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Coty Greene and the art of building a baller By: Amin Touri

By the time the 7 a.m. group begins to filter in, the very first signs of light are only starting to slip through the glass windows of the Champions Center.

The Massachusetts men’s basketball team lifts in a sparkling weight room on the ground floor of the facility – light glints off custom-made, silver and maroon Eleiko plates, which hang off of three custom maroon and white squat racks. The word “limitless” is emblazoned on the first in big white letters, while “relentless” adorns the second and “fearless” is written across the third.

Only four people are in the building at this hour, the earliest group of Minutemen with 9 a.m. classes to get to. Star guard Luwane Pipkins, a preseason First Team All-Conference selection, is already wisecracking during the warm-ups.

“I need to go Elements [Massage in Hadley],” Pipkins says. “I need a good massage, man. I need a good massage.”

Sy Chatman and Aidan Byrne are part of the early group on this Friday morning, ready to work while the cover of darkness starts to dissipate outside.

The fourth person in the room totes a clipboard and bounces from player to player, directing and instructing as necessary. Bearded, blue-eyed and burly, he dons a light gray UMass basketball hoodie, black Adidas track pants and gray Alphabounces, observing carefully.

Coty Greene’s office fittingly adjoins the far end of the weight room, as his domain lies feet from his desk. The nameplate on the door reads “Director of Sports Performance,” Greene’s official title, but he’s a strength and conditioning coach at his core.

"My training philosophy is pretty simple,” Greene says. “We're trying to reduce the risk of injury as much as possible. We're not going to be able to control outside stressors, but we can control the controllables.”

Every player is given a needs-based assessment, as Greene evaluates their strengths and weaknesses, movement quality – what they need to get better. Every player is unique in their assessment, and programs are created for them individually. As a result, on some days, players have similar workouts — on others, they’re very different.

On this Friday morning, while Pipkins runs through a strengthening circuit, Byrne – a walk-on from the UMass men’s lacrosse team – is doing reverse curls and triceps pushdowns, hammer curls and shoulder raises, trying to put some mass on a tall, lanky frame.

“So Aidan’s in more of a developmental phase here,” Greene says. “Pip’s never going to be doing the same thing as Aidan, especially at this point in the year. Aidan’s doing more of a bodybuilding split, we’re just trying to get some weight on him.”

Within a few days, the programming will be radically different. The Minutemen open their season on Tuesday, and once playing time and rotations are established, Greene starts shifting the methodology.

Once the season begins, the individualized approach gives way to a minutes-based approach – high-minute guys like Pipkins will back off a bit, moderate-minute players like Chatman continue to grow and those who don’t see much court time, like Byrne, enter a higher-intensity developmental phase, as they focus on putting on weight and strength without worrying about on-court fatigue.

While the players work out, Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz bump through the speakers, as Greene shuffles through his playlist. Every now and again a Home Depot or Verizon ad interrupts the flow of music. Greene has no interest in paying for an ad-free experience, rationalizing that “if LeBron James doesn’t pay for it, I’m not paying for it. I tell the guys all the time.”

Byrne looks over and just sort of holds his hands up in resignation. This comes up a lot.

As early as it is, the room is upbeat and cheerful throughout the morning. Besides, they’ve been up even earlier all summer.

Greene introduced strongman Fridays in July, functional strength workouts to move away from the monotony of the weight room, as important as front squats and Romanian deadlifts and chin-ups may be.

From 6 a.m., the Minutemen were outside, flipping tires, pulling trucks, carrying racks, dragging sleds, all in the early-morning fog.

The strongman workouts are something Greene credits to one of his mentors, Preston Greene, who holds the same position at Florida.

“It's something I've used with baseball, basketball, any teams I've worked with,” says Greene. “I think it's a unique way to increase work capacity, increase their lactate buffering, and be able to compete at a high level.”

This summer added extra layer of competition, as the two most impressive weight-room performers in the first summer session – Carl Pierre and Curtis Cobb – were chosen as captains, picked teams, and a best-of-five series was held in the second session.

