It has been over two weeks since Virginia Tech announced the hiring of Ben Hilgart as their new Associate Athletics Director for Strength and Conditioning. Here’s a closer look at Hilgart.
A graduate (and former football player) of Western Illinois, Ben Hilgart earned his bachelor’s degree in Physical Education. He has been in the S&C field since 2001, when he served as Assistant Defensive Line/Football Strength and Conditioning coach at his alma mater. From there, he moved on to UTEP, where he served as a GA in their S&C program for two years, while earning his Masters in Kinesiology.
After getting his Masters in 2003, Hilgart did stints at Ohio State, Arizona State, and New Mexico.
- 2003 Ohio State (Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach)
- 2004 Ohio State (Associate Strength and Conditioning Coach)
- 2005-07 Arizona State (Senior Assistant Performance Coach)
- 2008-11 Arizona State (Head Sports Performance Coach)
- 2012 New Mexico (Football Strength and Conditioning Coordinator)
- 2013-15 New Mexico (Director of Athletic Performance)
It’s a pretty impressive resume, but what makes Ben Hilgart tick? How does he run a strength and conditioning program?
Virginia Tech isn’t currently granting interviews with Hilgart, but we reached out to two people who know him well from his New Mexico days: Kyle Kudrna, who worked under Hilgart for the last four years at UNM, the first three as a GA and the most recent as Assistant Director of Athletic Performance; and Kasey Carrier, a former New Mexico running back who was a player under Hilgart in 2012 and 2013, and a GA under Hilgart in the S&C program in 2014 and 2015.
Kudrna raves about Hilgart, both as a boss and as a strength and conditioning coach.
“I’m not just saying this, but he’s the best boss I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a job since I was 12 or 13 years old,” Kudrna said in a recent phone interview. “I’m not just talking strength and conditioning. He knows how to manage people in a way better than any other boss I’ve been around. He’s the best. And seeing the way he is with the athletes is something that I haven’t seen from any other coach. He has a way of dealing with the guys that they respect him, they understand what he expects, more than any coach I’ve been around.”
The key to the way Hilgart deals with players, according to Kudrna, is a single word: consistency.
“The way he runs things, there’s a certain level of expectation. If he’s got a walk-on that’s screwing up with something, that walk-on will know about it. If he’s got an All-American screwing up on that same thing, he’s going to handle it the same way. I think the guys respect that and like that. I’ve heard guys say, ‘I don’t get treated the same as everyone else when I’m out on the football field, but I know that’s not the case when I’m in the weight room.’ I think that’s his best quality as a coach.”
In a separate interview, Kasey Carrier, who knows Hilgart as both a player and employee, echoes Kudrna.
Carrier says of Hilgart, “Not one person is going to be treated different just because they’re a starter. When you come into the weight room, there’s rules to follow, and that’s the way he operates.”
In Carrier’s first three years at UNM (2009-2011), he played under former head coach Mike Locksley. Locksley’s time at UNM was an unmitigated disaster, as the Lobos went 2-26 under him. Locksley’s teams were 1-11 each of his first two seasons, and he was dismissed after an 0-4 start in 2011.
After the 2011 season, Bob Davie was hired as UNM’s coach to replace Locksley, and Ben Hilgart was hired in January of 2012. According to Carrier, when Hilgart arrived, things changed immediately in the weight room.
“It was a major culture shock,” Carrier recalls. “Not knocking our old strength coach, but Hilgart’s approach was very different. He was one that gave respect, and also wanted it in return. With him, there is an expectation, and if you didn’t meet that expectation, he would let you know. I think that’s one thing that stood out to all the guys, and they respected it.”
After playing in 2009 and 2010, Carrier redshirted in 2011, due to a preseason knee injury. When he returned to the field, he blossomed in 2012, rushing for 1,469 yards on 255 carries … a high number of carries, especially for a guy who was only 5-9, 185 pounds.
Carrier credits Hilgart’s approach to strength and conditioning for helping him put together such a productive, durable campaign. “With Coach Hilgart, I PR’d in every lift and every run since he got there. The movements we did were great for football players, and the way we did things, I think was the smartest and best way to do it to get an athlete to meet their full potential.”
Kyle Kudrna backs up what Carrier remembers. “I could show you all the numbers and show you all the data, but every single guy on this team has gotten stronger and faster every single year they’ve been in our program.”
Kudrna notes that while there’s a lot of tried and true practices in the field of strength and conditioning, a coach needs to experiment with new ways of doing things.
“There’s a lot of principles from the 40s and 50s that people are still using today, because they work. There’s a lot of a lot of principles that have been thrown out because people realize how silly they are.”
