Joe Salem was the new Gophers football coach and was visiting Wisconsin’s high school football all-star game in midsummer 1979. This was surrounded by a coaches convention that Salem used to make contacts.
Jerry Fishbain was a legend for his success at Racine Horlick, and Bob Rohde was heard discussing a growing focus on strength training. Salem was impressed and hired both: Fishbain with the title of recruiting coordinator, and Rohde as the Gophers’ first strength coach.
Fishbain stayed for a few months and then joined Dave McClain with the same job at Wisconsin. Rohde will retire Friday a couple of months short of 41 years with the Gophers.
“I don’t know if it was determined whether I was the first or second strength coach in the Big Ten,” Rohde said. “Boyd Epley at Nebraska was the guru nationally. He had started a decade earlier for [Bob] Devaney and proved you could make players stronger and faster with weight-training programs.”
Rohde was a standout fullback at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and became a member of its Hall of Fame in 2009. He was an undrafted signee with the Denver Broncos in 1969.
“What I learned with the Broncos were the benefits of a full-scale training program: weights, flexibility, speed,” Rohde said.
Rohde took that message to a teaching and coaching job at Jacobs Junior High in Stevens Point. “A student could either spend an hour in study hall or weightlifting with us,” he said. “We had 400 kids lifting — 300 boys, 100 girls — at the school.”
The Gophers hired Rohde for football, although all athletes could use the weightlifting room at the Bierman Building. This week, Rohde mentioned Marion Barber Jr. — the father of three future Gophers — as an early revelation.
“He hadn’t done much Olympic [style] lifting entering his junior season,” Rohde said. “He weighed 207 pounds and didn’t run that fast. He was relentless in working out. A year later, Marion was 235 and two-tenths faster in the 40 [yards].
“Marion, Chester Cooper, Jim Fahnhorst, Karl Mecklenburg, others … that first group was tremendous in the weight room.”
Another athlete mentioned by Rohde was quarterback Mike Hohensee, a junior college transfer in 1981. It was a time when many coaches were paranoid about quarterbacks being involved in serious weight training.
“Muscle bound … ‘You’ll get muscle bound,’ that’s what we heard,” Hohensee said Wednesday. “I was 41 percent Japanese and 19 percent Philippine, and so small as a kid that my dad thought about training me to be a jockey. Seriously.
“Once I started growing, my dad got me into weightlifting and flexibility training. When I got to Minnesota in 1981, I was already indoctrinated, but Coach Rohde upped the stakes for me. By the time I got to pro ball, my bench was 405 [pounds], my squat was 545, my 40-yard time was 4.62. Not bad for a quarterback.”
Asked to identify great victories, Rohde named Hohensee leading the Gophers to a 35-31 upset over Ohio State in November 1981 as the first — although that came only two weeks after a 12-10 upset win at Iowa.
Another notable weight-training success was Chip Lohmiller, a placekicker who walked on and became a second-round NFL draft choice with Washington in 1988.
“I came in as a skinny kid from Woodbury trying mightily to kick a 45-yard field goal,” Lohmiller said Wednesday. “As a senior, I could stand at the 50-yard line and make 60-yarders one after the other.
“Bob pushed the idea that a kicker should be a complete athlete, a real football player, and I became one in the weight room.”
Lohmiller kicked a last-play field goal to upset No. 2 Michigan 20-17 in Ann Arbor in November 1986, then made a school-record 62-yarder in the Metrodome the next week in a 30-27 loss to Iowa.
Rohde was working with Clem Haskins’ basketball team in the era when the Gophers went to the 1997 Final Four.
“John Thomas came in as a freshman and was thick, but he hadn’t been in the weight room,” Rohde said. “He went from benching 185 to being a beast by his junior season.
“There were a couple of centers with big reputations in the Big Ten … they wanted no part of Big John.”
Thomas remembered getting up at 5 a.m., being in the weight room before 6, and Rohde always being there.
“He brought a great attitude, with a lot of encouragement,” Thomas said. “Unless he had a bad cup of coffee that morning. Then he might be a little ornery. He did his crunches every morning … ‘You have to keep those abs in shape, John,’ he’d say.”
Rohde laughed slightly and said: “That team. Big John, Courtney James, Eric Harris — Bobby Jackson, so great … they trained like a football team.”
Four decades. Several different jobs. Lots of athletes to admire. Enough wins to remember, coaches and co-workers to cherish. It all winds down for Rohde on Friday, as college sports face a challenge like none other in memory: how to play on safely amid the coronavirus.
“Let’s hope somebody gets a vaccine,” Rohde said. “I’m worried about a lot of things, of course, and very worried about college sports coming back as we’ve known them.
“The athletes on all of our teams … they deserve their chance.”
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