MSU football players strive for perfection with strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie
Deep in the bowels of the Duffy Daugherty Football Building sits a man clad in MSU athletic garb. Above his head is a sign inscribed with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Few know his name. Few understand the impact he’s had on the football program for nearly two decades. Not even himself.
Meet Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Ken Mannie, the man who’s been pulling the strings behind the curtain of the Spartan football program for 18 years by shaping, sculpting and developing finely tuned athletes with an intense and demanding tough-love approach.
Coaches, players, uniforms, policies and facilities all have changed since he arrived in December of 1994; since then, Mannie has remained the one constant within the MSU football program.
Pillar of consistency
When Mannie first took his post in East Lansing late in 1994 as a part of Nick Saban’s staff, there was no Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Academic Center, no high-definition scoreboards covering more square feet than a basketball court and the area where his office and the Spartan weight room currently sit was a parking lot.
Head strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie leads the Spartan players on Dec. 03, 2011 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis before the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin. State News File Photo
His current sanctuary, the modern 16,500-square-foot weight room, wasn’t even built yet, and he operated out of a significantly smaller 5,000-square-foot facility.
Highly respected in the business, Mannie has been able to stay on as the head strength and conditioning coach through four different coaching staffs — a feat he credits to a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
“It just worked out; I’ve been fortunate, and certainly you have to be getting the job done,” Mannie said. “It’s been wonderful to see this university grow, especially in my immediate area here where I am.”
Today, he’s lucky enough to work under one of his closest personal friends and head coach Mark Dantonio. The two grew up less than 100 miles from each other in Ohio, went to graduate school together at Ohio State University and both came to MSU at the same time as members of Saban’s original staff.
Throughout Mannie’s tenure, he’s seen the MSU football program at some of its lowest points and, more recently, some of the most successful seasons in history. One of his proudest accomplishments, though, is the strength and conditioning program that he has overseen and built from the ground up.
“There’s an initiative here to make this certainly one of the finest overall strength and conditioning staffs in the country,” Mannie said. “That’s our goal. That’s what we want to do. That’s who we want to be, and that’s what we’re striving for because we touch so many of the athletes in so many ways on a year-round basis.”
Over the course of his distinguished career at MSU, Mannie has been recognized with numerous awards and has written or contributed to more than 200 articles and books in his industry en route to developing a style that is distinctly his own.
Passion is the first word that comes to mind when junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell thinks of the fiery coach.
“You’re not going to find anybody in any line of work who’s more passionate than coach Mannie is about what he does,” Maxwell said.
Players spend more time with Mannie and his staff in most cases than their own head coach. And because of his intense workouts and high expectations for them both as athletes and people, it leaves a lasting impression with anyone who comes in contact with him.
“It’s so much emotion because as a freshman coming in, I was so intimidated by him; I still am a little bit,” former linebacker Greg Jones said. “And over the years, I’ve learned to truly love him, not just as a coach, but as a man and the person he stands for.”
Reminiscing on hot summer days spent running stadium steps and early mornings in the weight room under Mannie’s direction has become a common bond that Spartan football players, young and old, can share.
He plays an intricate role in shaping athletes’ bodies and preparing them for the rigors of their sport, but he’s just as focused on making sure MSU student-athletes are prepared to become productive and responsible adults in the real world.
“I coach it very intensely; I coach it with purpose, with meaning,” Mannie said. “So yes, we have to get these kids strong … but we also want to mentor them too as being young people so that we’re putting out good quality character young men and women with integrity.”
Mannie’s effect on Spartan football players in a physical sense can be seen and measured easily — just ask junior defensive end William Gholston. The former five-star recruit came to East Lansing as a 230-pound linebacker and has blossomed into a 285-pound, standout defensive end.
“He makes me look for perfection within myself; he made me strive for excellence,” Gholston said. “He made me feel like I can always get better, and there’s no way I’m ever going to be perfect until I can do everything perfectly.”
Gholston said his work ethic as a player is completely different from when he entered the program as a freshman.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Aw man, this guy is about to try to kill us,’” he said. “He really eased us into the process … then he tried to kill us. Now when I go into a workout, I’m like, ‘All right, how am I going to outwork Coach Mannie today?’”
His notorious training sessions are enough to make even the biggest stars and best athletes nervous. Jones said most times, his stomach was in knots prior to a workout with Mannie.
“Oh man, my head’s spinning every time; you don’t know what to expect,” he said.
Earn the jersey
Just as the quote in his office reads, Mannie is completely focused on doing everything in his power to benefit others. From his demeanor, he seems totally unaware of the profound impact he’s had on MSU football and the fact that he’s had a major hand in developing first-round NFL draft picks, future Super Bowl champions and Big Ten champions.
“When they win games, people say, ‘Great job, Coach Dantonio,’ … he’s a part of that,” said Mondray Gee, assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Seattle Seahawks. “He doesn’t want any attention, (and) he doesn’t want any praise, he just wants to do his job for the university, for Coach Dantonio and for these players and go home to his wife and his daughter.”
Gee, who has 12 years of experience in the NFL, comes back to assist Mannie one day a year in the summer, to pay him back for giving him a chance to work under him as a student and later a graduate assistant.
“Even though he’s been here for 18 years, he still feels like he has to come in every day and earn his paycheck and earn his right to be here,” Maxwell said. “He’s just got a love for it. He’s got a love for what he does, (and) he’s got a love for his guys, and that’s kind of the driving force behind everything he does.”
If you ask Mannie — called invaluable and irreplaceable by Maxwell — there’s no finish line, no end game to his perpetual strive to better others in any way possible.
“Here’s my only hope for whenever it is that I decide to move on. I want to be able to say that there’s one brick, just one small brick, in the foundation of this program that has my family’s name on it,” Mannie said. “And if that happens, I can leave here knowing job well done.”
Unbeknownst to him, the metaphorical bricks engraved with his name collected over 18 years likely would dwarf Beaumont Tower.
But until his time comes, he’ll keep on building.