College Football
Why a strength coach is Michigan football's ultimate weapon: 'Nobody's this good'
College Football

Why a strength coach is Michigan football's ultimate weapon: 'Nobody's this good'

Updated Jan. 29, 2024 11:55 a.m. ET

Editor's note: With Jim Harbaugh leaving Michigan to become head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers and strength coach Ben Herbert potentially following him, we wanted to look back at this in-depth feature on Herbert that Michael Cohen wrote in September, which provided insight into why Herbert is so highly thought of as a strength coach.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The man Jim Harbaugh describes as an X-factor within Michigan's football program sets his alarm for 3:52 a.m., or 4:05 a.m. if he's feeling greedy. He awakens grouchily and lumbers toward the shower for some invigoration. His goal is to be in a better mood by the time he gets downstairs, where a German Shepard named Randall awaits.

Within an hour, the X-factor is commuting to campus. His first summer workout with the players won't begin until 6 a.m., but rushing is the only thing he despises more than early mornings. He scrolls his phone to find the proper musical artists for the day, with the choices ranging from Teddy Swims and Five Finger Death Punch to Tupac Shakur and Cody Jinks. 

His office at Schembechler Hall is carved into the front-right quadrant of the Wolverines' sprawling weight room. It's a square space measuring approximately 15 feet in each direction with large windows overlooking endless rows of machinery. An L-shaped sectional sofa in one corner is mirrored by an L-shaped desk in the other. There's a television mounted above the workspace. A coffee table bisects the couch.


As offices go, this one is pristine. His books are neatly stacked atop a shelf along the back wall. His papers are thoroughly organized by subject. His personal photographs are confined to one locale. Even his computer files are divided and subdivided in a way that brings order to a career's worth of documents because the X-factor — real name Ben Herbert — wouldn't have it any other way.

"I walk through that door and all eyes are on me," Herbert told FOX Sports earlier this summer. "I think somebody is just waiting for me to not be who Coach Herb is. That's not gonna happen."

Such is the consistency and compulsion that Herbert, 44, has injected into the Wolverines since joining the program as director of strength and conditioning in 2018. In an interview his future boss would come to mythologize, Herbert dazzled Harbaugh with a personality and plan that blended the most important characteristics of an old-school strength coach with a willingness to embrace the scientific advancements that are revolutionizing athletic performance. He arrived at a time when the gulf between Ohio State and Michigan was aptly measured in parsecs, and all Herbert has done since then is mentor 37 future draft picks — of which nearly 84% were three- and four-star prospects coming out of high school, according to FOX Sports Research — to erase the gap with superior player development.

If the current Michigan roster – which takes on Nebraska next (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FOX and the FOX Sports app) – breaks Georgia's record of 15 players drafted in a single year, as Harbaugh has predicted for 2024, then Herbert will be a big reason.

"He's going to take you places you never thought you could go to," defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said.

Between offseason workouts and in-season lifting, no coach spends more time with the players than Herbert, which helps explain how his influence and importance continue to grow, including as a valuable recruiting asset. Drawing on his experience at Wisconsin and Arkansas, Herbert played a critical role in reestablishing the program's work ethic following a disastrous 2020 campaign, and players have praised him for unifying the roster during Harbaugh's flirtations with the NFL. Most critically, the physical gains Herbert's pupils have made in the weight room are fortified by the same mental toughness that was instilled in him as a high school star in the Pittsburgh suburbs and an accomplished defensive lineman for the Badgers from 1998-2001.

Michigan senior defensive lineman Kris Jenkins says of Ben Herbert: "He's going to take you places you never thought you could go to." (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

That Harbaugh promoted Herbert, whom he once tried to nominate for the Broyles Award given to the nation's top on-field assistant, by giving him an associate head coach title ahead of the 2023 season speaks to how indispensable his services have become. That the school had already rewarded Herbert with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually said even more, especially considering that Rob Glass from Oklahoma State was the only collegiate strength coach to earn seven figures in 2022, according to data compiled by USA Today.

