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National Treasure: “Coach Rad” drives Oregon’s football success

Jim Radcliffe is intense and meticulous, maybe the most energized, fit 55-year-old on the planet.

Two-point stance, on-point teaching: “Coach Rad” brings intensity and focus to the Ducks training and development. His methods have been crucial in forging Oregon’s winning edge. (6magazineonline.com photo)

He’s written two books, including the definitive text on plyometrics, the science of building flexibility, power and explosive movement in athletics. He trained 5 athletes for the 2012 Beijing Olympics and has a masters degree in biomechanics from UO.

A Duck strength and conditioning coach for 28 years, he’s such an innovator and an authority that when Chip Kelly was named Oregon head coach, one of the first things he did was ask Radcliffe if there was anything he wanted to change about the way Oregon practiced.

Ice baths, Radcliffe said. Get the players in ice baths right after games to speed recovery. Go hard and fast on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, back off on Thursday for recovery, then ramp it up on the Friday run-through, not a slow-paced walk-through the way most teams do. Radcliffe explained the change to John Hunt, then of the Oregonian:

If you’re backing off on Friday, you’re really downloading when you want to be your fastest and quickest and strongest and most explosive. We want to be working back up to our peak on Saturdays.

Every year the Ducks hold a team banquet at the end of the season, and when the seniors speak, they thank their mom and dad, their position coach, and Coach Rad. In fact, former Duck offensive lineman Darrion Weems told David Melo of fishduck.com, 

If you ask anybody about who is THE most important person in Oregon Football; they’ll say Jim Radcliffe.

Weems isn’t alone. Duck players who’ve gone on to the NFL are effusive in their praise of the 28-year dean of the Oregon coaching staff. LaMichael James credits him for his strength and flexibility. Nick Reed said Radcliffe’s infectious intensity and revolutionary methods got him to the NFL. Punter Josh Bidwell, who played 12 years in the league, with stops at Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Washington, tells the story of how Radcliffe helped him rehab and recover after surgery for testicular cancer. Anthony Newman’s face lights up when you ask him about Coach Rad.

Nobody wears red in the Oregon strength and conditioning facility. Radcliffe address athletes by their first names, never nicknames, and insists they come dressed to work in Oregon green, yellow, gray or black. The training room is organized and impeccably clean. A team of seven strength coaches works with players, usually by position, one coach for 5-8 athletes.

Walk-ons or future NFL superstars get the same treatment. Radcliffe believes in participation, enthusiastically demonstrating techniques with a hands-on approach, with tremendous attention to detail and insistence on proper form and movement in every exercise.

It’s the emphasis on flexibility and explosive power that sets the Oregon program apart from traditional methods and other schools. Rather than merely teach lay-flat exercises like the bench press, Radcliffe gets athletes moving, rotating, working with power and quickness. He employs a variety of innovative methods to training like running through a sand pit or rotating and exploding with a medicine ball. There’s emphasis on balance, variety, and proper nutrition and rest.

The author of dozens of articles on training methods and philosophy, Radcliffe is a respected guest lecturer at clinics and classrooms around the country. In an article he wrote for trainingandconditioning.com entitled “Trench Warriors,” he talked about the special challenges of training offensive and defensive linemen:

Players who man the line of scrimmage are a special breed requiring their own unique conditioning approach. At the University of Oregon, that means a year-round regimen focused on explosive power, strength, speed, and agility.

For the players in the trenches, being more powerful means getting out of a stance more quickly, accelerating, forcefully engaging an opponent, and finishing that engagement efficiently. We break our long-term goal of developing explosive power into three components: functional strength, directional speed, and transitional agility.

One major challenge to training our line players is their larger bone structure and greater body fat. Since athletes with leaner body mass tend to improve at a faster rate and with a lower volume of work, planning a schedule of activity, rest, and recovery days must be approached differently than for running backs, defensive backs, and other traditional skill positions. For instance, we have found that linemen adapt better to a two days on/one day off/two days on/weekend off schedule, while skill position groups can handle five consecutive days of work.

In the summer, by NCAA rules, the football coaches aren’t permitted to organize or participate in workouts, so Coach Rad and quarterback Marcus Mariota lead the drills and conditioning. He’ll have the lineman push his beloved 1966 Chevy truck up hills, or personally lead the entire team in sprints. Near the end of every summer the coach and his staff conduct testing to measure each player’s progress, including a “L” run to measure agility, a “speed endurance” test that involves 10 40-yard sprints with 20 seconds of rest in between, and Olympic lifts like the squat, clean and bench to assess their strength gains.

Above all, Radcliffe demands effort and attention. Mark Asper, a four-year starter at guard for Oregon, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, told Hunt, 

He was at every summer workout, he was at every winter workout. He’s the kind of guy you don’t want to let down. He’s got a look, an ‘I’m not angry at you, I’m disappointed in you’ look.

Fans who are concerned that the Ducks might have a let down in intensity with the more laid-back Mark Helfrich in charge are forgetting the incredible influence the 5-7, 150-pound Radcliffe has on the spirit and soul of Oregon football. He builds confidence, instills power and flexibility, and demands excellence and constant improvement.

Player after player will tell you Jim Radcliffe helped them get the most from their athletic ability. For incoming freshman like Thomas Tyner, Torrodney Prevot, Cameron Hunt and Danny Mattingly, the dynamic and charismatic plyometrics expert is the key to getting on the field early and making a successful adjustment to college football. He’ll get them ready physically and dramatically increase their chances of staying healthy.

In spite of his enormous contributions to the success of Duck Football, Radcliffe’s base salary is just under $100,000 a year, less than half of what position coaches make. Mike Bellotti, Aaron Fentress reported, offered Radcliffe raises numerous times and each time the principled and driven fitness expert insisted they be split among his assistants.