Lewis Caralla found motivation in a state of transition.
He had just been dismissed as director of strength and conditioning at Louisiana in December of 2017 after the school fired Rajun Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth.
Caralla didn’t know what was going to happen next. The rejection, and the thought of seven weeks without the structure of football and without a job, made Caralla angry.
Anger, though, wasn’t going to pay the bills or keep a roof over the head of his wife and two young children. He gave that anger a life span of two, maybe three days.
His unemployment lasted less than seven weeks. When he joined the University at Buffalo football program Jan. 18 as its head strength and conditioning coach, his rage morphed into enthusiasm, optimism and gratitude.
Caralla saw a great opportunity to reshape the Bulls into a winner, physically and psychologically.
“They were 6-6, they were left out of a bowl game,” Caralla said. “They felt very disrespected. I felt disrespected. It was like a perfect storm, all meeting at once. I could bring something that they’d never seen before, energy-wise in the weight room, and I think that was very helpful for this team, to have that kind of change.”
Strength and conditioning coaches don’t get a lot of attention for their work, but Caralla has shaped the Bulls’ drive to be successful, not just through brute force, but by understanding and changing their minds. Training isn’t simply an obligation to the Bulls. Caralla has made it into a privilege. He's shaped the Bulls with a combination of tough love, high energy and embracing the philosophy that "we get to lift tomorrow," which has also given him a following on Twitter, where some of his videos have received thousands of views.
“When we first heard about Coach Lew, we’d seen a video of him walking over guys with lifting plates, and we got kind of scared,” said UB wide receiver Anthony Johnson, whose team faces Troy at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile, Ala. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, what’s he going to do to us?’ But when he got here, it was amazing. His energy is crazy. He got to know guys personally. He made guys work, he made it competitive and fun, and everybody changed.”
'A Division III guy ... who is kicking your butt'
Caralla was a running back at Defiance College, a Division III school in northwestern Ohio, where he earned Heartland College Athletic Conference honors, and earned his degree in exercise science in 2008.
The Tampa, Fla., native wanted to be a physical education teacher, but his girlfriend, Lori, who is now his wife, encouraged him to pursue college coaching.
Ron McKeefery is the vice president of performance and education of PLAE, an athletic performance and training facility in Knoxville, Tenn. He saw the energy and enthusiasm in Caralla when he was a strength and conditioning intern at the University of South Florida in the summer of 2007.
Caralla trained with USF each day, running sprints and lifting after working with college athletes for at least 12 hours.
“I would use him as an example to the USF players, and say, ‘Here’s a Division III guy who is out front and kicking your butt,” McKeefery said.
“He’s one of those guys that worked his tail off every single day. He was the most respectful, committed guy you can find. He would relay all of that to his own pursuits, whether it was getting his degree or playing football. And he has been a guy I’ve always had on my short list. I’ve always tried to hire him. But he has great opportunities.”
Strength coaches, McKeefery explained, are instrumental in the culture of a football program. They are the people on the staff a player has the most contact with, whether they are lifting, stretching, doing cardiovascular work or just in the football facility. They spend more time with players than an assistant coach or a coordinator, whose time is limited with players due to NCAA guidelines.
“Any time you’ve got a guy that’s so invested in your players for 12 months, his mission is the same mission as the head coach,” McKeefery said. “You don’t build the kind of unity and passion and wherewithal to be able to last a 12-game season in training camp alone. You build that for 12 months leading up to that. The role of (Caralla) being by himself with a small staff and investing in those guys, you don’t do that without making an impact.”
Several people reached out to UB coach Lance Leipold on Caralla’s behalf, but a recommendation from former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney set Caralla apart from other candidates.
“When Dan said, ‘Lance, this guy can make a difference in your program,’ it wasn’t the token, ‘Oh, he’s really good,’ ” Leipold said. “It was, ‘This guy will make a difference.’ That was the deal-maker for me.”
Satisfied, hungry or starving?
Caralla had to make UB's players passionate about training, and learn how to translate that enthusiasm to the football field.