But the Wolverines believe that's money well spent. To them, Herbert is the program's secret weapon.

"Nobody's got Herb," Harbaugh told FOX Sports at Big Ten Media Days. "Nobody's this good."

*** *** ***

The call that rerouted Herbert's career pinged his cell phone a few weeks into unemployment. Herbert had followed head coach Bret Bielema from Wisconsin to Arkansas for a chance to compete in the SEC, but a 29-34 record across five seasons got everyone fired as the coaches walked off the field on Nov. 24, 2017.

Unable to access the Razborbacks' facility, Herbert had begun training former Arkansas offensive lineman Frank Ragnow out of his garage in preparation for the 2018 NFL Draft, and one day his phone rang mid-session. The voicemail was from a longtime NFL personnel man who wanted to know if Herbert had an interest in the head strength and conditioning job at Michigan, which was looking to replace Kevin Tolbert, a holdover from Harbaugh's time at Stanford. Herbert flashed Ragnow a smile and returned the call. "I definitely would," he told the personnel man.

Herbert had already scheduled interviews with Chip Kelly at UCLA and Herm Edwards at Arizona State. His first contact with Harbaugh took place a few hours before the meeting with Kelly — "as effortless a conversation as could be," Herbert said of his future boss — and he flew to Michigan the next day. Harbaugh hired him within 24 hours.

The interview told Harbaugh everything he needed to know about Herbert, who was named master strength and conditioning coach by one of the profession's governing bodies in 2015. It took place in a room with a long conference table and roughly a dozen members of Harbaugh's staff. Herbert was seated on one side; everyone else faced him from the other.

 "Your time is now," Harbaugh said after closing the door. "The floor is yours."

Herbert paused momentarily to collect his thoughts. Not much had changed about Herbert's physique since the Badgers listed him at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds during his final season. He was a large, intense figure in a tight-fitting suit, a man prone to bouts of over-sweating that used to make him self-conscious. But Herbert had reached a point where authenticity mattered more to him than shielding aspects of his personality, and Harbaugh's atypical style offered him the chance to let it all hang out. By the time his presentation was finished, Herbert had shed his jacket, unbuttoned his collar and rolled up his sleeves for a series of demonstrations that outlined his core beliefs.

"No inhibitions," Herbert said. "If we were talking about squat form or pressing or anything — pick it — I was the visual representation."

At the center of Herbert's philosophy is a set of measurements he calls Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs for short, that are divided into four groups: frame analysis; flexibility and mobility; strength and power; agility and speed. The categories are further split into the exercises, lifts or movements most closely associated with each classification. Players record a value for all 48 KPIs in Herbert's collection, and the results are added to a formula that churns out an individual score for everyone on Michigan's roster. The final product is an unbiased assessment of athletic capability.

Incoming players snap shirtless "before" photos and record their baseline KPI values shortly after joining the program. Aside from notating a starting point, the initial data means little to Herbert given the variance in training regimens among high school athletes. He and his staff care less about the shape players are in when they arrive and focus more on how they attack the training in Ann Arbor. He points to former Michigan edge rusher Mike Morris, the 2022 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, as a prime example. When Morris first got to campus, his cumulative KPI score was lower than kicker Jake Moody's initial value the year prior.

"Everyone's potential is not the same," Herbert said. "But it's our job to mine it out, right?"

For incentivization, a blown-up spreadsheet that ranks the players by their cumulative KPI scores is displayed near the entrance of the Wolverines' locker room. The numerical ranges in each category are given corresponding colors and letter grades to offer clearer visual stimuli of what perfection looks like. Red and orange values are on the undesirable end of the spectrum, while light green and dark green are coveted. "I want them hellbent on green," Herbert said. And it's no coincidence that the color players are taught to despise is that of their archrival.

