So much of Mickey Marotti’s job involves a physical presence.
Ohio State’s assistant athletic director for football sports performance ― a fancy name for head strength and conditioning coach ― is most natural when he’s in the faces of Buckeyes players. He demands, encourages and cajoles them to push themselves physically beyond their comfort level, and Marotti is considered one of the best in the country.
That work must all be done from afar these days.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the final 12 days of spring practice and the closing of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in mid-March, Marotti has been supervising the Buckeyes from his home.
“It is by far the most difficult endeavor of my professional coaching career,” Marotti said in a teleconference Wednesday. “Obviously, there's a lot of other harsher and more difficult things going on in the world right now. So I kind of put it in perspective.
“But at least in my little world of coaching, it's so hard just because I think in 31 years or 32 years I've never been away from a weight room more than seven days at a time.”
Marotti, like most people these days, is improvising. He uses FaceTime and Zoom to communicate with his players, who are scattered around the country. It’s not the same as being next to them in the weight room.
“It’s kind of like if you’re in charge of people but you can’t actually be in charge of people, if that makes sense,” Marotti said.
He’s trying, though, even with NCAA rules that restrict how much direct involvement Marotti and his staff can have with players. Overseeing is permitted, he said, from a safety, wellness and nutrition standpoint. But Marotti can’t set up a Zoom call and watch players train.
“The NCAA has some guidelines that this time period, at least for physical activity, is voluntary,” he said. “So they can’t really, by NCAA rules, report objectively back to us (about workouts).”
Complicating matters is that some players don’t have access to weights or other equipment they’d have in Columbus. He said offensive lineman Matthew Jones, who lives in Brooklyn near the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, didn’t feel safe leaving his home. So Jones filled milk jugs with sand and dirt and used them as makeshift weights. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert and his father used some spare wood to construct a squat rack in their Long Island home.
Marotti said some players are using beams in their basements as bars to do pull-ups. Offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere lives in Tampa. Florida homes don’t have basements, so he tried to use his house’s gutter. Bad idea.
“The gutter fell down,” Marotti said. “His mom wasn’t too excited about that. We had to come up with a different plan for him.”
Ohio State was able to issue resistance bands to its players, and they’re being creative in using them, Marotti said. Many players who didn’t have weights at home were able to buy or borrow them.
Marotti knows that whatever work players are doing on their own isn’t the same as they’d get done with supervision at the Woody.
“It’s a concern every day when I go to bed,” he said. “You just lay in bed and you’re like, ‘I hope everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do.’”
But he is confident the team’s leadership and culture will keep the Buckeyes from slacking off.
“The good thing is we’ve got some great leadership,” Marotti said.
The message he has imparted to the players, which is reinforced by those team leaders, is that they will either get better or worse through this time, and it’s their responsibility to overcome the obstacles in their way.
“Any time there’s some adversity that hits your life or hits your world, it’s opportunity for growth,” he said.
The feedback he’s gotten from players has been encouraging, he said. Whenever players do return, Marotti expects 30% to be in peak physical condition, 50% will be in good shape and the other 20% will have fallen behind. Marotti and his staff will design conditioning programs suited for each category.
Not being able to work in such groups is one of the biggest challenges Marotti faces now. Almost everything must be done on an individual basis. That makes for long days.
“It’s no doubt twice as busy as if we were still in the Woody,” he said. “Not that you weren’t exhausted before, because you always are, but it’s like you’re completely spent in a different way.”