Pierre’s Team Reggie took an early 1-0 lead, but Cobb’s Team 1k – comprised of himself, Chatman, Unique McLean, Jonathan Laurent, Khalea Turner-Morris and Keon Clergeot – won three in a row to take the series and claim the inaugural strongman Fridays championship, which came with a literal championship belt.

“We still have bragging rights,” Cobb says. “I might walk around with my belt one of these days."

"To be real with you, I hated them,” Laurent says with a laugh, despite the win. “But they were fun, good competition with your team, facing adversity, going against your teammates and building a competitive spirit. I think we took strongman into practice, and we're going to take practice and strongman into the games.”

The early morning group filters out around 7:40 – it’s a fairly quick day – and the 8 a.m. crowd, the biggest bunch, trickles in. The ever-punctual Pierre is predictably early, and strolls in at 7:45. As he does with every player when they first walk in, Greene has Pierre step on the scales, and he writes each guy’s weight on a whiteboard by the door, next to a list of the day’s exercises.

Kieran Hayward and Turner-Morris arrive soon after and weigh in, and the three grab foam rollers from a pile of muscle maintenance materials in the back of the room. As always, injury prevention is at the top of Greene’s priority list.

“The programs will be geared toward making them hopefully play better, be stronger, be faster and reduce injury,” he says. “Because it doesn't matter how big or strong they get in here, if they can't play on the court they're no help to us."

Rashaan Holloway and Samba Diallo follow a few minutes later, then Unique McLean, and minutes before the clock hits 8 a.m., the front door opens upstairs.

“Come on Tre Wood!” Greene yells to the catwalk above. Lateness isn’t tolerated. “Let’s go!”

Wood hustles in just under the buzzer, and the warm-up begins again.

The 8 a.m. group is by far the biggest, and with seven guys rotating from spot to spot and from exercise to exercise, it’s hectic. But it’s controlled chaos, and Greene is the conductor.

The big men — Diallo, Turner-Morris and Holloway — head to the left and alternate between lat pulldowns and single-arm overhead dumbbell presses, while the rest of the group splits right for supermans and split squats, chin-ups and reverse hyperextensions on the glute-ham machine.

A bespectacled Holloway is the life of the weight room — the towering center dances between sets and seems to know every lyric to every song that hits the speakers, and revisits the commercial issue when 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different” is followed by a State Farm ad.

“Ain’t nobody want to hear about no damn State Farm ad!” he shouts. Greene directs him over to the dumbbells, and Holloway jokingly squares up with his coach before pulling a 55-pound dumbbell from the rack and hoisting it overhead. All the while, through the glass walls, they can see Chatman and Pipkins, workouts completed, grabbing breakfast from a catered spread in the lounge, in case they needed a little extra motivation.

For Wood, Diallo and Chatman, UMass’ three freshmen, the weight room was largely a new experience. Greene considers Diallo and Chatman to have a “training age” of zero — having never really picked up a weight before they moved to Amherst.

“Everything that we teach is different,” says Greene. “Tre actually has a higher training age than Samba and Sy — but what he did was completely different from how we do it. There's a certain way I want things done.

“I think Samba and Sy have done a really good job of buying into it. They come from different places, they've always excelled, they were the best at their high school, but they're not the best in the league here. It's something coach instills and something we instill — if you want to be the best in this league and one of the best in the country, you have to do everything better than everybody else, because everybody's training, everybody's doing that stuff. Yeah you've never trained before and still got where you are, but now you need to train to get to where you need to be."

Chatman’s growth has been especially remarkable — Greene tweeted in July that Chatman had weighed in at 209 pounds on Monday, July 7, and 225 the following Monday. They checked multiple times, had people weigh in between just to make sure, and the result was the same. According to Greene, “genetics can’t be taught.”

