Erik Korem the face of Kentucky football's new "high-performance" pursuits

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2013 

  • Schedule

    Practices: Monday through April 12 on scheduled days

    Blue-White Spring Game: Saturday, April 13, 7 p.m.

Tucked inside the sprawling football training facility is the place where meathead and egghead collide.

An office decorated with little more than varying shades of institutional gray has become the central nervous system of Kentucky football.

It's the office of 32-year-old Erik Korem.

He doesn't have the name recognition of UK's offensive coordinator or the football mind of UK's defensive coordinator, but Korem has as much sway with new head coach Mark Stoops as those guys.

Not only does Korem monitor the players' heartbeats, he is developing a program that could become the heart of Stoops' efforts to rebuild Kentucky football.

"He's an extremely talented guy," Stoops said of Korem, whom he met while both were working at Florida State. "I don't even know what title we have listed for him. Bottom line with us is we'll call him the HPC for High Performance Coach."

Other than the head coach, there probably isn't another individual in the Nutter Training Facility with his hands in every crevice of the football program more than Korem.

Players' strength and conditioning, their mental state, their practice plans, their sleep patterns, their food intake. All of it goes through Korem and his support staff.

"He coordinates all aspects of that to make sure we're all on the same page and make sure nothing's fragmented within the program, that everybody's pulling and working in the same direction," Stoops said.

The concept of a high-performance coordinator is simple, and Korem certainly isn't the mastermind. The former walk-on at Texas A&M will be the first to tell you that.

But what he is trying to create at Kentucky is the first of its kind in college football, Korem said.

In many ways, UK's players could be the guinea pigs for a football training revolution.

"There are quite a few NFL teams that are wanting to come down and take a look at what we're doing," Korem said. "So we here at Kentucky are at the very front and people are going to want to follow us. And it's not just me; it's our group. We're going to be on the leading edge."

Healthier, faster, stronger

On an 8½ -by-11 sheet of white paper, the "high-performance" concept looks as unassuming as Korem's cramped office, which he shares with the strength and conditioning coach.

At its core it takes the standard model for sports preparation in America — physical, mental, tactical and technical — and brings them together under one umbrella.

Holding that Big Blue umbrella is Korem.

"It brings everyone together on one page," Korem said. "We're all working together. There is no separation from what happens (in the weight room) to what happens on the field. Some of the same scientific processes we apply to physical development, we're going to apply to the planning of practices."

And though it is a relatively new concept, especially in college football, the idea of a high-performance coach isn't a new one globally.

It was in a land Down Under that the idea of applying the concept to football started to take shape for Korem, when he visited the Sydney Giants, an Australian rules football club, several years ago.

There, a high-performance coach is a part of each team's infrastructure. Korem studied the model and started piecing it together.

"I saw how it worked and I thought it was beautiful," Korem said. "I thought it was a great model so I went back and put it on paper."

He took the idea to Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher, who let him implement parts of his plan with the Seminoles. Korem worked extensively with the defense, which Stoops oversaw. It was there that the new UK coach became enamored with the concept. He tucked the idea away in case he ever had his own program.

The self-proclaimed old school football coach from Ohio is embracing new ways of building a better football player.

"You have to do everything you can to get that competitive edge and to help these players," Stoops said. "These players deserve it. They deserve an opportunity to win. They deserve an opportunity to have the best people around them to help them be successful in all ways."

So how will it change Kentucky football?

In the simplest of ways.

Things like the pace and order of practice — what Korem calls periodized practice plans — are put in place to cut down on mental and physical fatigue. Parts of this plan were used in training camp at FSU, where Korem said they saw a "90 percent reduction in soft tissue injuries."

One of the key components Korem learned in Australia was athlete tracking technology, which is being used extensively on UK football players. A computer dashboard that can analyze performance is being developed for each player.

Korem and his staff are able to measure basic body functions as well as distance, acceleration (measured in three different ways), impact and velocity.

"We just want to know where the ceiling is, when to push, when to back off and when we can raise the ceiling strategically," Korem said.

He tracked Florida State's players in a similar way for a season.

"A lot of it is common sense and a lot of it is not," Korem said. "We'd go, 'OK, now that we know exactly what they're doing, let's train them for that.'"

The Seminoles' results were impressive.

"The injuries were down," Korem said. "They were faster in games than the year before. The same guys got faster, more explosive."

These are the goals at Kentucky, and Korem is the key, Stoops said. He hired him away from Florida State, where he was making a reported $85,000, and offered him a three-year deal that pays him $210,000 a year.

Korem makes more than any of the position coaches on staff, with the exception of Bradley Dale Peveto, who coaches safeties and special teams to the tune of $300,000.

