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Nebraska football practice

Nebraska strength coach Mark Philipp runs players through stretches at Hawks Championship Center on April 1, 2015.

Mark and Paul Philipp were too big to play Pop Warner. And maybe if they weren’t the determined sorts — the sons of Mareko — they would have let it be and met some other hobby.

But football fascinated them. So they found neighborhood games in the parks or streets, usually with older guys stronger than them. It's only an obstacle if you choose to view it that way. Motivation otherwise.

“We’d be in the backyard doing pushups, and whatever we could get our hands on to curl,” says Mark Philipp, a 32-year-old man now in charge of making other men bigger and stronger as the Husker football strength coach.

Their father Mareko bought them a weight set to help their cause. The boys wished to have "a presence" like Dad. He stood 6-foot-6, tough, a gifted rugby player for the first-ever Samoa national team (Manu Samoa), the idol of his sons. “We always wanted to be like him,” Mark says. “His calves wouldn’t fit in his jeans.”

Mark and Paul didn’t know exactly what to do with the weights at first. “But we’d read magazines, we’d watch videos and stuff."

And when they got to high school, they played every sport they possibly could with one condition: That sport had to have a weight room session attached to it.

“I can remember going to track. We weren’t real good at throwing the shot put or discus, but we just enjoyed the fact that they had a weightlifting time right after school,” Mark says. “That was kind of our thing we did to stay busy. When I got to college, I just loved it. I always wanted to be the best at everything I did. I wanted to be the strongest."

Mark was a year older than Paul, and more than six years older than his other two brothers. Perfect. Pupils. Mark and Paul “would literally each pick one of the brothers and see who could train them the best.”

The results were impressive. Each of the Philipp sons received a scholarship to play college football. Mark played at Southern Illinois for Jerry Kill. Paul played at Arizona. One of those younger, brothers, Michael, played offensive tackle for Oregon State from 2009-13 for a coach named Mike Riley. Michael was the first true freshman to start a game on the Beavers' O-line in 12 years.

An in-home visit from Riley to see Michael was the first time Mark met the head coach. The close-knit family loved him immedaitely.

"When we met him again at Oregon State, he remembered everybody’s name, remembered what we were doing," Mark Philipp says.

Soon after, Philipp was doing work for Riley's program — an assistant strength coach for Oregon State before taking a similar role at USC.

Now, the 32-year-old is about five months into his biggest job yet: picked by Riley to lead Husker football strength and conditioning.

He arrives at work around 4:30 or 5 in the morning and doesn't leave until after dinnertime on an average day. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp has said it can be an early morning workout and Philipp still "comes in like it's 3 in the afternoon."

"I don’t consider it work," Philipp says. "I look forward to coming in every morning to train these guys. Nobody ever has to ask me to be the loud guy. For some reason, I just get hyped when I see them moving around, making good plays. When it’s a bad one, I pick them up and tell them it’s on to the next play. I don’t know: I think that’s just me.”

There was admittedly a lot to take in those first couple weeks on the job, including the fact he now works just a few paces from Boyd Epley, the man who once made NU strength and conditioning the envy of all.

Epley returned to Lincoln as the assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning in October, and Philipp prizes having that wisdom near.

“You talk about the mecca, and ground zero, and the godfather of strength and conditioning," Philipp says. "It’s one of those things, I can’t really explain it, but to meet the guy that started everything? Without him I don’t think any of us would be in the positions that we’re in now to help mold these kids right now."

Available also is the knowledge of Mike Arthur, now NU's director of strength and conditioning performance research, who has been involved with the Husker program for about 40 years now.

Pick their brains much?

“We do. Almost all the time we sit down and bounce ideas off of each other," Philipp says. "It’s a staff effort. We all sit down together and kind of bounce ideas off of each other. 'What do we want to do with the sports science lab? How can we be the flagship, on the cutting edge? What works? What doesn’t? What do we need?' (Epley) is super open and super helpful to us. Anytime we need something, he’s always there, and anytime he needs something, we make sure we’re always there for him."

Philipp says he has learned already that he doesn't have to worry about effort with this team, which begins voluntarily lifts on Wednesday and starts its summer program in full on Monday.

That's not to say players aren't adjusting to some tweaks from the previous strength staff led by James Dobson. Players said in the spring there was more sprinting and lifting from the ground.

“I think our philosophies were somewhat similar but obviously some of the teaching techniques were different," Philipp says. "They did a lot of their Olympic (weight lifting) from the hang position. We feel like it's important to be able to pull from the floor, to pick things off the ground correctly, postural-wise. It’s been a lot different for them, for sure. For the most part, I think they’re enjoying it."

It's a different fight than it was in, say, 1985 when the Husker strength program was out in front of everybody by a wide margin. Now, most every major program has put a priority on offseason training resources.

You better have a leader who lives for what he's doing. A man with a presence.

“The competitive challenge is just learning and gaining knowledge, and trying to bring the old school with the new school," Philipp says. "Not so much worrying about what other people are doing, but what are we doing here that’s going to make us better?"

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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