The self-made rise of Iowa's Chris Doyle

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Even as a pre-teen, Chris Doyle was so serious about fitness that he would take a bus into downtown Boston, just so he could visit a shop that sold weight-lifting magazines.

The son of a fireman would return to his Quincy, Mass., home with an armful of literature about his favorite topic.

Though he didn’t realize it then, Doyle’s career path was well under way.

Chris Doyle, Iowa's strength and conditioning coach, looks back at his time with the football team on Monday, July 10, 2017.

“I would order books out of the back,” Doyle, 49, says now. “I was really into the strength and conditioning stuff. As much as you could be back then. This was the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. So there really wasn’t a lot out there.”

More than 3½ decades later, Doyle is one of the most accomplished and renowned strength and conditioning coaches in college football.

He’s also one of the most highly compensated, and it’s by design. You could successfully argue that Doyle is the most influential person in the Iowa program — and that includes Kirk Ferentz, the longest-tenured coach in college football.

Doyle has figuratively and literally been the muscle behind Hawkeye football throughout Ferentz’s 18-plus seasons. And this week, he spent nearly an hour with the Register in a rare sit-down interview that covered lots of ground: From his blue-collar upbringing to his self-made career progression to his legacy to how he dealt with — and responded to — the jarring rhabdomyolysis incident in 2011 that made national headlines and aroused calls for him to be fired. 

PODCAST: Chris Doyle talks Hawkeyes' past, present and future

Early interest

A fun fact: Each of Doyle’s parents grew up in the same one-square-mile neighborhood in south Boston that you might have seen depicted in the 1997 movie “Good Will Hunting.”

Mom worked at the telephone company. Dad rose the ranks from core firefighter to fire chief. Chris held his first job by age 10 — filleting freshly caught fish from Boston Harbor.

“I joke with the (Iowa) guys sometimes. We have the ‘ANF’ on our helmets for America Needs Farmers. I tell ‘em, 'America Needs Fishermen, too,'” Doyle says with a grin. “In our community, there were quite a few families that made a living off the ocean."

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Doyle played several sports at Boston College High School, an all-boys parochial institution, but some of his fondest competitive childhood memories are impromptu weight-lifting battles among friends and family in basements around Boston.

As each year passed, Doyle's eventual career was crystallizing.

He chose to attend Boston University (where he would start for three years on the football team's offensive line), solely because of the school's human-movement major. At Boston U., he would learn under a man named Mike Boyle — a strength-coach pioneer who would later preside over the 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox strength program.

“How does the human body move? How can you move it more efficiently? How can you improve performance?” Doyle says. “These are things that really piqued my interest.”

'We'd better be big and strong' 

Doyle has a distinct look. His mug shot — with a clean-shaven head — looks almost the same now as it did in 1999, when Ferentz offered him Iowa’s football strength-coach position.

“I started losing (my hair) toward the end of college. … The rest of it fell out when I started coaching,” he quips.

Coming to Iowa at age 30 was a big step in an impressive rise in a profession that was just beginning to gain importance in the sport.

In 1991 as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, he worked on the offensive line under the late Joe Moore — Ferentz’s coaching mentor and eventual connection to Doyle. On top of his football work in South Bend, Ind., Doyle would work in the weight room early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

He took that same approach to Holy Cross as a full-time offensive line coach. When he started, the Division I-AA nonscholarship school didn’t have a strength coach. So he became one — minus the title.

“I figured if we’re going to have a good offensive line, we’d better be physical,” Doyle says. “We’d better be big and strong.”

He parlayed four years at Holy Cross into two years as an assistant strength coach at Wisconsin and one (in 1998) as director of strength and conditioning at Utah, which reached that year's NCAA basketball title game.

Then came the call from Iowa.

Chris Doyle, Iowa's strength and conditioning coach, looks back at his time with the football team on Monday, July 10, 2017.

The Doyle legacy

Since 1999, Doyle’s fingerprints are all over a Hawkeye program that has produced 135 wins, 65 NFL Draft picks and five national top-10 finishes.

The “Break the Rock” mantra he’s preached for nearly two decades still prevails in the 2½-year-old, $55 million Iowa Football Performance Center — a reminder that each day of hard work helps chip away at imposing obstacles.

Hundreds of former Hawkeyes remain closely connected to the program, and that's largely because of Doyle's influence. That's partly because he’s able to — by NCAA rule — spend more time with players than any other coach.

As an example, the freshmen that reported in mid-June spend their first seven weeks on campus almost exclusively with strength-and-conditioning coaches before they hit fall camp.

But beyond sculpting bodies, improving pro-agility times and channeling power into some 115 Hawkeyes a year, Doyle and the strength staff are tasked to develop each one as a man.

It’s a daily endeavor and an essential piece of how Doyle sees his role.

