Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — If there’s one thing Clay Helton knows about USC’s new head strength and conditioning coach, it’s this.
“I don’t think he minds me saying this,” Helton told reporters at Pac-12 Media Day, “Aaron Ausmus loves his sons.”
In 2004, after three years as an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Trojans, Ausmus moved on to become the head strength and conditioning coach at Idaho. Over the following nine years, he held similar titles at Ole Miss, North Texas, Tennessee and then, under Lane Kiffin, back at USC.
After the tumultuous 2013 season that brought about Kiffin’s firing, Ausmus left college football behind and became a West Coast sales consultant for Sorinex Exercise Equipment, a career switch made with his sons in mind.
“I went from coaching USC football to Redondo Beach Little League with our kids, flag football with my kids, basketball with my kids. I was always coaching,” Ausmus said. “To me, my goal with that and the most important thing to me is am I making a difference in people’s lives? By doing sales, I was able to coach my kids more, which was rewarding in its own way as far as seeing your kids and being in their lives at that level.
“We wanted to stay here.”
Earlier this year, Helton had to find a new strength and conditioning coach after Ivan Lewis took the same job with the Seattle Seahawks and his assistant strength coach Keith Belton was hired away by Kansas. Helton turned to the man he worked with as he moved up Kiffin’s offensive staff, asking Ausmus to return to lead the Trojans’ strength and conditioning efforts. The job would give Ausmus the opportunity to get back into the sport without moving his children to another part of the country.
“He’s always been a teacher at heart,” Helton said. “And to have the opportunity to teach again and to see his enthusiasm and to see his energy … and just to see his joy of coaching again after that break, you could see there’s a definite appreciation to what he gets to do on a daily basis.”
The strength and conditioning department has been the target of criticism from Trojans fans over the past few seasons as USC found itself physically dominated on several high-profile occasions, including the 2016 season opener against Alabama, late-2017 losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State, and a blowout at the hands of Utah last fall.
So Ausmus knows he has stepped into a role that has been placed under a microscope, and he’s ready for it. When he left football to go into sales, he never stopped coaching, and ever since he left sales and returned to football, he hasn’t stopped selling.
“A strength coach’s job is to be a great salesman,” Ausmus said. “You’re selling strength and you’ve got to get the guys to buy it.”
With USC coming off just its fourth losing season in the last 50 years and hoping a rebound year will quiet the noise surrounding Helton’s job status, the message Ausmus is selling matters more than ever before.
Spring practice had already started when USC officially hired Ausmus in early March, and without the benefit of winter workouts as an introduction, his first meeting with the team was his chance to set the tone. He didn’t want to make it too much about him.
“What stood out was he was talking about a lot of guys he coached before,” offensive lineman Jalen McKenzie said. “You know the names, (NFL) guys who are doing well for themselves, second contracts, max deals and stuff like that. And he was talking about how all the money, all the stuff you see is down here in the weight room. You don’t make the money anywhere else. He can show us videos of Hayes Pullard and Nickell Robey-Coleman doing the same power cleans we’re doing, so that was powerful. You see how strong they are, and why would you not listen?”
Ausmus didn’t walk back into USC with a mandate for a culture overhaul. He wanted to base his program on three words: simple, strong and consistent.
“They’re seeing results,” Ausmus said. “That’s what makes them come back every day, and we have a formula, we have a philosophy and that’s what they’re most excited about. We support it every day with the same message.
“If you will commit to the program, if you will compete within the program … I’m going to lead you right there. If you do those two things, your strength goals, your speed goals, your football goals, your physicality of what we can get done will take care of itself.”
Ausmus’ first stint on USC’s staff included the Trojans’ 2003 national title team. During his second stint, the Trojans finished No. 6 in the country in 2011. So he understands the tradition and recognizes what it takes to win.
“There’s just a sense of urgency from him,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Christian Rector said. “His enthusiasm is very infectious. You could tell he’s very happy to be back with us, and that rubbed off on us. We were looking for that.
“I think we were lacking that urgency and we did get kind of comfortable coming off those two big seasons we had (which included a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title).”
With a shortened offseason to instill his message, Ausmus has tried to reach his players through social media, where he knows they spend plenty of time.
If you follow Ausmus on Twitter or Instagram, you’re bound to come across at least one of his many hashtags or mini-slogans. There’s “Chalk and Sweat,” which he wants to be the two cornerstones of the strength and conditioning program. There’s the “gray sweatpants society,” a nod to Rocky Balboa and Ausmus’ preferred workout attire. “Liftin’ heavy, eatin’ thick” is another popular one: In order to build strength, size and muscle, you have to feed the machine, Ausmus says.
“He does so many great things that I think are just genius,” senior receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said. “The fact he’s on Instagram, he’s posting stuff and getting guys fired up because they want to be on Effort Island or be the Phonebooth Fight champion. So he’s doing things to get guys fired up in ways I haven’t seen before.”
No catchphrase is more prevalent than the “Phonebooth Fight.”
“In the weight room, we treat our racks like the phone booth,” McKenzie said. “So he basically tells you, you get in the phone booth and you don’t leave it. If you need water, bring your water bottles to your racks. If you need a towel, you have your towels at your rack. If you need an extra shirt, you bring that but you don’t leave. You’re just in the fight for a whole hour and a half.
“We do that at the end of the week because your game is at the end of the week so that’s your phone booth fight. It’s a straight fight to the end, and that’s your opponent.”
“It’s good for the culture that he’s that active on social media,” Rector said. “It really ties in and ropes in the younger kids that are bigger on social media.”
Players or coaches have not spoken negatively about Lewis since he was hired away by the Seahawks, nor have they even hinted at faults in the old strength program. But the enthusiasm Ausmus brings and the methods he utilizes have seemed to provide a different sort of spark.
“(Ausmus) brings more fire. He brings more competition,” Pittman said. “He did it in such a way where it keeps the team closer. Usually, it’s offense vs. defense. He put us in situations where it really let us interact together, let us build stronger bonds to where somebody I would’ve never worked with — I never would’ve worked with somebody like Christian Rector or other guys who play on the D-Line or play DB or something — because we never come together like that.”
Of course, this kind of positive, unified message is common whenever a new strength and conditioning coach arrives, and this is the time of year when optimism is at its peak across the college football world. Players are in the best shape of their lives, thinking less and playing faster.
USC has showcased Ausmus across its social media platforms, eager to broadcast that the program has turned the page on 2018 and is ready to write a different story. The new strength coach has essentially become the face of the program’s push for newfound accountability — another key buzzword of the offseason.
“He’s been super, duper critical because he’s pushed me to places I didn’t think I could go before,” Pittman said. “And that’s really the job of a coach, to push players to where they can’t push themselves.”
When USC lines up against Fresno State to open the season, the rest of the world will get to see for the first time whether Ausmus’s summer of mantras and changed mindsets can push the Trojans out of mediocrity and back to their winning ways.
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