The sound of AC/DC mixed with the distinct noise of iron dumbells and plates clanking violently resonates through the Corridor of Captains hallway leading into Vanderbilt’s weight room on the west side of the McGugin Center. Inside the doors, the mantra “Go Hard” is emblazoned on the ceiling for everyone to see as they enter. The words act as a warning to anyone who may be faint of heart. Welcome to John Sisk’s home away from home where each day this summer, the sounds of the stereo and iron plates were mixed with the shouts of encouragement and sounds of exertion from members of Vanderbilt’s football team in the midst of offseason workouts.
While the summer is considered a break for most students, one trip to the weight room in the summer will be enough to show anyone that June and July are a far cry from a break for members of the football team. Instead, the summer months are considered some of the most important months of the year in a player’s development, which makes Sisk especially busy during the summer.
“The summer is our big time of the year,” Sisk said. “This is my game time. We do something five days a week, and the NCAA gives us eight hours a week to work with them, so we take advantage of every hour we get with them.”
Summers spent in the weight room are nothing new to Sisk, who is in his eighth year as Vanderbilt’s speed, strength and conditioning director, and his 17th year overall as a strength and conditioning coach in the college ranks. What drove Sisk to the profession was an interest he, with the help of his father, developed for lifting as a youth in Waynesville, N.C.
“I had a passion for it as a kid,” Sisk said. “I had a Randy White weight set, and Santa Claus brought me an Earl Campbell weight bench.”
The passion he had for strength and conditioning helped him play college football at Western Carolina and eventually helped him land his current position at Vanderbilt, a position he likely wouldn’t have if not for his first college job at Furman University. It was at Furman in 1994 that Sisk worked with Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson for the first time, when Johnson was head coach at the university. From there the relationship grew, and Johnson asked Sisk to head Vanderbilt’s strength program when he arrived in 2002.
“I’m only here because of Coach Johnson and the opportunities he has given me to work as part of his staff,” Sisk said. “After college, I just knew that I didn’t want to coach high school football, but I wanted to be around players. I didn’t want to teach, I just wanted to coach.”
That bond shared between Johnson and Sisk is crucial in college football, especially in the summer. On top of the summer being the longest stretch of time the team spends in the weight room, it also is the time where strength coaches become the eyes and ears for the coaching staff, which, due to NCAA rules, is limited to how often they can work with the players in the summer.
“To a degree, I am their eyes in the summer,” Sisk said. “They will call when they are on vacation and see how everyone is doing.”
There are few eyes better to have on the players than Sisk, who has developed a reputation as one of the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country. He is so well respected by current and former Vanderbilt athletes, that often, Vanderbilt’s weight room becomes a “Who’s Who” of former Vanderbilt athletes. From Tampa Rays pitcher David Price to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt’s weight room has become the offseason home for many former Commodores competing in the professional ranks.
“It is humbling to have these guys trust me and want to come back,” Sisk said. “Hopefully we had something to do with them getting to where they are or they wouldn’t be here.”
Having former Vanderbilt student-athletes around also is something Sisk believes benefits the whole program.
“It is beneficial because our guys are able to look at the pros and see they are doing exactly what I am having them do,” Sisk said. “To have those guys involved in my program is great, and it just sells what we are talking about.”
One person who doesn’t need any sales pitch to buy into what Sisk is preaching is senior co-captain Bradley Vierling.
“Sisk and his staff are tremendous,” Vierling said. “He is a players’ coach, so he is always going to get the most out of players. He doesn’t have any kids, but he thinks of us as his kids and we take that to heart.”
If having former players around isn’t enough, just looking at the transformation of current and past players such as senior offensive tackle Thomas Welch and current Chicago Bear Chris Williams should be enough to convince anyone to listen to Sisk. Williams’ story of developing into a first-round draft pick at offensive tackle after weighing just 245 pounds as a college freshman is well documented. Welch’s, however, is less known. Recruited as a quarterback, Welch was first converted to a tight end and then a tackle at Vanderbilt. It is a transition rarely seen in college football.
“I give most of the credit for how I’ve developed to him,” Welch said. “I’ve gained 70 pounds since I’ve been here, and if it wasn’t for him and the strength staff, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.”
“He had to buy into it because it is hard going from quarterback to right tackle,” Sisk said. “He had to buy into what we were telling him, and you have to have a plan for him. To see him develop more and more and gain confidence to block guys is tremendous.”
Welch is one of many players who have transformed physically under Sisk. Just as players have transformed, so has the program on the field and in the weight room.
“When I first got here, we had to do a lot of motivating,” Sisk said. “To see where we have started and where we are now, we’ve had a lot of great summers and a lot of it came from guys buying in when I first got here.”
A perfect example of how far the strength and conditioning program has come happened last year when for the first time in Sisk’s time at Vanderbilt, not a single freshmen was late to a freshman workout.
Not missing a workout doesn’t give the team an extra win on the field, but Sisk knows what happens in the weight room is just another step in the right direction toward building a winning program.
“It has always been the perception that if you get to the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt is going to quit,” Sisk said. “My whole philosophy since I’ve been here is that is when we are going to work to get stronger. Everybody thinks they are going to get us in the fourth quarter because we are going to fold. My mentality is that this isn’t the same old Vanderbilt, and you have to get past that. To get past it you’ve got to mentally train them, they have to buy into it and they have to know that we have another gear.”
Helping the team get to that next gear is one of Sisk’s primary responsibilities, but maybe the responsibility he is most proud of is instilling values into young men that will last a lifetime.
“Hopefully some small part of this is making them become a better person,” Sisk said. “Making them become accountable to themselves and their families and taking pride in their hard work.”