Buddy Morris doesn’t need a sales pitch, but if he did, it’d be a simple one.
“You just pitch the old Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago. Everybody else trains in top of the line glitter and glitz,” Morris says. “We go back to bare bones and basics. We’re in a dungeon.”
That dungeon is found on the corner of Transit and Klein in Williamsville, inside an old Dave & Adam’s Card World. It’s not the first place you’d think to find one of the country’s most influential strength coaches.
But with a career that spans more than 30 years and includes a stop in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and Division I programs at the University of Pittsburgh and University at Buffalo, Morris’ resume speaks for itself. So do his results.
“Yeah, I could go to Florida or California or whatever, but I’ve got to stay loyal to Buddy. He’s the one who got me my chance,” said Kansas City Chiefs fullback Nate Eachus, who’s training with Morris this offseason. “I’ll always stay loyal to him.”
Eachus is one of the latest, but he’s far from the only NFL player who credits Morris for helping him reach the pinnacle of his profession.
Much of the equipment in Morris’ gym — the New York Sports Center opened in December — has come from donations made by his former players. Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin gave $10,000.
In ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 film, “Elway to Marino,” Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino talks about how, after sliding to the 27th overall pick by the Miami Dolphins in the famous 1983 NFL Draft, he was determined to get into the best shape of his life. Morris, his trainer, was interviewed about how he helped Marino get there. The film debuts tonight at 8.
“I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to work with these guys,” Morris said. “To train them, become friends with them and work with them, I feel lucky. You’re proud of them. You’re helping them achieve a lifetime goal.”
Morris was named one of the 65 most influential strength coaches of all time by the fitness website kickbacklife.com. So how did a man with his credentials end up setting up shop in suburban Buffalo?
Simple. The woman he loves calls it home. Back in 2006, when Morris was working on Turner Gill’s staff as the director of sports performance at UB, he was working out at a local World Gym when he met Monica Duncan.
“I got very lucky. I outkicked my coverage, as they say. I understand that,” Morris says with a smile. “It’s nice to find somebody who shares your passion and understands you.”
Duncan is a competitive figure bodybuilder who competes on the national stage.
“We both share the same interests, we both do the same things. She’s my best friend, my confidant, which is the way it’s supposed to be. Like I said, I got lucky,” Morris said.
Morris worked at UB for only six months, as he was lured back to Pitt by former head coach Dave Wannstedt in 2007. A former four-year letterman on the track team with the Panthers, it was Morris’ third tour of duty as strength and conditioning coach at his alma mater. His first stint came right after he graduated in 1980, when he was hired by former football coach Jackie Sherrill as one of the first strength and conditioning coaches in the country.
That job lasted until after the 1989 season, when Morris left for a job in the private sector. He returned to Pitt from 1997 to 2001 before taking a job on Butch Davis’ staff with the Browns.
Upon returning to the school with Wannstedt, Morris’ gym, named “Pitt Iron Works,” was named one of the top 10 “toughest gyms in the United States” by Muscle & Fitness magazine in 2009.
Just a year later, though, Morris was out of a job when Wannstedt was forced to resign. Morris had turned down overtures from the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins during his third stint with Pitt, staying with the school partly because his youngest daughter, Claire, was in its nursing program. He had a contract with the school that paid him through 2012.
When that ran out, he had a decision to make. Duncan, who comes from a large family, missed Buffalo. And Morris had grown fond of the area when the couple was dating.
He also felt that he “had overstayed his welcome,” and that it was time to get out of the Steel City.
The decision was made to return to Western New York and open a gym with Duncan. Morris’ stepson, Fred, is taking a year off from chiropractic school to work at the facility. The center offers fitness classes, personal training and rehabilitation, sports performance training and nutrition guidance, all of which is open to the public.
Given Morris’ background, he hasn’t had trouble finding clients, even if the facility is basic. The brightly colored walls were painted by Morris, and life-size images of a bodybuilding Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Incredible Hulk are some of the only motivational tools.
Morris knows he’s not competing with the likes of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a sort of Disney World for elite Division I athletes with professional aspirations. At IMG, there are 52 tennis courts, 12 soccer fields, three full-size baseball fields, a pair of football fields and even an 18-hole golf course. There’s a physical therapy clinic, a health clinic and a wellness spa.