But you also have to innovate carefully. “He has taught me to be open to everything. There are always exercise trends that are out, whether they’re equipment-based or philosophy-based. That’s something that he and I spend a lot of time on, is bouncing ideas around, saying, ‘What do you think of this or that?’ And we’ll try it ourselves. We’ll work out, we’ll do whatever that trend is, or that piece of equipment is, whatever, we’ll do that ourselves.”
Once they’d checked out new things themselves, they would apply them to the athletes’ regimens, if they felt it was something productive. “We have to keep the athletes on their toes. And he doesn’t take every trend that’s out there. It’s all very thought out, and planned out. That’s a testament to his high level of organization and planning.”
Checking out new trends and learning new things is an ongoing effort. Hilgart was hired at Arizona State by Joe “House” Kenn, who has since moved on to be the strength and conditioning coach of the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers.
Kenn and Hilgart still communicate often. According to Kudrna, Hilgart regularly sets up time for staff development, to meet and talk about new things, and conversations with “House” Kenn often come up. “He’ll talk about House and a lot of stuff that he has done and learned from him. He’ll say, ‘Hey guys, I talked to House for a couple hours last night, and here’s something we’re going to do.’ And there are some things we do that we’ve adapted from stuff that House does.”
Beyond that — using the tried and true, while applying new methods — Hilgart’s attention to detail sets him apart.
“He does a deal where he tracks everything,” Kudrna says. “It’s to the point where we know more about these athletes than they know about themselves. He has a very, very unique way of going about that.”
Like all good strength and conditioning programs, Hilgart’s system, among other things, attempts to aid in injury prevention. Virginia Tech fans have grown alarmed in recent seasons, as their football team has been set back by a rash of injuries that have cost playing time for valuable players.
“I’ve visited with some other schools,” Kudrna says, “and we [at UNM] are very cautious with what we’re doing in here to prevent injuries. And injury prevention isn’t all strength and conditioning, of course. There isn’t anything we can do to prevent all injuries. But, knock on wood, this last year here at New Mexico has been the most injury-free we’ve ever been.”
That all sounds well and good, and time will tell if Ben Hilgart’s methods bring gains for the Virginia Tech program, improve productivity on the field, and help cut down on injuries. There’s a lot of commonality among S&C programs around the country, and in this day and age of so much focus on strength and conditioning, it’s hard to separate yourself from the rest. “We always visit with strength coaches in other places to see what they’re doing and bounce ideas off each other,” Kudrna says. “It’s not that big a community — you know, a few hundred schools with a couple strength coaches each.”
Culture plays a critical role in the success of a strength and conditioning program.
“One thing I can say is he creates a culture in the weight room that guys want to be in here,” Kudrna says. “I’m even talking about guys who have never lifted in their lives and don’t want to have anything to do with it, they start loving the weight room, and start doing extra. He creates a culture where if you don’t come in and do extra, you’re not normal. He doesn’t do that in a way that forces it, it just happens. And that’s unique.”
Hilgart is able to connect with players on a personal level, without making the mistake of getting so close that he can’t be effective.
“I’ve seen guys that are so close to the players that they’re going out to bars with them, going out to dinner, and that is wrong. You can’t do that,” Kudrna says. “Coach Hilgart has such good balance with those issues. He does have guys that will come back to see him. I see guys all the time come in here and ask him, ‘Coach Hilgart, I know you’ll be real with me on this, and I trust you, what do you think about this? Or what do you think about that?’ And he doesn’t lie to them, and it’s always in a positive way that he talks to them.”
Carrier has the perspective on that of both a player and coach. As a GA working under Hilgart, he says, “I definitely think that’s also something that he really believes in. Every day he likes to meet with his staff, and he asks us, ‘Who did you talk to today on a serious note … about their family? How are they doing outside of football? Are they having any struggles in life?’ He is big on that. ‘Tell me something that no other coach in here knows that he told you today.’ It’s also about being able to gain the trust of players by talking to them about things outside of strength and conditioning.”
As a former player, Carrier says, “When I played for Coach Hilgart, I enjoyed my time with the strength staff the most. It’s not just focusing on football, football, football. You’re away from your position coaches, you get time to lift and focus on just getting bigger, stronger, and faster … I feel like players really enjoyed being with our staff when he was here.”
Setting expectations, getting respect from the players, and defining the culture are critical elements, and Ben Hilgart is in control of all three, according to Kasey Carrier and Kyle Kudrna, who know him well. Hilgart is bringing his methods to Virginia Tech, and the Hokies are counting on him to be a vital part of the Justin Fuente machine.