The player with the highest cumulative KPI score on Michigan's roster is reserve quarterback Alex Orji, a 6-foot-3, 236-pound livewire who is so explosive that the Wolverines have been cross-training him as a kick returner. Some of Orji's data points include a 41-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-6-inch broad jump and times of 3.97 seconds in the shuttle and 6.65 seconds in the 3-cone drill. Forty-two of his 48 KPI values landed in the A or A-plus range by the start of fall camp. He unseated Jenkins for the No. 1 spot on Herbert's list earlier this year.

"It left a sour taste in my mouth," Jenkins said. "That's all I'm going to say. I wasn't thrilled about it. But it really brings that next level of competitiveness that we have in the weight room."

And that's exactly what Herbert wants.

"Everyone's potential is not the same," Herbert says. "But it's our job to mine it out, right?" (Photo courtesy U-M Athletics)

*** *** ***

In 1995, there were two lessons Bob Palko wanted to impart on his players after accepting the head coaching position at West Allegheny High School in Imperial, Pennsylvania, a western suburb of Pittsburgh. The first was about the importance of work ethic and drive, about the ways in which teams with lesser talent can still win championships through superior commitment. The second was about the harmfulness of ego and individualism, about how quickly a season can erode if people are pulling in different directions.

To address the latter, Palko instituted a game-day policy that required players to wear shirts and ties beneath their jerseys at school — a move he knew would expose them to wisecracks from other students. In doing so, Palko believed he could show his team what an us-against-the-world mentality felt like, and he positioned himself in the lobby to watch his players arrive on the morning of their first game. That's the first time Palko saw Herbert's trademark glare.

"That same look that when you were interviewing him, when you were in his office and he tried to steal your soul through your eyes, do you remember that look he had?" Palko said. "That was the look when he came in off the bus and he walked through the school."

References to Herbert's famous scowl are ubiquitous. They come from people like Palko and Harbaugh, who often shares the story of needing to "avert my gaze" the first time he and Herbert locked eyes in 2017. And they come from Michigan's players, many of whom have turned Herbert's scowling, school-issued headshot into a meme. They even come from his own mother. "I think that makes some people nervous," Linda Herbert said.

But any attempt at understanding Herbert and what makes him tick requires an understanding of the personality behind that stare, of the supreme competitor and adrenaline junkie who loves nothing more than knowing he's outworked the opposition. That story begins when Herbert was a small child in McDonald, Pennsylvania, a few miles south of Imperial.

Described by his mother as "mister no-fear daredevil," Herbert began playing backyard football around his fourth birthday with three boys who lived next door, all of whom were between five and 10 years his senior. When Herbert's parents bought him a bike for Christmas one year, the first thing he did was dismantle its safety features. And if he and his friends weren't BMX racing at the local track, then chances are they were building jumps to see who could soar highest over stacks of wooden boards. Herbert even wanted to try backcountry helicopter skiing.

"When he has an idea," Linda Herbert said, "he pushes until he gets that solved."

At 9 years old, Herbert began running sprints at a famous hill in nearby North Fayette Township to improve his conditioning for football, an effort that dovetailed with his fixation on the Presidential Fitness Test each year. The older Herbert became, the more he appreciated the direct connection between offseason workouts and in-season results. He could feel his improved strength and power translating to the field, and that's what fueled him more than a general love of exercise. "I'm not a Johnny Fitness guy, right?" he said.

The same obsession with winning that prompted Herbert to kick the board over during unfavorable games of Monopoly or Checkers fueled his football career as a linebacker and tight end for West Allegheny. He became the team's "heart and soul," Palko said, through impressive displays of toughness and leadership that, in 1997, guided the Indians to the first Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League title in school history. What impressed Palko the most was Herbert's understanding of how to tailor his guidance to a specific player's personality, like the time he mentored a nervous underclassman who got thrust into the starting lineup during the playoffs due to injury.

"He understood the power that he had to, I say, change how people thought about themselves and how people thought about the team and all that," Palko said. "So that was his gift."

The trait that Palko identified became a harbinger of Herbert's professional success, with the coaches at Wisconsin quickly realizing how easily he could decipher his teammates' emotional and motivational codes. Herbert was a four-year letterman for the Badgers and finished his career with 116 tackles, five sacks, two Big Ten Championships and two Rose Bowl victories, though it was the way he carried himself that made an even greater impression. At the senior banquet following Herbert's final game, head coach Barry Alvarez said there was a place for him in Madison if his desire to play professionally didn't pan out.

On April 27, 2002, Herbert had a tryout with the Green Bay Packers but failed to make the team. He returned to campus and resumed training with the program's strength coach, John Dettmann, while working through the final credits of a history degree. Already, Herbert was thinking of a move to Pittsburgh to become a teacher and an assistant coach on Palko's staff. But Dettmann had seen the way Herbert's teammates respected him, the way he pushed himself and others in the weight room. Dettman encouraged Herbert to remain in Madison by uttering the four words that changed his life: "Teach this, not that."

It was the first time Herbert had considered turning his passion for football-specific training into a career. He agreed to a one-week trial and wound up staying 11 years.

"I knew within that first day or two," Herbert said. "I'm looking around going, ‘Wait, oh yeah, this is what you can do for the rest of your working life.'"

*** *** ***

One of Herbert's favorite activities during summer workouts at Michigan begins with two decks of cards. He distributes them individually as players navigate the pre-practice soft tissue work that has become a staple of Herbert's philosophy. And as the real session is about to begin, Herbert issues his decree: "Kings are wild, boys!"

Everyone who received a king — or whichever card Herbert selects on a given day — follows assistant strength and conditioning coach Ben Rabe into the room that houses the Wolverines' frigid recovery pool, where the water temperature hovers between 48 and 52 degrees. Without changing clothes, each player must jump in and submerge twice before rejoining the team. They must complete the day's workout while drenched.

"The fact that they're wet or cold is completely irrelevant to them," Herbert said. "They're desensitized. Eventually, none of them will care if it's cold and rainy, if it's 103 degrees out, if it's 3 degrees out, right? That plays a significant role in this right here," he explains while tapping his head.

While the physical transformations Herbert inspires make for better social media fodder, it's the mental training he values more than anything else. Among the reasons why Michigan's coaches believe they toppled Ohio State the last two seasons en route to back-to-back Big Ten Championships is because their players are exhibiting more toughness and emotional control than at any point in Harbaugh's tenure. And at the root of those improvements is one of Herbert's foremost principles in life: consistency.

The pillar of consistency in Herbert's life was his father, Jim, a shop foreman for a construction company that specialized in big equipment. Jim Herbert never missed a day of work in more than 40 years — not for illness, not for familial commitments, not for anything — and now his son's streak has entered its third decade. Ask anybody at Michigan for a description of Herbert, and one of the first things they'll say is that he never changes. "Same guy every day," Harbaugh said.

Ben Herbert values consistency over everything else. "I think somebody is just waiting for me to not be who Coach Herb is," he says. "That's not gonna happen." (Photo courtesy U-M Athletics)

There are moments, however, when Herbert's relentless pursuit of consistency can cross the line through idiosyncratic behavior. For example, Herbert has a strong belief that any household should only have one coffee cup per resident, a concept which maddens his wife, Kelly. And when the two first moved in together in Wisconsin — a few years before their sons were born — Herbert was still measuring the distance between hangers to ensure his closet was properly spaced.

"Either I need to chill out a little bit, or she's gotta go — one or the other," Herbert recalled thinking at the time. "So I learned to chill out a little bit."

The paradox is that in order to instill such consistency in his players, to train their minds and bodies to perform at the highest levels regardless of circumstance, Herbert does whatever he can to keep them guessing.

