The only person in Dan Ryan’s weight room on a mid-afternoon day during finals week last semester was a student intern, one who has high hopes of breaking into the industry the same way Ryan did in the early 2000s.
But this intern wasn’t helping or spotting any athletes. Instead, he was getting his own workout in during the only block of time that Ryan and his staff of four student interns have to themselves.
“That’s how I started, volunteering and working my way up,” Ryan said as he leaned back in his office chair, looking over his kingdom through an array of spacious windows. “I want to help people. That’s kind of my way of paying it back.”
Ryan’s day typically starts at 5:30 a.m, half an hour before the first lifting group of the day shows up for a 6 a.m. workout.
From then until 2 in the afternoon, Ryan and his staff scramble from platform to platform, spotting and correcting techniques for athletes across the ISU athletic program. After a two hour break, Ryan and his staff begin a second round of spotting and correcting before leaving for home, typically around 6 p.m.
Ryan builds his programs by consolidating with ISU head coaches to make sure his workouts meet the needs of the team.
“He wants to pick the coaches’ brains so our kids are getting what they need, and he is doing his job to the best of his ability,” said ISU head softball coach Candi Letts.
While some coaches, such as head track and field coach Hillary Merkley, have more input into what Ryan’s programs look like, others, such as head football coach Rob Phenicie, have complete trust in the first-year strength coach.
“He told his guys that anything that comes out of my mouth, it’s like coming out of his mouth,” Ryan said about Phenicie. “To have a head coach back you up like that was a big step in building my confidence and letting the guys know that he and I are on the same page.”
Phenicie’s trust in Ryan stems back to when the two worked together in Montana over a decade earlier. The two reunited in Pocatello last summer when Phenicie recommended the job to Ryan after taking over as head coach last spring.
“He said that he didn’t think I was going to respond to it,” Ryan said. “I was as surprised to get that text as he was to get my response. He told me that he didn’t think there would be any way I would be interested in it.”
The ISU football team, fresh off its best season since 2014, is in the early stages of its first full offseason under Phenicie.
Phenicie described previous offseasons as “not emphasized,” but under Ryan, Phenicie said some guys on his team could be in for a “rude awakening.”
“The thing we have in place is Dan Ryan in the strength room,” Phenicie said last November. “They’re going to find out what real football programs do. We’re going to build something this offseason that’s never occurred around here.”
Ryan’s hometown of Big Timber, Montana has an elevation that’s more than double the size of its population. Despite its remote location on I-90 between Billings and Bozeman, the town did manage to produce a Division I coach in Bobby Hauck, who accepted the head coaching job at the University of Montana in 2003.
Instead of pursuing an opportunity to play college football, Ryan enrolled at the University of Montana and volunteered to be a student equipment manager under Hauck.
“My original plan was to be an on-field coach,” Ryan said. “Then things kind of changed, and I ended up in the weight room.”
As equipment manager, Ryan’s responsibilities included shagging balls, running chains and helping set up practice.
Once he graduated, Hauck promoted Ryan to an undergrad assistant, where he now was responsible for helping game plan, breakdown film and play calling during practices for the Griz scout team defense, which went up against Phenicie’s first-team offense.
To keep his career going in the right direction, Ryan was asked to move from the field to the weight room when Hauck accepted a head coaching job at UNLV where he was an assistant strength coach for the Rebels football team and the head strength coach for UNLV’s cross-country, tennis and track and field teams.
But success in the Mountain West was harder to come by and Hauck and his entire staff, which included Phenicie and Ryan, were let go after four seasons and the three parted ways.
While Hauck went to San Diego State and Phenicie went to ISU, Ryan moved to Boise, where his wife is from, and began training at a local gym.
“We trained a lot of pro athletes there,” he said. “We trained 10 to 12-year-olds and everybody in between.”
Years later, when Ryan arrived at Pocatello, work needed to be done.
Barbells were bent and didn’t rotate correctly, and only six of the 15 platforms could be used for Ryan’s Olympic style lifts.
“I could use them for squat or bench presses and stuff like that, but it made the workouts less efficient,” Ryan said.
So, Ryan fundraised and with the help of boosters, ISU now has enough bumper plates to utilize all 15 platforms, and with the help of his student interns, Ryan and his staff spent hours ripping out and replacing new equipment with the old.
But the renovations didn’t stop there.
The first of Ryan’s upgrades was a four-speaker sound system donated to ISU by JAG Enterprise.
The new sound system allows for louder and more energetic music, which can help increase motivation for workouts that begin before the sun rises.
Last week they gained a new Powerade machine, which was donated by a local Coca-Cola distributor and which athletes have recently began to utilize. The quiet, behind-the-scenes renovations are one of many invisible stamps Ryan has placed on the ISU athletic program.
“I want to give everybody the opportunity to have the weight room and have one-on-one coaching with me,” he said. “I try to keep it to where I don’t have five different teams in here at the same time because then I can’t get everybody the help I need to. I try to keep smaller group so I can be more hands-on, helping them, developing them, correcting techniques, making sure people don’t get hurt. It ends up being a longer day for me, but it is more beneficial to our athletes.”