One of the first things he oversaw was the team’s offseason conditioning program, which at the time consisted of traditional workouts broken into three afternoon sessions that allowed each player to choose what time was best for him. Dave Van Halanger decided then, in 1983, there had to be a better way.
He asked Florida State coach Bobby Bowden if he could consolidate the program into one intense morning session that incorporated the entire team.
“I said, ‘It can be so much more intense.’ He said, ‘Well, buddy, if you think you can do it, go do it then; let’s see it, and if I don’t like it, we’ll go back,’” says Van Halanger, using his best Bowden impersonation. “He loved it, so we started doing it right then.”
What Van Halanger came up with was an early form of the now infamous “mat drills.” After years of tweaking, Van Halanger perfected his system and, for the last 10 years, it has remained unchanged, he said.
Van Halanger brought his “mat drills” to Athens when he was hired by Coach Mark Richt in 2001. The system quickly gained recognition among Georgia fans as Richt, Van Halanger and Georgia’s players pointed to it as a big part of the Bulldogs’ quick turnaround.
The program that Van Halanger came up with is brutally simple and only takes between 70 and 75 minutes. It consists of five stations and gets its name from one of those stations, a wrestling mat where players do agility drills, including diving to the ground. There’s also a running station, which emphasizes sprinting; a shuttle drill station, which focuses on side-to-side movement; a ropes layout, which designed to build foot quickness, and a station with a plastic frame constructed so that players are forced to bend at the knees and move as fast as they can in a football position.
The workout is grueling enough to send players bolting for trash cans to vomit into, but it’s not the physical part of the drills that makes them so special, Van Halanger said. It’s the intangibles. For instance, mat drills start each morning at 5 a.m.
“It sucks getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” former offensive lineman Josh Brock said. “I dreaded it, but we know what we do on the mats is going to help us on the field. It’s a direct link. We can take that stuff directly from the mats to the field.”
Van Halanger said, “At 5:05, they’re full speed, going 100 miles per hour. What other 19-year-old kid is doing that.”
The drills also are a team-building exercise because everyone is dependent on the man next to him. If any player in a drill does it incorrectly, the entire group goes back and does it again. That can cause bickering among teammates, but it’s that bickering that helps develop leadership and helps players work through their differences and toward a common goal in a very strenuous environment, assistant strength coach Keith Gray said.
“The work itself isn’t terribly unique, but the way we do it, the attention to detail and the emphasis on perfection and effort is different from what I’ve seen anywhere else,” Gray said.
Team unity is the ultimate goal of the drills, Van Halanger said.
“You want your team unified,” he said. “You want your leaders to rise up and be leaders. We want our kids to be mentally tough so that no matter what they face, after what they’ve been through in mat drills, they believe they can take on any challenge and not fold under it. You’re trying to get them quicker, in a little better shape, but it’s those other things, the quickness, the mental toughness, the unity that you really want.”
No player gets a break or a concession because of his seniority or talent level, Van Halanger said.
“Everybody is exactly the same,” he said.
The Bulldogs do mat drills in February in order to prepare for spring practice, and last year was the first season of mat drills for redshirt freshmen like Kenneth Harris. The wide receiver from Cherryville, N.C., said he’d heard all the horror stories about mat drills long before he stepped on his first mat.
“Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, but coming out of it, all I can say is, it’s a mind thing,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your mind strong. They really try to break you down a little, but it’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy, you wouldn’t get anything out of it.”
Harris’ attitude confirms Van Halanger’s belief that the Bulldogs are true believers in his program.
“I bet if you said to our players, ‘Let’s not do mat drills,’ they’d say, ‘No, no we’ve got to do mat drills because they give us a chance to be the best,’” Van Halanger said. “They’re sold on them now.”