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IOWA CITY — Cole Croston walked on at Iowa in 2012 with a basketball frame but a work ethic that separated him from most try-hard athletes.
Croston, now a fifth-year senior left tackle, called himself "super-skinny" when he weighed 225 pounds on the scout team and was overwhelmed by veteran defensive ends. But in four years, Croston put on 80 pounds. He maintained his tenacity while gaining weight and strength. It wasn’t easy, but it was achievable.
“Sometimes I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it,” Croston said. “Coach (Chris) Doyle, I’d say, is the secret. He implements a great meal plan and I would say from my perspective if you follow it, you’ll get to the point where you need to be in.”
Doyle has led Iowa football’s strength and conditioning department since Jan. 22, 1999. His first salary was $56,000. Now, it’s $595,000. The majority of Iowa players over Doyle’s 18 years consider it money well-spent, from those currently in the program to the many who return from the NFL every off-season.
Iowa rarely cracks the national discussion when it comes to recruiting rankings. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz relies on Doyle to develop overlooked players. Doyle in turn churns out NFL-caliber players.
Iowa’s reputation is staked on its play along the line of scrimmage. Under Ferentz, who has employed Doyle during his entire head coaching tenure, the Hawkeyes have had 26 linemen drafted. Several early in the Ferentz-Doyle era included position changes and weight increases. Robert Gallery (first round), Eric Steinbach (second round) and Bruce Nelson (second round) all came to Iowa as tight ends. Aaron Kampman (fifth round) was a linebacker who morphed into a defensive lineman.
In the middle part of the Ferentz-Doyle era, defensive tackles Karl Klug (fifth round) and Mike Daniels (fourth round) began their Iowa careers at 220 and 240 pounds, respectively. Both since have gained 60 pounds and still play in the NFL. Currently, the left side of Iowa’s offensive line (Croston and Boone Myers) were walk-ons, while junior right tackle Ike Boettger switched from tight end and has gained 72 pounds. In June, ESPN’s Ed Cunningham ranked Iowa’s offensive line as the nation’s best.
“There are schools out there that collect talent, and there are schools out there that build it,” Doyle said. “If you look at some of the upper-echelon schools, each year they have their choice of the five-star recruits, and they kind of go and see how it works out for them. Here at Iowa, you look at Cole and Boone, great examples, and on the defensive side of the ball, you’re looking at three linebackers in the starting group. One was a high school wide receiver in Ben Niemann. The other two in Josey Jewell and Aaron Mends were tailbacks. How did they become linebackers?
“Well here at Iowa, we’ve done an excellent job of supporting that. We’ve supported it with our facility. There’s not a surprise when you look at the facility, at what’s important. Development and strength and conditioning is something that’s valued here. The food part that supports their recovery for this training is there. As we move forward, hey what are we going to do in the next 10 years to help sustain Iowa football and what Iowa football stands for and the culture of Iowa football with developing players? I think we made a pretty strong statement when we built our ($55 million) facility and how the facility now operates because it needs to support those goals.”
Two years ago, when the NCAA deregulated the amount of food athletics departments could provide athletes, it also allowed schools to provide meals for non-scholarship athletes. Iowa exceeded its first-year budget of $750,000 by more than $1 million, and the department has budgeted $2 million for meals this year alone. But the high cost allowed for significant gains on the field (about six pounds increase each year) and in the locker room. Doyle can control much of the players’ intake and ensure they gain healthy weight.
“It’s been fantastic because there’s always food around,” said Croston, who was put on scholarship in 2015. “There’s always food in the weight room. I would say it’s real hard to be underweight here because everywhere you turn there’s food.”
“We all sit down together,” Boettger said. “You maybe eat with guys that you don’t usually hang out with because position groups usually tend to hang out together. It’s nice to mingle with other guys on the team.”
Doyle’s salary has become part of the national conversation for its sticker shock. However in January, The Gazette reported his contract stipulates a 14 percent salary increase based on Iowa’s top-10 finish. That would have elevated his salary from $515,000 to at least $587,141.
Doyle’s era is not without controversy. Twelve players were hospitalized and diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis after a 2011 workout designed by Doyle. One, William Lowe, sued Iowa and settled for $15,000. All of them eventually returned to the football field, including Lowe at a Division II school.
But from Iowa’s weight gains to its NFL pipeline to 14 bowl-eligible seasons the last 15 years, Doyle is a common element. In a survey of interviews with current and former Iowa players the last three years, more than 30 brought up Doyle as instrumental to their success. Most, if not all, of their responses about Doyle were unprompted.
“It’s been a long, long process and long road with Coach Doyle,” running back Akrum Wadley said earlier this month. “I’m glad he didn’t give up on me. He still believes in me, and he’s working with me.”
Earlier this spring with wide receiver Jay Scheel: “I’ve gotten so much stronger just because of Coach Doyle’s program. Everyone has.”
Three years ago former defensive lineman and then-New York Jet Matt Kroul spoke about returning to Iowa City with several former NFL teammates: “It’s kind of nice to come back and have a spot to train. We’ve got a world-class strength coach, and it’s definitely beneficial to us.”
Even former Iowa State and North Texas Coach Dan McCarney touted Doyle: “Chris Doyle, their strength coach, does a fantastic job, and he’s been with Kirk forever and they develop players as good as anybody in college football.”
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