“There’s no glitter and glitz here. This is bare-bones training. The problem with glitter and glitz is you fall into complacency. You get comfortable. One thing I learned when I had the opportunity to coach in the NFL: Never get comfortable,” he said. “We explain that to these guys. It’s the old ‘Rocky’ syndrome. Rocky Balboa went to Siberia to train to beat the Russian.”
So Morris makes due with his surroundings.
“We don’t have a cold tub here. We don’t have a massage therapist. We don’t have trainers running around checking these guys all the time. We don’t have the bright, sunny warm weather,” he said. “We have the typical Buffalo weather.”
That means improvising his own “ice baths.” During a February session with five members from the Pitt football team who came to train for their pro day, Morris had them go outside and sit in the snow.
“It’s a poor man’s ice bath,” he said. “They’re sitting out there and all of a sudden these cars are driving by, opening the window and yelling ‘idiots! What are you doing?’ It’s restorative for these guys.”
Pitt players improve
All of the Pitt players who trained with Morris — guard Chris Jacobson, center Ryan Turnley, quarterback Tino Sunseri and tight ends Hubie Graham and Mike Shanahan — made significant progress in their pro day numbers.
Sunseri dropped his 40 time from 5.24 seconds to 4.7. Shanahan’s vertical improved from 27 to 30 inches, and his 40 time dropped from 4.84 to 4.65, all while he gained 11 pounds as he transitions from receiver to tight end.
But Jacobson’s turnaround might be the most remarkable. He came to Buffalo unable to jump because of a series of knee injuries suffered in college. He was able to reach 27 inches on his vertical, and broad jump better than 8 feet at his pro day. He also ran the 40 in 5.1 seconds.
“What he does in the weight room just transfers to the field, and it’s the same with the rehabilitation stuff,” Jacobson told rivals.com after his pro day. “He’s just so smart. … He’s almost 60 years old and he’s still reading books every day, just to learn something.”
Morris is actually 56, but Jacobson’s point is right on. Morris has a library in his home, with an estimated $5,000 in books analyzing everything about the human body.
“Here’s how I approach things: If you limit your knowledge, you limit your abilities. If you limit your abilities, you limit the development of your athletes, and that’s your job,” Morris said. “I do read every day, because you can not have enough knowledge about how the human body functions, how it performs. I’m constantly studying, constantly reading, looking for the most productive ways to train these guys.”
Given that view, it’s not surprising that Morris doesn’t consider himself only a strength and conditioning coach. He prefers the term “physical preparation.”
“You have to understand people are individuals. They all present different problems, they all present different situations,” Morris said. “Can I adapt a program to help him get better, not just try and make him fit the program? That’s what we do.”
Euchus overcame injury
When it came to Eachus, who was a consensus FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) All-American as a junior in 2010 at Colgate, Morris’ expertise was put to the test. As a senior in 2011, he suffered a separated pelvis in the season opener, an injury that limited him to six games.
“That was extremely hard,” Morris said. “It took us three weeks just to stabilize his pelvis to where we could do any meaningful speed work.”
But after eight weeks of training, Eachus was ready for his pro day. He ran a 4.56-second 40, had a 37.5-inch vertical and did 24 reps on the 225-pound bench press.
“I didn’t test at all before. I had no idea what I was going to run or anything,” Eachus said, “but I put up phenomenal numbers.”
The Chiefs were one of four teams in attendance that day, and later signed Eachus to a free agent contract. He had a strong preseason and made the 53-man roster, eventually starting two games as a rookie.
He’s convinced he wouldn’t have made it without Morris’ guidance.
“I came from a small school. I took the long route. I didn’t get invited to the combine,” he said. “I worked hard with Buddy. His philosophy, what he teaches you, his speed work, he just pays attention to the really small details, that I don’t think a lot of the strength coaches around the country really know. He’s pretty much a genius.”
Morris deflects such praise.
“It’s amazing what people can achieve when they’re focused, and they have a goal,” he said.
Morris would listen if an NFL team called, but he’s happy to call Western New York home.
“This is a family owned and operated business. We’re focused on growing this. I’d like to expand. I’d like to bring in more equipment. Blow out the front door, go longer with the turf area. We have a lot of plans, but we’re taking it one day at a time,” he said.