At GSU, strength coach Coggins drives, inspires

The third-floor weight room rumbled and shook.

Young men in gray T-shirts and blue shorts hoisted barbells weighed down with 45-pound discs, sweat dripping off their foreheads and soaking their shirts. When they completed their sets, they dropped the barbells onto padded mats, causing the room to tremble.

In their midst, Ken Coggins shouted in staccato bursts.

"Work! Dominate! Get to work!" barked Coggins. "C'mon, work!"

On Sept. 2, Georgia State will take the football field for the first time in school history. The Panthers will begin preseason practice Aug. 4. Among the more central figures in the birth of the program is Coggins, a 49-year-old Mississippi native who says a vision led him to Georgia State.

Strength-and-conditioning coaches long have played important roles in college football, as they can train players nearly year-round, unlike position coaches. However, at Georgia State, Coggins' role has added significance. One, his job is to get a team made up mostly of freshmen and redshirt freshmen physically prepared for competition. Also, through spring and summer weightlifting and conditioning workouts, he helps to create unity among teammates who have yet to play a down together.

Coggins, who sees himself as an encourager and disciplinarian, said he never has had a job like this in more than 20 years as a strength coach.

"But it's also the best I've ever experienced," Coggins said.

Since June, Georgia State players have gone through workouts four days a week, weightlifting followed by running. The weight sessions are non-stop, often capped by reps on the Austin Super Legdrive, a sadistic machine in which players drive a weighed-down tackling dummy up an incline.

They do their running at the Georgia State practice field, where the heat index sometimes has exceeded 100 degrees.

Said offensive lineman Michael Davis, "This is by far the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Definitely."

Coggins is unyielding, constantly exhorting players to "Work!" and "Let's go!" It's the way he was trained as a Mississippi State offensive lineman in the early 1980s under Al Miller, a pioneer in the strength-and-conditioning field who later worked with the Falcons under coaches Dan Reeves and Jim Mora.

Coggins, who calls Miller a mentor, remembers doing standing broad jumps from sideline to sideline and back -- more than 100 yards -- after not finishing a run in the prescribed time. The team also did its offseason training in a training facility with the heat cranked.

"The heaters might have gotten stuck," Miller said Monday, belly laughing. "It wasn't necessarily that we turned it up."

The merits of discipline were imprinted on Coggins like a tattoo.

"He had this saying, ‘Get to the next level,'" said Walter Dubuc, whom Coggins coached at Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss. "He was always preaching that to us and getting the most out of us, especially in the weight room and out there on the field, especially during summer workouts."

This spring, when the team had a problem with players missing classes and tutoring sessions, Coggins made them run seven flights of stairs in the Sports Arena while holding a 45-pound weight over their head, running them until exhaustion.

"You really drive and teach them about discipline, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret," Coggins said. "You choose."

Players revere Coggins, who finishes weight sessions by talking to players about topics such as leadership or teamwork. Dubuc called him a "brother type" who reached out to him when his father died. When the Georgia State offensive linemen decided to lift twice weekly at 5:45 a.m. this summer, Coggins made the commitment to get up before 4 a.m. to drive in from his Newnan home to be there.

Said Davis, "He's out here kicking our butts, but, hey, it's hard not to love him."

To Coggins, a man of Christian faith, the job is something of a divine appointment. Early in 2008, Coggins was in his first year as the strength coach at Charleston Southern. He was returning from lunch one day when he said he had a vision telling him "that there's a great thing that's going to happen at Georgia State." That night, he said, he got a call from the school about the job.

He was hired in May 2008, a month before Curry.

"It's so unique to be able to be here and start this, help be a part of this deal, be a part of a great group of people, be a part of their families, be a part of this family," Coggins said. "It's really, really exciting."