Come together

Strength coach Mike Blasquez has brought a new philosophy to the Bears, and they are stronger for it.

blasquez gameday
Giana Tansman/Staff

When the Cal football team practices, nearly every member of the team dresses in similar fashion. Each player dons a polyester shirt; it might be blue, white or black, perhaps sleeveless, but the same words stretch over every chest: TEAM MATTERS.

So the Bears are uniformed now, even out of games. The result, coaches hoped, was a stronger team bond. It’s a superficial change to be sure, but sometimes even these can result in deeper ones.

“We’ve got different people from all over the country and different backgrounds and different friends,” says strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez. “Football is what makes us the same.”

So how does Blasquez, one man within a 34-person coaching and support staff, fit into the team’s grander scheme?

After head coach Jeff Tedford suffered his first losing campaign last fall, he swapped in new coaches at several positions, including wide receiver and defensive backs. Cal let go of nine-year strength coach John Krasinski, and Blasquez — who had spent the past eight years with the basketball team — switched to football full-time. It was Blasquez who brought in the motto of “Team matters, everything matters,” something Tedford decided should be slapped onto team shirts for a rote reminder.

The Bears have bought in, many saying this is the closest team they’ve been a part of. After last Thursday’s loss to USC, defensive end Trevor Guyton proclaimed: “If we lose the next five games, no one’s giving up.” What Cal (3-3, 0-3 in the Pac-12) would have left to give up on after five more losses is unclear, but the sentiment is appreciated.

That still leaves the physical aspect of training, and in this regard, Blasquez arrived at Cal in 2003 with supreme credentials. He had worked for 11 years at the premier high school team in the country, De La Salle in nearby Concord, which had somehow played 138 consecutive games without dropping a single one.

Spartans head coach Bob Ladouceur once gave him credit for the program’s rise: “He has put us at a level where we could compete with elite teams. Without him, forget it. We just couldn’t have done it.”

The streak ended 13 games after Blasquez left, a 39-20 loss to Washington’s Bellevue High capping the number at 151 — more than double the previous national record.

Mike Ivankovich, who coached at neighboring Ygnacio Valley High for 14 seasons, was similarly impressed. Years ago, he posited that Maurice Jones-Drew, the star De La Salle tailback turned two-time NFL Pro Bowler, could not have become a Division I-caliber athlete without four years of Blasquez’s training.

Former Spartans have said his regimen was harder than any they later saw in the college or professional ranks. Cal alums-turned-pros still go to him for offseason training. Potential pros turn to him to sharpen up before their pro days and combines, as New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan did before becoming the 24th overall pick in the latest NFL Draft.

It is not surprising that so many Bears referenced this past offseason as the hardest they’d ever been through. This was true even of an experienced senior such as wideout Marvin Jones, who upped his vertical leap to 35 inches; as a freshman, Jones had only hit the mid- to high-20s. Others simply wrapped on noticeable muscle mass.

“Coach Blasquez is a miracle worker. He’s the best trainer I ever had,” says Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the former Cal basketball forward who shed 30 pounds and 10 percent body fat under Blasquez’s guidance. In 2010-11, the then-senior averaged 10.9 points per game, the highest mark of his high school and college careers.

Sanders-Frison calls himself one of Blasquez’s “special projects,” sure that the coach had seen few collegiate athletes as out of shape as he had been, 6-foot-7 and nearing 300 pounds — 80 of them fat.

One man does not turn a team around from a 5-7 season; most have top-notch strength training programs, and many have better facilities. But with Blasquez in the fold, the Bears have one piece they won’t ever worry about.

Maybe it’s the balance Blasquez strikes between team and individual goals that has his devotees responding so well — Sanders-Frison is not the only one made to feel like a special project.

The nature of Blasquez’s job puts him in closer contact with the players than most other coaches. Tedford, for instance, must keep track of the bigger picture; he does not know how most individuals are performing until he reviews practice tape. Blasquez and his staff, on the other hand, must monitor the precise needs of every athlete in order to maximize results.

The process begins with screening players for everything from flexibility to quickness to explosive power. Blasquez also reviews film to examine their weaknesses, which he then translates into tangible goals. The players don’t just know how to work out, but — very specifically — why.

“You look at every piece of the puzzle,” he says.

Twenty years ago, Blasquez graduated from Cal State Hayward with a degree in kinesiology. He had informally worked with athletes while in college and, shortly after arriving at De La Salle, realized that sports medicine did not give him the same satisfaction as coaching. Where he found most joy was working with players and — like them — being part of something bigger.

So he dives into the process, squeezing in workouts for himself when he can. Trying to walk the walk, he says.

“There’s no real start to end (in working with players),” he says. “You get them when you get them and you go from there … It never stops.”

Blasquez usually arrives in Strawberry Canyon by 6:30 a.m., a half-hour commute taking him away from his wife and two daughters to a family of over 100 young men. His day may start with lifting sessions and not end for 14 hours, after position meetings, practices, more lifting, more meetings. And so the grind continues, one piece at a time.