No Bull: 4 Lessons From Chicago Bulls Strength Coach Al Vermeil

“[Al] was much more than a strength and conditioning coach. When I got ripped for saying, ‘Players and coaches alone don’t win championships, organizations do’ — he was one of the people I was talking about.”
–Jerry Krause, Chicago Bulls General Manager

I’m a little behind everyone else when it comes to TV shows. I still haven’t finished “Breaking Bad,” I’m only one season into “The Sopranos,” and I’ve seen one episode of “The Wire.” But I am almost finished and currently obsessed with the new Chicago Bulls documentary series “The Last Dance.” They were the most dominant team of any era of any sport. The championships, the regular season wins records, the multiple stars and role players along with Michael Jordan that when working together were unbeatable — there will never be any team quite like the 90’s Bulls.

Controversial Bulls general manager Jerry Krause infamously remarked prior to their final championship season, “Players don’t win championships, organizations do.” With these words, Krause was taking a dig at Jordan as tensions escalated between players and management, but as Jordan himself admits, the entire organization contributed to the success of the players on the court.

One of the key members of the 90’s Bulls was strength & conditioning coach Al Vermeil. He is arguably the most successful strength coach of the professional sports ranks: no other coach has won both NBA and NFL championships. Along with a stint in the MLB, Coach Vermeil not only has an incredibly wide range of knowledge that applies to multiple sports, he most importantly knows how to develop winning athletes.

Al Vermeil, Chicago Bulls strength & conditioning coach for all six of their NBA championships.

Back in 2014 I was able to spend some time with Coach Vermeil, and these are the four biggest lessons I learned from him:

  1. Stick to the basics. “If I can get a seven-foot basketball player to do perfect squats and power cleans, there’s nothing else I need him to do in the weight room.” Strength training should be simple even for the most talented athletes. The big, basic exercises work for everyone at every level to build physical strength. As mentioned, the foundation of Coach Vermeil’s programs were barbell squats and power cleans mixed with a handful of accessory exercises. New and complex doesn’t mean better, especially if you haven’t already mastered the fundamentals.

    Check out the video below of 6’10” Horace Grant performing perfect power cleans under the direction of Coach Vermeil:
  1. Winning is culture. Over lunch, Coach Vermeil shared a story about the great Texas Longhorns football coach Darrel Royal’s approach to recruiting. Regardless of how talented a prospect was, Royal wouldn’t recruit him if he played on a losing team. He didn’t just want the best athletes: he wanted kids who knew how to win. Royal found it much easier to take a kid who knew success and turn him into a better football player than to develop a stand-out athlete who doesn’t understand winning into a champion.

    If you watch “The Last Dance,” you’ll see that same belief emphasized throughout the entire organization. MJ was, of course, absolutely relentless in his personal pursuit of victory. But the Bulls didn’t start racking up titles until Jordan understood that every player had to have that same mindset and that same commitment to winning. It wasn’t just about being the most talented athlete or having the best collection of individual players, they needed players who had the right mindset and knew how to win.
  1. The best tool for injury prevention is strength training. Professional athletes hit the genetic jackpot and are naturally the most powerful, explosive people on the planet. But for a game like basketball, you need brakes: everyone in the NBA can jump, but what they need to develop is the landing. So many knee injuries, especially in basketball, happen when landing from a jump rather than the jump itself. And the way to prevent such injuries is to strengthen the leg and hip muscles so they can absorb those landings to keep stress off the joint itself. And along with stronger muscles, a weight lifting program improves bone density and the strength of tendons and ligaments.
    Between the time Coach Vermeil joined the Bulls in 1986 up to “The Last Dance” in 1998, their roster saw virtually no serious injuries when the style of play in the NBA was at its most physical and aggressive.
  2. The best tool to fight the aging process, especially for athletes, is strength training. Coach Vermeil’s first job at the pro level was with the San Francisco 49ers. He joined the team the same year as Joe Montana, and the two of them worked together long after Coach Vermeil left the organization in 1982.
    In the early 1990’s, Montana became plagued by injuries to the point of missing almost two entire seasons. On top of the injuries, back-up Steve Young performed exceptionally as the interim quarterback which put Montana’s future with the 49ers in doubt. But despite the circumstances, Montana felt he had a few more productive years left as a professional football player. He turned to Coach Vermeil to help him get the most out of his final years after being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. As Coach Vermeil put it:

    “Once you get to be around 30, you start to slow down, and there’s no way to get that speed back. But you can make up for it with strength. So we couldn’t make Joe any faster, but we could make him a lot stronger.”

    That emphasis on strength led to another Pro Bowl season for Montana after most critics deemed his career effectively over. On top of outstanding individual performance, he turned a struggling organization into instant division champions.

    Coach Vermeil did the same thing for cornerstones of the early Bulls dynasty Bill Cartwright and John Paxson, both of whom were already seasoned athletes by the time Vermeil arrived in Chicago.
Yours truly with Coach Vermeil

So there’s four lessons from a coaching legend: keep it simple, set your sights on winning, strength keeps you healthy, and strength keeps you going. I’m immensely grateful to Coach Vermeil for sharing the unforgettable stories, knowledge, and wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experience in the strength game. And if you haven’t watched “The Last Dance,” go watch it and relive the glorious 1990’s!

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