At Wisconsin that meant using houseplants for an extended metaphor that underscored the importance of nutrition. Herbert named one plant The Governor and gave it plenty of water and Miracle-Gro. He named the other plant The Deacon and gave it a diet of Miller High Life, bourbon, Oreos, Doritos and DiGiorno Pizza. Within days, The Deacon began to rot and reek, at which point Herbert hammered home his point about proper foods and fluids. He brought The Governor and The Deacon to Michigan for the first time in 2022. "I love the way he does the visuals," running back Blake Corum said.

At Arkansas that meant transforming an empty closet into an invitation-only training space for the team's most elite athletes. Due to your constant pursuit of excellence, you've been selected to train in The Black Room, the highest honor achievable from a strength and conditioning staff, the invites read. Herbert painted the room and the equipment black in what he now describes as "a scene from a horror movie." But the Razorbacks loved it. "Guys wanted to kind of earn that right to get in The Black Room and see what that workout was all about," said Matt Summers, the program's former head athletic trainer.

At Michigan that's meant a number of things. Herbert has strengthened camaraderie by ending workouts with challenges that require the team to place trust in its parts. He selects one player who must set a personal record in a certain lift or drill to determine whether everyone can go home. "And that really instills the fact that you never know when your number is going to be called," Jenkins said. "But when it's called, you best believe you better go out there and do your thing." Herbert also tests players by allowing them to choose their own weight for a workout's final set, at which point he utters the catchphrase that playfully questions a player's strength. "You will likely get smashed," Herbert says, daring the player to prove him wrong. And nearly everyone can rattle off some of the inspirational quotes Herbert recites in front of the team. Jenkins' favorite: "Let your actions speak so loud that I can't hear what the f--- you're saying." 

The creative side of Herbert's methods comes from his mother, whose working career included stints as an artist, hairdresser, antique dealer and florist. It's from her that Herbert draws inspiration to toughen the Wolverines.

*** *** ***

Back in his office, Herbert connects his computer to the television monitor above his desk. He opens a directory that contains the "before" and "after" photos of Michigan's players.

"Let me show you this real quick," Herbert says. "This is one of the most extreme examples you'll ever see."

Up pop two photos of Moody, the former two-time All-American kicker who was drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year. The photo on the left shows a rail-thin freshman devoid of muscle definition, a body that could easily be confused for thousands of other students on campus. The photo on the right shows a powerhouse with chiseled abs, a bigger chest and a slew of KPIs that have turned from red to green. 

He flips through more pictures: Mazi Smith, Luke Schoonmaker, Amorion Walker, DJ Turner, J.J. McCarthy, Braiden McGregor — each transformation seemingly more impressive than the last. It's exactly the kind of presentation Herbert gives to the recruits and parents who visit his office. He encourages families to "thoroughly vet what we do, how we do it, why we do it," and virtually everyone walks away impressed.

"He was very detailed with what he had to talk about," five-star offensive tackle David Sanders said in an interview with 247Sports last month. "Which was very impressive because nowhere I've been have they let us be in the strength and conditioning program, meet everybody, and actually contribute to what they're doing. So that was a little bit different and very unique about Michigan."

This summer, Ben Herbert received a patent for the stretching table that he designed.

Almost as unique as the message Herbert received earlier this summer to conclude a process he started several years prior. In his constant pursuit of innovation, Herbert wanted to design an elevated table to provide deeper stretches of the quadriceps femoris and hip muscles in Michigan's players. "Just to create length on the front side, right?" Herbert said. The structure needed to be sturdy enough to support extremely large humans and portable enough that the Wolverines could bring it with them on the road. He found someone to build the prototype, which is still used in the Michigan weight room, and then he teamed with a lawyer to submit his design to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. 

On July 4, more than four years after venturing down the rabbit hole, Herbert was informed that his quad-hip flexor table had been approved. Michigan's X-factor always finds an edge. 

"I'll be damned if I'm going to sit here complacent thinking that I've arrived or I'm the man," Herbert said. "That is cancerous to not only my future, but most importantly to the guys that I work with because then what we do, how we do it, will become stagnant."

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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