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Notre Dame Football

The Balis Way: Notre Dame follows passionate lead

April 29, 2020

He remembers him in the front row.

Gathering for Notre Dame strength and conditioning clinics or other work sessions, Mickey Marotti can’t shake repeatedly seeing Matt Balis at the head of the venue.

“Matt was a high school coach in the Chicago area, and we used to have clinics every year, and I would never forget him because he would sit front row, first guy, right in front of the speakers,” said Marotti, the Ohio State strength coach and three-time national champion who headed up Notre Dame’s program from 1998-2004.

“And he would raise his hand, ask questions and was just so inquisitive about everything. So, we just kind of connected there.”

The connection now spans 20 years; Marotti a dean in his vocation and Balis now heading up the Fighting Irish program which he grew up cheering.

“Well, it didn’t take long for me to realize how special it was here,” Balis said in a recent Zoom video interview. “Just the incredible history of Notre Dame and walking around campus and going into that stadium and onto that football field for the first time. These are life-changing moments for guys like me, who have been doing this for so long.

“For me, it was just getting to know the history and being somebody that has followed college football my whole life, growing up in Chicago and being a Notre Dame fan as a kid, you just know how special of a place it is.”

Balis now is feeling an even greater tug to Notre Dame. There are no workouts on campus as the nation, colleges, athletics and society as a whole grapple with the ongoing struggles stemming from the global COVID-19 pandemic. Under the direction of Balis and coach Brian Kelly, the Irish have sent every piece of allowable equipment --- mostly resistance bands --- to their players.

The Fighting Irish have football players at home on both the East and West coasts, as well as homes across the United States, including Hawaii, and overseas in Germany.

"There is a guide we follow and that we go through,” said defensive lineman Ovie Oghoufo. “It's usually very helpful. I use the bands every day. They've really helped me."

While the NCAA is permitting video meetings between student-athletes and staff, college athletics’ governing body is not allowing any kind of monitoring for accountability. Balis, however, leans on what he knows from the Irish’s winter workouts and the example of Notre Dame’s SWAT (Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Team) leaders consisting of Mick Assaf, Ian Book, Shaun Crawford, Liam Eichenberg, Robert Hainsey, Daelin Hayes, Kurt Hinish, Tommy Kraemer, Ade Ogundeji, Drew White and Brock Wright.

“We talk about what motivates you and what’s motivating not only yourself but how are you motivating your teammates,” Balis said. “Sometimes we motivate in a Zoom just within your SWAT team. A lot of it comes to routine. All of our goals are still out in front of us, everything we talk about that Coach Kelly has talked about is all still there. We’ve talked about how blessed we are to be a part of this great university at Notre Dame. There’s other places out there at the lower levels that have it really hard...There are many situations that are even worse, even though our situation is tough also. We talk to each other, kids talk to each other. We want the guys to stay connected, having them be there for one another and sharing what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. Still being great teammates. We’re all still connected, we’re all still a family.

“You can either grow from it or you can make excuses. I learned early on in life that no one was going to help you; you had to find a way to get something done. Through faith, that had been the No. 1 way that I was able to do that and overcome certain adversities.”

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
Marotti believes the Irish strength program is in a good position to deal with the current situation because of Balis.

Balis’ effervescent approach, Marotti explains, is an absolute must at all times for strength and conditioning leaders.

“You can’t do this job, at least for as long as I have or as long as Matt has, without having the passion and the energy and just the desire to build and develop and help athletes and the things that we do,” Marotti said. “You just can’t do it. It’s too time-consuming, too much energy needed; if you’re not passionate, you can’t do it. You can’t. And the worst thing you can do, if you do lose passion and do lose energy, those athletes will pick it up within four minutes. You can’t get anything past the athletes. That’s 95 percent of it, right there.

“And Matt cares, he cares about people, he cares about his programs. And when you know, as an athlete, a staff member, a coach, when you know he cares, you’re going to give him everything you’ve got.”

Now, however, the demand for authenticity is at its peak.

“I think it’s very important; I think it’s a test of who you are as a coach, and it’s a test of what your program is about,” said Marotti, who noted he and Balis have exchanged workout suggestions during this time apart from their respective teams.

“I think it’s a test of the program and the culture and it’s a test of the foundation of your strength program and football program and the stronger it is, you’re going to get through this storm. If it’s not strong and not built on concrete, it’s probably going to break down. I just think the leadership that Matt has given to that program and leading that strength program at Notre Dame, not to say it’s perfect because players aren’t around you, but if I was the head football coach, if I was Coach Kelly and the assistants, I’d feel pretty good about knowing when those players come back, they’re going to be ready to roll.”

Preparing for his fourth season atop the Irish strength program after stints at UConn, Florida, Mississippi State, UConn and Virginia, Balis finds reassurance in the evolution of the Irish program since his arrival in January 2017.

“We felt like it was a really successful offseason, because of that leadership but also the hunger coming back from last season,” said Balis, the bedrock of an Irish football program that’s won 33 games, including a superlative 19-1 home mark, since his arrival. “Guys really wanted to get after it, guys were ready to attack the training and attack the offseason program. The attitude was phenomenal. At the end of the day, that’s what you look for. The attitude, the attention to detail, their focus on what we ask, their ability to lead, the grittiness.

“It’s a smart team, it’s a team that understands now what needs to be done. You have a lot of guys that are in Year 4 of working out with me. It’s one of the things you look for as a strength coach, when the guys can kind of take over.”

Sounds like a team with a bunch of guys who would sit in the front row.

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