STORRS — The job was done. UConn's players had held up their end, enduring the grueling preseason workouts to build the stamina that allowed them to outlast every team in the country. And they did.
At the podium, after the Huskies had beaten Kentucky for the championship in Arlington, Texas, Ryan Boatright gave a shout-out to "coach Travis."
"We can give all the credit to Coach Ollie and our trainer," he said of strength and conditioning coach Travis Illian. "We call him Coach Travis. Our preseason was extremely tough. We really hated it, like the running was crazy and KO pushed us to do it. I remember him saying when I did not want to do those sprints, he was like, 'If you do it, at the end of the year when everybody else is tired, you're all going to be good and y'all are going to run them out of the gym.' And it happened."
When the Huskies came home with the trophy on April 8 and Illian wanted to reward them with some time off, the players wanted none of it.
"The day after, I felt the turning of the page," Illian said. "We got home on a Tuesday, and I planned to give them the rest of the week off, not for them to even see my face. The next day, guys started calling and texting me, 'When are we working out again?' And at that point, all I could do was smile. That's what I had been preaching all along, that there is always something you can do. We went right back to work that Thursday; that Thursday and Friday guys were back at it. They're still hungry. They're demanding more of themselves."
Fast-forward now to the dog days of August. A late afternoon visit to the Huskies' weight room, still at Gampel Pavilion with the move to the new facility a few weeks away, finds Boatright, Amida Brimah, Sam Cassell Jr., Omar Calhoun among those still working as Illian is getting in some reps of his own.
As Cassell leaves, about 5 p.m., he says, "See you at 7:15 tomorrow, coach."
Boatright, who did pushups on a "pressure plate" until he simply could do no more, was the last to leave on this day. "That was awesome, Boat," Illian says, as Boatright dons his backpack.
"Travis, he meant a lot to us," Boatright said. "He's a great dude, man, a great family man. A positive guy. He wants the best for us, he works very hard. He's just a good dude to have around all the time. Coach always says, 'don't get drunk on success.' It's hard not to. But right after we won, we wanted that feeling again. And we've been working ever since."
Rodney Purvis, who sat out last season after transferring from NC State and has recovered from shoulder surgery, said, "I came in at about 215 pounds, I'm about 205 now. I'm definitely toned up. I credit that to coach Travis. Great strength coach."
Brimah is in the final stages of rehabbing from his shoulder surgery, Boatright is gearing up for a senior season and a push for the NBA. Calhoun is trying to come back from a frustrating sophomore season. Phil Nolan, 6-foot-10, who played last year at 214 pounds, is up to 237, Illian says.
"Our expectations are just raised higher," Illian said. "We're going to push you and we're going to give you the tools to do it. This summer has been great, guys have worked hard. … My hope is that when they leave here, this is their career, they know the ins and out and they can have 13 years in the league like Coach [Ollie], and not two years. "
Illian, 34, became the Huskies' strength and conditioning coach in August 2013. He had met Kevin Ollie through mutual friends, and when the opening came, Ollie brought Illian up from the University of Alabama, where he had earned a master's degree and a doctorate in human performance, and had helped train the NCAA champion gymnastics teams.
"He's a great addition to our team and I knew he was going to be that," Ollie says. "That was kind of one of my No. 1 recruits right there. The players all like Travis, but they also respect Travis and it's a fine line between like and respect. Travis comes in each and every day and I think they respect him because even when they don't feel like it, he gets them in there. Even on his off day, he's in there, always trying to get them to that next level. He's not just telling you, 'lift this, lift that,' he's explaining to you the benefits, if you lift it this way and stretch this way. He's just a walking encyclopedia."
Illian looks like a shooting guard now, but once carried 260 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame and played linebacker for Texas Lutheran.
"I knew, through playing football, that my passion really was training because I loved how it challenged you to become a better person," Illian said, "I started volunteering during the summers. My mentor, Ben Pollard, kind of took me under his wing, taught me how to think through things, taught me to question a lot of things."
Illian worked with Pollard at Texas Christian and at Mississippi State, where he met Karen Rademeyer, who was coaching women's track. Travis and Karen, now married eight years with two daughters, had different training philosophies, and as Illian's career and studies continued at Alabama, he was open to new ideas.
"My wife taught me a ton," Illian said. "When we got married, it was like marrying ideas. She gave me a lot of ideas that I use day in and day out to help athletes. … After we had our first daughter, she endured many a night where I would work all day and then go to school [to get the Ph.D.] at night, and she was very supportive."
When he came to UConn, he requisitioned the "power plates," platforms that vibrate when one stands on them or uses it for pushups. The vibrating works different muscles, Illian said, and gets muscles to work together. He believes it helps increase speed and quickness, and what he calls "strength per pound." He stresses massage and soft-tissue work.
"Both coach and I believe that speed wins, and that speed-endurance wins," Illian said. "The things I look for, 'Am I making them faster and can they jump higher?' When I get tissues stronger, then they can absorb and give off more force and resist injury. So, if a guy is 200 pounds and can jump 32 inches and I need him to weigh 210, I want him to weigh 210 and jump 36 inches, so not only have I made him more muscle, but now he can jump higher with more muscle. Then, if you can run longer, with more muscle, then I've helped get their body to where they can endure more."
Illian gives each player nutritional guidance, as well.
"The new rules coming into effect, allowing us to give them more food, and food when they need it, is going to help our guys dramatically," Illian said. "We demand a lot out of them and do be able to supply food when they need it is going to translate into better muscular gains and recovery."
During the games, while the coaches are watching the action and devising strategy, Illian is watching individual players, their eyes, their body language, making mental notes for what needs to be done next.
"I look at movement patterns," he said, "how someone takes off from the ground, how they land, absorb landings. How well we can transition, move laterally. I take into account all those things and that's the benefits of being in practice. I get to know them so well, and their movement patterns, and hopefully through that I can help them stay healthier. I want games to feel easy. If games are the hardest thing you do, then I'm not doing my job well. That's where we want to keep driving."
As the Huskies, three months from a new season, begin a drive for a fifth title, Illian sees himself as providing the fuel, with a formula that has proven to work.
"I truly believe that, especially guys at this level, when they see results, when they see improvement, when they see they can dunk easier, get up and down the court easier, that is the biggest motivation," Illian said. "It's not me yelling at them, it's not me begging them to work out. It's Boat sitting up there on the stand and saying, 'Hey, those sprints I did in the off-season helped us.' … We came down to some very close games and they pulled it out every time, because that choice was made long before that game. We paid a hefty price, a price you didn't necessarily want to pay at first. The price of victory was high, and so were the rewards."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun