Copyright 2016 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Each offseason at Ohio State begins with a symbolic gesture: Urban Meyer will hand the keys to the program to Mickey Marotti, the program's assistant athletics director of sports performance, and tell the Buckeyes to get to work.
Months later, in the days leading into fall camp, the process will be reversed. Here's your team, Marotti will tell Meyer, and the Buckeyes will begin their on-field work to prepare for the coming season.
But for roughly half of each year -- beginning in January with winter workouts, then again during Ohio State's offseason conditioning program -- the team belongs to Marotti, who first met Meyer in the weight room at the University of Cincinnati in 1995.
Meyer, a Cincinnati graduate then serving as Colorado State's wide receivers coach, had heard about Marotti and spent two hours lurking in the background of that weight room as Marotti conducted workouts. Afterward, Meyer approached Marotti and introduced himself, kicking off a correspondence -- handwritten notes before the time of emails -- that resulted in Meyer recommending Marotti to then-Notre Dame coach Bob Davie in 1998. The two would reconnect at Florida in 2005 and again with the Buckeyes in 2011.
"Knowing Urban how I know Urban, knowing Mickey, that's a match made like no other," Davie said.
Marotti held such an irreplaceable role at Florida, in fact, that bringing on Marotti topped Meyer's checklist during negotiations with Ohio State: I need Marotti, he told athletics director Gene Smith, and he has to have full responsibility.
With so much emphasis on X's and O's -- on the act of game-day coaching itself, let alone the non-stop grind of recruiting -- it might seem strange that Meyer stressed the importance of his strength-and-conditioning coach. But Marotti, like a growing number of his peers, is more than a strength coach. And this year, for the first time, USA TODAY Sports' annual survey of college football assistant coach pay includes an examination of the pay for the 129 coaches who oversee strength and conditioning programs at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
At Ohio State, which begins its quest for a second national title in three years with a Dec. 31 Fiesta Bowl matchup with Clemson, Marotti is second in command, Meyer said, commissioned with implementing a program that extends far beyond the weight room.
"I'm the leader of this program right now while they're all recruiting," Marotti said. "I've got to make sure that all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed. We can't put our guard down, and we can't let it slip. We can't. That's the approach I take."
In carving out such a unique role at one of college football's elite programs, Marotti has redrawn the very function of the strength coach. At Ohio State, he's more than just in charge of physical development; Marotti is in charge of the message.
Any individual who comes into contact with Ohio State players goes through Marotti: nutritionists, doctors, trainers, equipment people and the sports-performance team, to start. He is the filter and the conduit for information -- the gatekeeper for anything and everything that occurs inside the Buckeyes' doors.
"A lot of it comes to me, goes through me and never gets to (Meyer)," Marotti said. "If it gets to him, it's a bad deal. It's not just like you were late for some workout or missed treatment. It's like, something bad."
He's "in charge of the whole floor," Meyer said, as the direct line from the head coach to every nook and cranny of the program. "There's one voice now," he said. "And there's one voice I talk with, not 30 voices."
For years, dating to the widespread advent of dedicated strength-and-conditioning programs in the 1970s, strength coaches have been heard -- barking loudly, exhorting players -- but rarely seen. But, with Marotti as evidence, these coaches are taking on far more important roles: As co-head coaches, essentially, and as vitally important, year-round cogs for any successful program.
And they're being rewarded for their efforts. Marotti said he made $20,000 as the strength coach at Cincinnati in 1990 after two seasons as an assistant coach at West Virginia. In comparison, the initial contract he signed at Ohio State in 2011 was for $380,000.
Marotti's most recent contract, signed in May and extending through 2020, pays him $516,000 this year and is longer than any of Ohio State's football coaches, excluding Meyer, and for more yearly pay than five of the Buckeyes' nine assistants.
Iowa's Chris Doyle is the highest-paid strength coach in the country, with a base annual pay of $625,000. That is the same salary Iowa pays its offensive and defensive coordinators. Alabama's Scott Cochran had his base pay bumped from $420,000 in 2015 to $525,000 this fall after a high-profile dalliance with rival Georgia; much like an assistant coach, Cochran saw his salary rise because of outside interest.
Doyle, Marotti and Cochran each are paid more than 17 public school head coaches in the FBS. Five strength coaches -- Doyle, Marotti, Cochran, UCLA's Sal Alosi and South Carolina's Jeff Dillman -- are making at least $400,000 annually. Six -- the aforementioned quintet plus Oklahoma State's Rob Glass -- make more than two FBS head coaches: Louisiana-Monroe's Matt Viator and New Mexico State's Doug Martin.
The growth in base pay and the increase in responsibilities beyond strength training stand in stark contrast to Marotti's humble professional beginnings, relatively speaking. Even as an undergraduate in Wheeling, W.Va., at West Liberty University, where he played running back, he had to explain his exercise physiology major to friends and family by saying he was going into cardiac rehabilitation, because "it sounds special."
At Cincinnati, he was one of just two coaches tasked with overseeing more than 400 athletes across 20 sports. Coordinating an entire strength program took a toll: Marotti arrived at the school weighing 230 pounds and within six months had dropped to 195.
"Back then, it wasn't like it is now," Marotti said. "Now you have five full-time strength coaches at every school. It's a big deal. Back then, there was one at each school, maybe. It wasn't even a profession like it is today. So it was like, 'What? You're going to do what?'"
But the rise in compensation, and the newfound attention paid to strength coaches, is tied to the increasing awareness of the important role they hold within major-college programs. While on-field head coaches and assistants run the show from August through the end of each season, it's up to strength coaches to take ownership of those offseason months so crucial to a team's overall development.
"As a football player, you see (Marotti) more than anybody," Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett said. "Sometimes you go two weeks without seeing your position coach because of recruiting, but you always see the strength coaches.
"It's one of those things where what he says it goes. I think Coach Mick overrules everybody, really."
Everybody but Meyer, that is. But the bond between the head coach and his strength coach -- getting Marotti was "the key hire that Urban has been able to have and to keep," said Davie, now at New Mexico -- is one of the defining behind-the-scenes factors for Ohio State's recent renaissance.
"It's just an incredible trust, an incredible alignment between the two of us," Meyer said. "There's a difference between throwing on a pair of sweats and screaming at some guy in the weight room to managing team doctors, managing trainers, managing all the different job descriptions.
"And I'm not saying everybody can do what he does. I don't think many can. I think this guy's very unique, that he can handle that. I wouldn't give it to anybody else right now."
But what was once unique -- the idea of Marotti as the co-leader of Meyer's program -- has since rippled through college football. It is now normal, if not common, to see this sort of hand-in-hand relationship bridging the gap between the season and the offseason, as programs and administrators become increasingly aware of the important role strength coaches play in a team's overall success.
Said Marotti, "I would imagine our setup, our model has helped other people have that role as well."
And that role is clear, if far larger in responsibility than one might expect from the position: Marotti, like others in the profession, is asked to build Ohio State physically, develop the Buckeyes' mental edge and control the program's day-to-day operations.
It's all in a day's work -- and it's done every day, year-round as an irreplaceable part of Meyer's blueprint for annual championship contention.
"Obviously they've got to be fit. That's kind of a given. It's the given quotient," Marotti said. "I really enjoy the mental, the chemistry, the unit-building, the mind-set, toughness, how you're supposed to act, what you're supposed to do -- I love that, to help build a team in the offseason.
"Who needs some pushing? Who needs some hugging? That's what I love, more so than how many sets of bench they're going to do."
Read More of Today's AB Headlines
Subscribe to Our Daily E-Newsletter