Dobson’s Focus – a Physically Dominant Football Team

By NU Athletic Communications
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

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James Dobson loves history and relishes reading about it.

Nebraska’s new head strength coach for football just finished “The 33 Strategies of War,” a book about overcoming obstacles and gaining an edge.

“That’s what this entire football program is trying to do right now," Dobson said. "Gain an edge so we can bring Nebraska back among the best programs in the country again.”


James Dobson is in his first season leading Nebraska's strength and conditioning program for the Husker football team.

The Charles and Romona Myers Performance Center offers Nebraska student-athletes the finest facilities and equipment in the nation for strength and conditioning.

The edge Dobson envisions has an icon, and it stares at him every day when he walks into his office and plots his next move.

“It’s the Blackshirts’ skull-and-bones,” Dobson said. “It looks hard-nosed. It looks dominant. It looks tough. It looks unforgiving. When you see it, you think dominant, and you think physical. That’s what we have to think and what we have to strive for every day, all year long.”

Head coach Bo Pelini set a goal for Nebraska to become the most physical team possible, and that’s been Dobson’s almost singular focus since he set up shop inside Nebraska’s massive weight room. 

“If you’re not going to be the most physically dominant team in your conference or in the country, then why are you trying to go out and play? That’s the way I look at it,” Dobson said. “There’s nothing better than taking the will out of somebody. That’s what this game is all about. It’s about lining up across from a guy and beating him until he doesn’t want to do it anymore. When you’re sitting on that sideline and the other team quits, that’s the best feeling in the world.”

It’s a feeling Nebraska had for decades, a feeling the Huskers lost and a feeling that must be re-earned again – game-by-game, season-by-season.

“The hard thing about it is you have to make sure your players know they have to take the will out of the other team,” Dobson said. “Nothing is going to be given. Nobody is going to lay it down. You have to go out and take it from them. That’s why we’re training year-round. That’s why we’re putting in all of this hard work.”

Nebraska Found Its New Strength Coach Through Reverse Recruiting
When the “job open” sign went up for a new leader in strength and conditioning last winter, the Huskers might have considered tapping into their long line of supremely qualified candidates with Nebraska connections. Newly appointed offensive line coach Barney Cotton, though, had a better idea. Last year, when Iowa was recruiting his son Ben, now a freshman tight end at Nebraska, Cotton learned about a highly productive, ultra-energetic assistant strength coach who was helping Hawkeye head strength coach Chris Doyle optimize his best athletes.

He relayed that information to Pelini, who did his own research. Just like an assistant coach who knows when he’s ready to be a head coach, Pelini deemed Dobson ready to assume control of Nebraska’s storied strength program after serving as an understudy for nine years at Iowa.

Talk about the power of reverse recruiting. “He was the right man for us,” Pelini said, praising Dobson’s relentless push for greater physicality and increased explosiveness. “We’re a better football team now than we were because we’re in better shape, we’re more athletic, and we’re getting stronger every day. Our players have responded well to the changes we’ve made. We’ve laid the foundation for what we want to get done.”

Sophomore linebacker Blake Lawrence said Dobson has done an “awesome job” getting Nebraska battle ready. “He worked for one of the best, yet brings his own mentality,” Lawrence said. “Everyone’s buying into what we’re doing. Players are all pulling together to make sure things are done right this year.”

Count Nebraska long-snapper T.J. O’Leary among the believers.  The Huskers are “feeling stronger than in previous years, and the atmosphere is like nothing I have ever been a part of,” he said. Players, in fact, are so confident in their more streamlined physiques that now they’re claiming to have a “Body Built by Dobson,” according to O’Leary.

Dobson, 35, works out diligently himself. He looks like a well-trained Marine and communicates like a motivational speaker. “Our players are looking better, feeling better and running better,” he said. “Matt Slauson and Phillip Dillard are prime examples. They’ve worked their tails off to shed a lot of weight and increase lean body mass.”

