Congratulations to UCONN and Coach Chris West!

About the Author: Eric Cressey

For those of you who don’t know, as part of the fifth generation of UCONN graduates in my family, I was a really proud Husky on Monday night when they won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.  While Coach Calhoun and Kemba Walker will be getting a lot of media attention (and rightfully so) over the next few days, the man for whom I was the most thrilled wasn’t someone who appeared in the box scores or post-game interviews.  It was Chris West, the the Associate Head of Strength and Conditioning at UCONN, who got his first national championship ring.

From 2003 through 2005 (and even a bit in 2006) – as I was getting started in this field – I was a “sidekick” to Chris.  During that time period, I helped Chris out with basketball and soccer.  At the time, as I recall, they were all top 5 in the country: not a bad collection of athletes to be training!

Chris was an incredible mentor to me and afforded me tremendous opportunities to not only work with high level athletes, but also see all the important work that goes on behind the scenes.  These experiences and conversations with Chris not only made me a better coach, but also showed me just the kind of work ethic it takes to be successful in the strength and conditioning field.  Chris’ passion for helping athletes made me realize that you can (and should) have a blast when you’re coaching.  Likewise, his insatiable desire to constantly be improving as a professional pushed me to be a little better each day – and a lot better over the course of a career.

And, I wasn’t the only one; you can find many of Chris’ other “understudies” doing great things in professional sports .  One of them, Mike Irr, is the head strength and conditioning coach for the Charlotte Bobcats, and Mike and I texted back and forth Monday night not only as excited UCONN supporters, but also because we were both so excited for Chris to get the ring he deserved.  It’s countless hours of hard work rewarded.

As an interesting aside to this, I got down to a game at Gampel Pavilion last year and remarked to my uncle after that contest that the only way UCONN would win was if they had a dominant big man who could rebound and block shots.  It was the case with the 1999 championship team when the combination of Jake Voskuhl and Kevin Freeman gave the Huskies a strong inside presence, and also in 2004 when Emeka Okafor was National Player of the Year and UCONN won its second national title.

Last year’s Huskies just had tall guys, but no dominant big men. However, Alex Oriakhi’s improvement from last year to this year was remarkable and clearly played a huge role in UCONN’s success this year – and a huge part of that improvement absolutely, positively came in the weight room with Chris.  You could see it in the way he used his strength to box out and set himself up in the low post (where he was dominant on Monday night) and the reactive ability he displayed with successive jumps in rebounding and blocking (4 blocked shots on Monday).  Even more interestingly, the only time that UCONN struggled in the game – the last portion of the first half – was when Oriakhi was out with foul trouble.  He was an essential part of not only the win in the finals, but the entire season.

You don’t just find dominant big men; you develop them.  While Oriakhi was already a pretty big dude when he got to college, I just didn’t see the body control or athleticism last year that he showed this year.  While some of that surely was a matter of instincts and on-the-court coaching, a lot of the credit goes to Coach West for a fantastic job with preparing him.

Congratulations, Chris!

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