“When I first got here it was crazy ridiculous. I put on like 15 pounds in the first week,” Chatman says. “After that it was a lot of toning down, but Coty gets you right here. He’s going to get you to work. When I first got here, I was easily getting knocked off my block and couldn’t score in the post, and now I feel like I can hold my own.

“I’ve been looking real good lately,” Chatman jokes. “I’ve been trying to get that summer body. When I get home, I’ll be at the beaches.”

Greene roams about the room, motivating and barking orders, correcting technique when a movement is just slightly off. This is as important a time for Greene as any, as he’s got several weeks of training to work sans interruption, before the busy season schedule ramps up in early November.

"The most uninterrupted training block is in season,” says Greene. “So if we really want to utilize our time wisely, we train harder and smarter in season. We're not training for Nov. 6 — we're training for Jan. 1, and eventually March. We're really trying to peak guys for the right time, and we don't really have interruptions within our training block.”

As the 8 a.m. group presses on, the differences in programming start to come out. While they’re all following a similar circuit, individual needs come to the fore — Diallo, with his surgically reconstructed knee, is the only one performing single-leg squats by the benches, while Holloway and Turner-Morris finish the morning with some high-intensity cardio work on the fan bikes on the near side closest to the entrance.

With the smaller guys filtering out, Greene is left to focus on his two largest charges. Holloway’s finished, but Turner-Morris, with one interval remaining, is beginning to fade.

“One more,” Greene tells Turner-Morris as he preps for his final rep. “Leave it all here.”

As Turner-Morris starts pumping arms and legs, Greene’s voice raises and raises. “Leave it all right here, K! All you got!”

Turner-Morris, laboring, completes his cardio, and with a slap on the back from Greene, exits the weight room to join his teammates for breakfast.

The seven members of the 8 a.m. group all sit down to eat together, joined by the early arrivals for the 9 a.m. lift, Laurent and Cobb. Greene calls it the training table, where the team can sit down for breakfast — the most important meal of the day — together, both before and after lift.

“We can’t miss breakfast,” he says. “If they don’t get up and have breakfast, they’re not recovering so we have them get up, lift, and rather then have them lift and go to sleep, we’re making sure they have breakfast, making sure they recover and take care of their bodies.”

Nutrition is hugely important to Greene, who posted photos over the summer of vegetables and slabs of meat on the grill outside the Champions Center, and post-lift is making sure his athletes are getting breakfast in, with a protein shake if needed.

"I think nutrition is one of the biggest things we do,” Greene says. “If you want to be a grown man and look like a grown man, you have to eat like a grown man. If you want to recover the right way and perform your best, you have to be putting the best things in your body. Is everyone going to do that? No. But for the guys that want to do it, you're going to see them excel."

By 8:50, the nine Minutemen at the breakfast table begin to depart, some to class or meetings, some like Cobb and Laurent into the glass dungeon for 9 a.m. lift. The only missing Minuteman is Clergeot, who Greene FaceTimes to make sure he’s not running late. Clergeot doesn’t get his pre-lift breakfast in but enters at 8:59 a.m., and Greene’s final trio gets going.

Before they start, Greene asks Cobb what he’d like for music. When an Adele suggestion is thrown out, Cobb shrugs his shoulders. “I could do Adele,” he says.

“But just so y’all know, I don’t like Adele. I love Adele. Like, if Adele comes on, I’m singing. Just know that.”

(Greene opted for some Drake instead.)

Having spent all of last season sitting out, the three transfers are veterans of the weight room at this point, and Greene can relax a bit. He chats with the three as they work out, rarely having to stop and re-focus anyone or correct form.

“This is the advanced group, so I don’t really have to do much,” Greene says. “They’re experienced and know what do in here, they had a whole year off with me.”

The three move in unison from exercise to exercise, wrapping with some chin-ups. Three sets of eight, with tempo; Greene’s a fan of using tempo — controlling the eccentric portion of the lift — something that especially challenged the freshmen when they first set foot in the weight room over the summer. These chin-ups are with a three-second tempo, as they’ll have to slow their descent, an extra bit of difficulty.