Zach Potter continues to push the envelope. Larry Asante and Anthony West are among the younger players working hard and buying into the new system every day. “But it’s not about individuals,” Dobson said. “Everyone has to be on the same page, and everyone needs to push everyone else. You need 11 guys on both sides of the ball. We’re only as strong as our weakest link.”

The father of two young children, Dobson pushes his strength staff just as hard as his student-athletes. “This isn’t a one-man show,” he said. “We have Tyler Clark, Chad Wade, Brandon Rigoni, Bryan Kmitta and two student interns. No one person can do it. We have 150 guys on our roster, and it’s a total team effort. Without this staff giving everything we have every day, it’s not going to get done.”

A Hard Worker Then, a Git-R-Done Guy Now
Dobson always has been a Git-R-Done kind of guy. He grew up feeding calves, bailing hay and milking cows. His immediate family didn’t dairy farm, but his grandparents and cousins did, so he  bounced around, going from farm to farm to earn his way in and around Mount Vernon, Wis. (population 110).

Mount Vernon had a feed mill, a garage and two bars, but no high school, so Dobson drove six miles to Mt. Horeb, located 18 miles west of Madison and right in the shadow of the University of Wisconsin, where he received his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. His master’s in science and administration was earned at Central Michigan. Before his stint in Iowa City, he was an assistant strength and conditioning coach at SMU for two years.

While he has no direct ties to Nebraska, Dobson feels like he fits in. “A lot of people in Nebraska can relate to the way I grew up in Wisconsin,” he said. “In most places, it’s either ‘he’s a good guy” or ‘he’s a bad guy.’ Or ‘he has a lot of money’ or ‘he doesn’t have a lot of money.’ When you’re from a small town like I came from, there was only one comparison. It’s either ‘he’s a hard worker’ or ‘he’s not a hard worker.’ That’s how you’re evaluated growing up. Either you work hard or you don’t. They couldn’t care less if you’re a nice guy or have money. But if you worked hard, you have someplace to go.”

The best place a strength and conditioning coach can go is Nebraska. “Boyd Epley (Nebraska’s first head strength coach) is the grandfather of strength and conditioning,” Dobson said. “He’s the guy who had enough vision to tell Coach (Tom) Osborne that ‘We can help athletes and make them better players.’ Nebraska was probably the first school in the country to take physical conditioning day-to-day, almost year-round.”

Mike Arthur, Nebraska’s director of strength and conditioning, assisted Epley for decades. “He’s a class-act,” Dobson said of Arthur, one of the nation’s first 10 strength coaches to earn the distinction of “Master Strength and Conditioning Coach” and a 2003 inductee into the U.S. Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame. “You can pick his brain because he’s always doing research. He’s done so much for this program, it’s unbelievable. It’s nice to sit in an office right next to him. He’s one of the true pioneers in this business. He’s seen it all and been around it all.”

Not surprisingly, Nebraska became a breeding ground for strength coaches in the 1980s.

“They were always at the forefront of training and technologies,” Dobson said. “They always pushed the envelope. That’s why a lot of guys prospered coming out of this place and why I continue to have so much respect for the tradition that’s been built here over the years.”

One Word Describes Both Osborne and Pelini . . . Winner
Dobson likes the 1-2 punch of Osborne as athletic director and Pelini as head coach. “When Coach Osborne walks in the room, you think ‘winner.’ You think ‘Nebraska.’ You think ‘Excellence.’ Whatever we do now, we can’t forget the people who helped build this awesome program. I want to know how it was in 1990, 1980 and 1970. We need to bring it all back. We can never forget where we came from.”

As a first-year head coach, Pelini oozes confidence. “Bo’s a winner,” Dobson said. “The players know he’s a winner. When you’re in meetings with him or at practice, you can just sense it. Everyone knows they’re going to work their rears off, but that’s what happens when you surround yourself with winners. The players start feeding off the coaches, and then they start taking in everything that they possibly can.”