“That’s every single interaction,” Doyle says. “Every single time you shake an athlete’s hand and look them in the eye (or) see them in the morning when they walk in the building, you are developing their character. You are developing your relationship with them.

“How they’re going to view the day. How they’re going to take on the day. How they view adversity. How they view opportunity.”

Even after meeting him once, it's easy to recognize Doyle is an intense and inspiring guy — he often posts motivational quotes on his Twitter account that has 25,000 followers — who leaves a lasting impression.

He tells a great story about Bob Sanders, perhaps the most revered Hawkeye of the Ferentz/Doyle era. Doyle remembers Sanders, a lightly recruited safety out of Erie, Pa., in his early Iowa years as a “roughneck” with a lot to learn.

“When I think of Bob (in 1999 and 2000),” Doyle says, “I think of Mike Tyson in the ‘80s.”

Sanders, of course, was physically transformed into a legendary hitter in Iowa’s secondary — and was a catalyst of Iowa’s remarkable turnaround from 1-10 in 1999 to three straight national top-10 seasons from 2002 to 2004.

Sanders would become AFC Defensive Player of the Year with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in 2007, but Doyle’s favorite part of the story is what the former Hawkeye is doing in retirement.

Doyle said Sanders, who now lives in Phoenix, is taking cooking classes, learning a foreign language and home-schools his children — with a detailed schedule posted daily on a white-board in the family’s kitchen.

“An incredible father figure,” Doyle says. “An incredible person in the community. Gets up every day at 5 (a.m.) and trains. Feeds his kids breakfast at 7.

"He's a special human being. He's continually grown and challenged himself."

Changes after rhabdo

For all the success stories Doyle has helped craft in 18-plus years at Iowa, he admits the dark chapter of January 2011 has never gone away.

It was then that 13 Iowa football players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis — the rapid destruction of skeletal muscle that releases proteins into the bloodstream, which can cause kidney failure or death — after a high-intensity workout on Doyle’s watch.

It’s a topic he’s rarely talks about at length. But in our conversation this week, Doyle spoke openly and regretfully about the incident while noting that it triggered drastic changes in how he operates.

“That was a difficult situation,” Doyle says now. “You ask, 'What happened here? What do we know?' We used a protocol that we had used time and time again in our program. Why did we have a bad result? And we had a bad result. Why did that happen? What can we do to ensure that it never happens again?

“What we’re doing (now) with re-fueling our athletes, hydrating our athletes, monitoring their sleep, monitoring heart-rate variability, monitoring their GPS and workloads … it really pushed us toward education, awareness and application of recovery methods.

“We’re very, very different today than we were then. Just like any situation, when you have a difficult result or unintended result, I don’t know if you ever get past it.”

The rhabdo incident lingered until January 2016, when former player William Lowe was paid a $15,000 settlement by the university over his lawsuit that contended the program was negligent in supervision and medical care.

From the outset, it was national news and stirred calls for Doyle to lose his job.

But Ferentz stood by Doyle. And he does today.

Three months after the rhabdo incident, he named Doyle the recipient of an inaugural team award — assistant coach of the year. He recently upped Doyle's salary to $625,000 a year, making him by far the highest-paid strength coach in college football, according to USA TODAY. Doyle also holds the title of executive director of Hawkeye football.

Many former players, such as Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels, say Doyle is "worth every penny." And given the nature of Iowa’s developmental program — which trumpets transforming less-acclaimed recruits like Sanders and Daniels into impact NFL players — a top-notch strength coach is unquestionably imperative.

Without Doyle, Iowa might as well be Purdue.

Without Ferentz, Iowa wouldn't have Doyle.

“I’m thankful for my relationship with Iowa football. And that’s Kirk Ferentz,” Doyle says. “This is a remarkable place to be. Working at Iowa football, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s not about facilities. It’s about people.

“Kirk set the standard for all of us.”

West High's Dillon Doyle celebrates his touchdown in the final minutes of the Trojans' game against Cedar Rapids Prairie in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

Doyle remains energized and has zero plans to slow down. Despite nearly two decades in Iowa City, he won’t turn 50 until next June. His youngest son, Dillon, has committed to play for the Hawkeyes in the Class of 2018.

Given what he means to Hawkeye football, it’s plausible that after Ferentz (who turns 62 on Aug. 1) retires on his own terms — if and when that happens — Doyle will continue to patrol Iowa’s 23,000-square-foot weight room as its strength and conditioning coach.

It’s the job this Boston-raised father of three was made for.

“Can you develop relationships in this role? Absolutely. Can you have an impact? Absolutely. And can you leave a legacy? Yeah,” Doyle says. “To me, that’s why strength and conditioning intrigues me, and why it’s the greatest job in the world.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.