Laurent turns to Cobb. “Coty said three sets of eight, I was like aight, cake,” he says. “Then he said tempo, my confidence dropped real quick let me tell you.”

Laurent, Cobb and Clergeot roll through the workout without issue, having been here before. It wasn’t always like this, as the former two also fit that training age of zero when they came to UMass.

"It definitely grew on me,” Laurent said. “When I came here I didn't like the weight room at all, but I've seen the benefits it provides me and my game, so it really grew on me. I'm a big fan of it now. We come together as a team and come in here and get what we need to do done. We try to bring a good vibe into the weight room, keep Coty happy — he's happy, we're happy, everyone's happy."

"Before I came here I never really lifted weights, but now it's become like second nature,” Cobb said. “All my weights went up, I came in around 170-171, right now I'm about 185, but I'm usually 190. There are the gains right there, I'm lifting 30-40 pounds more on every lift. I feel a lot more balanced, when people hit me I don't feel as much of an effect. Going both ways, I feel more comfortable."

The one person you’ll never see at morning lift is head coach Matt McCall, who’s placed his full trust in Greene and his methods, and remains extremely hands-off with strength and conditioning.

“[Greene]'s an assistant coach,” McCall says. “His title is director of sports performance, but I look at him as an assistant coach. He brings every bit as much value to this program as I do, or the players do, or the assistant coaches do — his role is every bit as important. I have a tremendous amount of trust with him, and I think what he's doing down there in the weight room impacts winning.”

Greene even has input on practice intensity, keeping McCall updated on the team’s fatigue and physical state, so McCall can gauge how hard to work his players day in and day out.

“Every single day,” McCall says. “He's telling me, back off, crank up, guys are tired today, we did this that and the other, and that goes back to the research he's doing. It's not just 'hey, I'm going to lift the guys at 7 a.m. and then Coty's day's over. He's down there constantly thinking about nutrition, our guys' fatigue levels, how can we help them recover, how can we help them pre-game, how can we help them pre-practice, trying to prevent injuries.”

McCall spends his fair share of time in the weight room in the early afternoon, and jokes that he “prides [himself] on being one of the stronger coaches in the A-10,” though he defers to Dayton coach Anthony Grant on that front.

“I think when our guys see me in there and taking pride in it,” says McCall, “then they're going to walk through that door and say hey listen, if coach McCall is in here working hard in the weight room, we should do the same things, because it's important."

By 9:45 a.m., Clergeot packs up two breakfast boxes and heads out, and Laurent and Cobb soon follow. Greene is the only one left by 10 a.m., already four hours into his day. This is his livelihood, and he’s far from finished — he’ll spend hours reading and researching before practice rolls around in the afternoon, trying to find an edge for his athletes.

"I love everything I do,” Greene says. “Obviously you need to have a healthy work-life balance, so I have hobbies, but I do read a lot, and when I do read it's usually pertaining to getting better at my job. Just trying to get better at what you do, so many people get caught up in the strength and conditioning, but the biggest term in strength and conditioning coach, or sports performance coach, is the word 'coach.'

“You're so much more to these guys than just strength and conditioning, just weights and running. And I think that's what makes me love it. What's pushed me is everything else. The connections you make, showing a guy who grew up on ramen and cereal and oatmeal that that's not the answer, and getting a text from someone on Thanksgiving saying thank you from a number you don't recognize, from someone you coached five or six years ago. It's a really unique opportunity, and I think coaching is a calling, not a career. I fell into the career path, but I think it's a calling for me, and my energy shows that on and off the floor."

The Minutemen are finished in the weight room for today, but the day isn’t over. Class and meetings fill up the next few hours, but they’ll be back in the Champions Center in the afternoon.

Practice is at 3:45, and the work continues.

Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.

(Photos courtesy of Caroline O'Connor and UMass Athletics)

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