At Nebraska, players also feed off the energy of sold-out crowds, statewide respect and extraordinary appreciation. “When Iowa came to Lincoln in 2000, we had a good first half except for the touchdown we gave up six seconds before halftime,” Dobson recalled. “This is a neat place to play. You feel the tradition the minute you walk into the stadium. The fans truly understand football. The people value hard work. I remember coming off the field after we lost (42-13), and the fans were saying: ‘Great effort. You worked hard. You played hard.’ It didn’t make us feel any better, but you could see they appreciated our effort. They support their team, and they understand the game.”

Dobson enjoys incorporating the best of Nebraska with his own best. “I truly believe Chris Doyle is one of the best, if not the best strength coach in the country,” he said. “I’m not just saying that because I was with him for nine years. He’s helped mold me into what I believe in and how I want to go about things. I just owe a lot to him. He’s really shaped the mindset about what I believe strength and conditioning is.

“One thing Chris and I always talk about is how much strength and conditioning relates to the field of medicine, which has always intrigued me because it’s always evolving. There’s a new study out about the human body almost every month. There’s always new equipment and new strategies. You have to keep a beginners’ mind. You have to go out and see what new research shows. You have to find the so-called experts in the field. You try to pick their brain and be willing to learn from them. If you don’t keep learning, things will pass you by. Guys who really want to get better in this field are striving to learn more every day. You can never get complacent or content with where you are.”

Dobson looks nowhere but to the future. “I have blinders on,” he said. “When we came in, we made sure everything began with a clean slate. It didn’t matter who you were or what you’d done. Our coaching staff decided early on that it’s about getting our guys to believe in what we believe in and then go from there.”

It’s All About the People and the Relationships
It’s not about the program itself or the philosophy you choose. “It’s about the people who run the program,” Dobson said. “Coach Osborne hired Bo, and he’s surrounded himself with good people. It goes right to the relationships you build with your players. These guys who come in here every day don’t really care how much I know. They just want to know how much I care and if I have their best interests at heart.”

To Dobson, that’s the bottom line and the only thing that matters. “We’re here with them every step of the way, holding them to a certain standard,” he said. “I honestly believe everyone wants direction and discipline in their lives no matter who they are. So if we’re going to run a team with 150 guys and try to make them lift and speed train and do conditioning, there has to be accountability, discipline and organization. That’s where it starts, and that’s why they’ve all bought into it and embraced it.”

Since there were so many new drills and new twists to old drills, Dobson had to work harder just like the players. “I had to explain how each drill would benefit them on the field,” he said. “Coming here has made me a lot better coach because I had to answer ‘Why?’ a thousand times a day. I firmly believe that if you’re going to do something, it better have a purpose. Don’t just do it to do it, and don’t do it just because some other team has been successful doing it. You have to have a good reason, and when we push these guys as hard as we do, there has to be a time to relax, too.”

As far as the Huskers have come, they all know they still have a long way to go. “The human body doesn’t just change overnight,” Dobson said. “It takes freshmen a long time to get where they need to be. It’s hard work to get faster and stronger. It takes practice, and it takes time. Everybody wants to win. Everyone here has that competitive drive to give it all we can. Nobody wants to be on the flipside. You can’t confuse effort with results, and you can’t confuse production with potential. It’s a process. It’s one step at a time. You’re always looking at the next day. When you improve daily, you have a chance to get better.”

Improvement drives Dobson almost every waking moment. “I love this stuff,” he said. “You get guys from California to Florida and from Texas to South Dakota, and you bring them all together to help mold them into something special – that’s what coaching is all about,” he said. “There are so many different personalities and attitudes from all walks of life, you can’t help but have fun watching them get better every day. They’re willing to do almost anything you ask them to do to reach their potential.”

Dobson said the coaching staff and the players share another bond. “We have a no-nonsense head coach, and no one wants to let him down,” he said. “I respect him and think he’s one of the best coaches in college football. He gave me a chance here, and I feel a huge sense of loyalty to help him get done what he wants to get done.”

The passionate, sometimes animated Dobson checks the Blackshirt poster again on his wall. Instead of pulling his arms into his chest and then crossing them to emulate the skull-and-bones, he chooses to drive home his point with mere words. “We have to think dominant, and we have to think physical,” he said. “That’s where we all want to be, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there.” 


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