By Joe Scalzo
Mike Cochran has a jug of Flexall on his desk and more hair on his knuckles than his head. He looks exactly like what you’d expect a former college fullback/linebacker to look like (i.e. a walking fire hydrant, but with a wider neck) and he says things like, “I just believe when you walk into the weight room, it’s 45 minutes of work.”
Two years ago, after spending a decade at the FBS level, Cochran returned to Youngstown State as the head strength and conditioning coordinator in hopes of helping his alma mater get back to the standard Jim Tressel established in the 1990s.
So far, he has.
“To me, it means more than anything else for this program to be successful,” said Cochran, an assistant coach/training specialist at YSU from 1990-95 and the head strength and conditioning coach from 1996-2000. “There’s goals and objectives here to be the best.
“That’s where we want to be.”
The Penguins are 4-0 for the first time since 2000, the year before Tressel (and Cochran) headed to Ohio State. Part of their success is due to Eric Wolford upgrading the talent level.
And part of it is because Cochran has upgraded that upgrade.
“Mike Cochran, I wish I had him from Day 1,” said Wolford. “He has made a difference in our development. That’s why when he works with younger players, I say, ‘Mike, I want these guys to be ready to breathe fire next year. I want them ready to go. I want them to be able to step in and not miss a beat. I want them more powerful, faster and stronger than they are this year.’
“And he says, ‘It’ll be done.’”
Cochran, a Girard High graduate, played on Tressel’s first YSU team and was a two-way starter at linebacker and fullback in 1987 and 1988. As a senior team captain in 1989, he led the team in tackles as the Penguins finished 9-4.
After leaving YSU, he spent four years at Ohio State as the strength and conditioning assistant — he worked 33 Buckeye draft picks, including five first-rounders — before leading Marshall’s strength program from 2005-09. After directing Akron’s strength program in 2010, he came home.
“There was no hesitation,” he said of the decision to return. “I was happy to be at Ohio State, don’t get me wrong, but when you leave a place you love and care deeply about, it’s like losing your best friend. You always want to see your alma mater do well.
“When Youngstown struggled, it hurt.”
When Cochran was hired in the spring of 2011, Wolford had just suffered through a bumpy first season that Cochran compares to Tressel’s first season, in 1986. (“Tressel got rid of a lot of guys and he rebuilt the program through toughness,” said Cochran. “That’s what Coach Wolford wants.”)
By 2011, players like quarterback Kurt Hess and running back Jamaine Cook — two holdovers from the Heacock era — had established themselves as leaders and the team was ready to buy in.
“From Day 1, when I first walked in here, Kurt Hess stood up from everybody and was really the outspoken guy,” said Cochran, whose younger brother, Nick, quarterbacked the Penguins to the 1992 I-AA championship game. “But every group has their leaders. When you’re one guy with 25 guys in the weight room, you need help behind you.
“The kids have done an unbelievable job. You have great leaders in Kurt Hess, Jamaine Cook, Will Shaw. There’s not much you need to do to push those guys to excel. And, really, from everything the head coach preaches and teaches, it carries over into everything we do here.”
While Cochran does all the Olympic lifts (bench, squat, clean, etc.), he said his success is less about any scientific approach than getting kids to trust him. He credits everyone from Wolford to his college-age assistants for helping YSU become the type of team that can physically match up with programs like Pitt, Northern Iowa and North Dakota State.
“I like challenging people to be better than even they wanted to be,” Cochran said. “I don’t believe in people saying can’t or no. It’s just not in the vocabulary. You tell me you can’t do something, you’re just telling me you don’t want to.
“I want them to understand that just showing up here wearing the red and white of Youngstown State doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful.”
That message is sinking in. Last summer, he wanted 30 players to clean more than 300 pounds (he had 45) and 30 players to squat more than 500 pounds (he had 42). While most players would prefer to bench four times a week — “Every kid I’ve ever worked with has loved the bench,” he said — Cochran emphasizes the squat and clean because they display explosion and power.
When asked to name which player had the best offseason, Cochran shook his head and said, “Honestly? I can name 40 of them.”
That praise goes both ways.
From Cook: “He’s done a great job. You can look at our O-line, the defensive line and see the size and strength that those guys have put on. And even with the skill players, just the speed that we have. He’s done a great job and he’s definitely taken us to the next level.”
From Hess: “We’ve gotten bigger, we’ve gotten stronger, we’ve gotten faster [because of Cochran]. But [he’s helped] more mentally. There’s a point during the game where you want to give up and you’re tired and you’re cramping but can your mind overcome your body and say, ‘I want this more than that guy?’ Coach Cochran has seen what this program has been in the past and he’s relayed that to us, letting us know these guys really pushed themselves mentally. The body is one thing but the mind is going to take over.”
From sophomore linebacker Teven Williams: “I feel like we made a big jump in the offseason in developing our bodies so we can play on Saturdays. He’s made a big difference.”
The Penguins have been to the playoffs just once since 2000 — they made the national semifinals in 2006 — but Cochran designed his program to ensure they’re prepared for 15 or 16 games, not 11.
And, if he has his way, he’ll continue to do so.
“I’m just so happy to be back with what is without a doubt one of the top three programs in I-AA,” Cochran said. “This is the place I want to be the rest of my life.”