's Old Gym). You could train there at any time because it was mostly vacant. I also took a boxing course there. That didn't work, either.
"I remember Bob Shelton at the Men's Old Gym," telephoned Tate from Omaha. "He believed we didn't emphasize weights enough. He helped me personally. Some other members of the football team did it on a small scale.
"There was no such thing as summer 7-on-7 workouts, and the players worked individually when school let out in the spring. We were expected to run sprints on our own."
Tate served as an Illini assistant and became head coach at Wake Forest in 1964. He recalls:
"One of the first things I did was plagiarize Red Blake at Army. He emphasized agility and conditioning, and we sent out a strength-building agenda to each player. By my third year, we had a room with weights."
"I don't remember Dick Butkus ever lifting weights," said Grabowski of his linebacking teammate.
"We didn't have a weightroom, but Gary Eickman believed in it, and he got some of us to do things on our own. But we never lifted during the season. We did some benches, curls and presses after the season but not in the summer."
Grabo was drafted by the Packers. There he found a small weightroom with a Universal Gym set.
"Jim Taylor (Packers fullback) had his own personal weights, and Gale Gillingham and some others used those. In January I'd go to the Irving Park YMCA. I first heard of a weight coach at San Diego in the late '60s, and I believe Nebraska got the jump on everyone in college with its weight program," Grabowski said.
Making the grade
Another drastic change has to do with academic preparation.
Parkland's Carl Meyer, who was on Bob Blackman's Illini staff, recalls that expectations were high after hard-running John Wilson (42 points) led Blackman's first team to a season-ending five straight wins in 1971.
Academic failures took a huge toll on the 1972 team. Chicago's junior tackle Willie Lee and a half-dozen others were found to be ineligible. Gone were prize 1971 recruits John Gener and Bill Bassetto. Veteran defensive backs John Graham and Willie Osley did not return, nor did Wilson, the UI's leading rusher as a sophomore. Blackman commented at the time that "we can't run a football program like this."
Meyer recalls that Lynn Snyder was moved in as academic adviser.
"He pointed us in the right direction academically," Meyer said. "The problem was that we had no control over the athletes in the summer. One of my jobs was to find summer work for the players, and a lot of it was on the toll roads up north. As for weight training, they did most of it on their own."
Today's freshmen walk into mandatory study sessions, scholarships are provided for summer school and only a few lose eligibility. The athletes train under close observation of a weight- training staff. It's not a case of getting ahead but rather just keeping up with what everyone is doing.
Those were the days
We now turn to Ted Karras, the UI's projected starter at right guard as a redshirt freshman. In 14 months on campus, Karras added 90 pounds to his bench press (now at 375, his goal is 400 by spring).
A product of Indianapolis Cathedral, he said: "We had one of the worst weight-training programs and yet the winningest team in Indiana. Our lockers, laundry and weights (three bench presses) were all in the same place.
"My personal training began with my dad (also Ted). He played at Northwestern. We have video of him making me do 100 pushups at the age of 3 ... not all at once but in sets of five and 10."
Since football runs in the family — seven relatives have played in the Big Ten including great uncle Alex Karras at Iowa — young Ted gave up basketball after the eighth grade. You might say he outgrew it. By his sophomore year at Cathedral, he earned a starting role late in the 2008 title run.
He made a similar leap this past spring, one of several redshirts who rode new strength into key Illini roles. A teammate, 6-8 Pat Flavin, put on 50 pounds from 230 to 280. Tackle Michael Heitz, who started as a redshirt last season, has made a noteworthy gain to 305.
"When Flavin came in, he wasn't ready," Karras said. "To play offensive line in the Big Ten, you need to be in the 300-pound range. This past spring, I had to go against two of the best defensive tackles in Akeem Spence (305) and Glenn Foster (up substantially to 280). Because of my added strength, I have more confidence and I feel I can compete. I'll check in around 302.
"I've heard what it was like in the old days," he said. "My grandfather (also Ted), who played for Indiana, said they couldn't have water on the field and took salt tablets. When he played with the Bears, the first thing they had to do was the (George) Halas mile in a certain time. It is a lot different to have a structured training environment and a weight coach who has studied the subject and knows the right techniques to develop bodies. During 7-on-7 drills this summer, the offensive linemen worked separately on footwork and techniques against pass rushing."
With trainers replacing coaches, the entire Illini squad was under supervision this summer, Karras noting they were free for the Fourth of July period and this past week prior to today's reporting date. Such around-the-calendar sophistication of weight training and academic scrutiny is universal in major college football. As Blackman came to realize in the early 1970s, you can't compete if you don't do it.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.