Korem has hired a specialized team that includes numerous consultants and a full-time strength and conditioning coach in Corey Edmond ($150,000) — who has had stops at North Carolina State, Arizona and Oklahoma — plus multiple assistant strength and conditioning coaches. There's a full-time sports science director, Chris Ronald ($50,000), who came to UK from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Stoops believes Korem and his staff could be the first step on the long journey back to bowl games.

"You've heard me talk about the process and what we're doing and the only thing they can control is getting better each and every day and changing their bodies," Stoops said of his players.

"That's where we're at; that's step one; that's phase one. We need to get bigger, faster and stronger and we need to change their bodies."

Building smarter players

High-performance coaching isn't just about improving times in the 40-yard dash or a player's ability to jump higher or hit harder.

It's about building a better athlete from the inside out.

So Korem's plan has included multiple sessions with Gershon Tenenbaum, whom he calls "the Michael Jordan of sports psychology."

Tenenbaum, a professor and author who has served as an adviser for several Olympic teams and oversaw the sports science institute in Tel Aviv, has come to UK's campus a handful of times to work with the players and staff.

"We're letting him teach us as coaches how to coach better and teach players how to be more intelligent football players," Korem said. "Sports psychology is not sitting on the couch and telling me how you feel. It's about decision-making, how to handle stress."

There are discussions about visualizing the game more quickly, picking up opponents' cues more efficiently and anticipating the next play more accurately.

It's been helpful, one defensive lineman said.

"It's real intriguing all of the small things in the game of football, or in any sport, how you can visualize things and set your mind," senior Tristian Johnson said. "When things do get bad or things are good, how you can set your mind to fix things or to keep things going."

And it's not just X's and O's Tenenbaum is discussing.

He also helps them mind their P's and Q's.

Tenenbaum argues that the better UK's players manage their lives off the field, the more likely they are to make good decisions on it.

So he's taught the players "how to use meditation and breathing and relaxation to fall asleep and sleep better." He's teaching them self-discipline, time management and, as he phrased it, "how not to do stupid things."

You might imagine these high-minded theories about football and life could draw eye-rolls, but Tenenbaum hasn't seen any.

"I feel so much appreciation from the players that I do it," he said of his many trips to Lexington from Florida State, where he is a professor. "They are coming to me, they are hugging me, they give me five, all of them one after the other. I love the positive feedback I'm getting from them."

As someone who has studied sports extensively on nearly every continent, Tenenbaum is excited about what's happening at UK.

They are methods employed in countries that have state-sponsored sports programs. And their success is hard to argue, Tenenbaum said.

"(Korem) is the first one I've seen so open-minded to implement a scientific knowledge just like he's open to the physiological and medical experts into the team as well," he said. "It's kind of revolution, a non-traditional thing he's doing in coaching."

Music, food and football

Not every Korem proclamation has been met with applause. For instance, the high-performance coach has discouraged the use of music during training.

He had one of his staff members compose a newsletter to explain how constantly being plugged in can diminish the effectiveness of the sympathetic nervous system.

"Training shouldn't come from an external stimulus," Korem explained. "It should come from within. ... We're going to talk to the guys about not being plugged in all the time. It's bad for relationships."

It hasn't been an easy transition, defensive lineman Johnson said.

"I was a big fan of having music, but he's not a big fan of the music," he said of Korem. "He's a fan of making your own music with your determination during your workout."

Another Korem focus is diet. So for players like Johnson, it's meant having to cut back on candy, one of his favorite things.

The food mandates come from another UK football consultant: dietician Allison Fowler, whom Korem affectionately refers to as "Mama Fowler."

The training staff tested each player when they arrived on campus and "we showed the guys by position, this is where you need to get to and this is what you need to look like," Korem said. "You can't just go train every day, you have to fuel correctly."

So Fowler schools the players on eating right. One player — whom Korem declined to name — doesn't like to eat vegetables. So Fowler convinced him to eat one piece of one veggie every day.

"It's crazy because you're a college student, but also a college football player," Johnson said. "So it's kind of hard with classes and stuff to find the right things to eat. But with the little time we do have to eat, she helps us pick right, to make the best choices."

It's all about baby steps toward a bigger goal of building a competitive Southeastern Conference team.

But will a high-performance coach be the difference between a win and a loss? It's hard to know, but the people tucked away in that small office are hoping so.

"It's the $6 million dollar question: To what degree does the instruction that we teach them show on the field?" Tenenbaum said. "I would say it will make a difference, but we need patience. It's not about hocus-pocus."


Practices: Monday through April 12 on scheduled days

Blue-White Spring Game: Saturday, April 13, 7 p.m.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog:

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