Happy 4th of July! Go Bulls! pic.twitter.com/4yV1elWUKR
— UB Football Strength (@UBFballStrength) July 4, 2018
Yet before Caralla manipulated his players’ minds and bodies, he had to crunch some numbers to find out how he could help the Bulls complete games and get excited about playing to the final buzzer. He researched statistics: How many fourth-quarter points the Bulls scored (64), how many they gave up (59), and the scoring margin in each of their six losses in 2017 (29 points total).
Then, Caralla took three months to meet with every player on UB’s roster to learn about each individual.
What’s the biggest obstacle you have overcome?
What is the worst coach you have ever had, and why?
What is driving you?
What is your home situation?
Who is your favorite athlete?
Caralla got to know each player to understand what motivated each of them.
“He wanted to know my background, and all the things I went through,” Johnson said. “Things, football-wise, and he works with everybody on that, but I think I was the first guy who coach I (Rob Ianello) introduced him to, and he told me everything I needed to work on. And he got to know me.”
Then, Caralla wanted his players to be hungry, starving for success. Caralla divvied up the players into three categories: satisifed, hungry and starving. Hungry was the baseline. And none of the players wanted to be satisfied or hungry. They worked to be categorized as “starving” – starving to be better.
“The more they started learning what it takes for it to really work here, effort-wise, they started coming in every Saturday when they didn’t have to,” said Caralla, who earned his master’s degree in kinesiology from Mississippi State in 2010. “They started coming in after every lift, when they didn’t have to. They started running more routes on their own. They started watching more film. That’s what I wanted here.
“This is the first stop I’ve had where it’s been a 100 percent buy-in. I’ve never seen it like this, ever. There’s no resistance. Kids are asking questions, ‘How can I get better?’ Everything that you want as a coach, you have it in place. That’s a credit to what UB’s coaches already did here, before I got here.”
'We get to lift tomorrow!'
On the sidelines of each UB football game, Caralla runs up and down the field, celebrating touchdowns and tackles.
He brings the same energy to the practice field. At the end of each practice, he gets in front of the Bulls’ huddle and whips them into a frenzy, jumping and screaming, urging each player to get excited. After each win, Caralla leads the Bulls in a raucous celebration, then ends it by getting them excited about a daily lifting session.
“We get to lift tomorrow!” Caralla shouts at the top of his lungs.
— UB Football (@UBFootball) November 23, 2018
“The energy he brings every single day, everybody can see it on TV, when guys make big plays and how high he jumps on the sideline, it isn’t for show,” Johnson said. “He does that every day, everywhere.”
Caralla’s impact is evident for the Bulls statistically; this year’s team is the first to win 10 games in program history.
UB went from the No. 8 defense in the MAC (399.8 yards per game) in 2017 to No. 2 in 2018 (349.4 yards per game). UB averaged 141.1 yards rushing in 12 games last year; the Bulls average 195.8 yards rushing this season.
Caralla’s influence on UB’s attitude is just as vital, and Leipold remembers the excitement Caralla had for his first workout with the Bulls in January, a 15-degree morning during which Caralla led players onto the football field to begin conditioning.
“He shows the players that what they do, he’s willing to do and why and what it’s all about,” Leipold said. “He doesn’t correlate it just to football, but how you approach life. That makes him excellent in his field, and our players see it, they appreciate it, and what he’s instilled has really been neat."
Caralla’s approach has amplified during his 11-year career. It has left an impression on the players he’s worked with.
“What I associate with Lewis is his relentless positivity, and always being positive in the face of whatever,” said Joey Burzynski, who worked with Caralla from 2012-14 as a walk-on offensive lineman at Michigan. “If you wake up at 5 a.m. and work out, go out and do it with a good attitude. I didn’t have that when I came to Michigan and before I met Lewis Caralla. That’s something I take to work every day. That’s helped me in my everyday life.”
He hasn’t touched a football since his final game at Michigan in 2014, but Burzynski estimates he spent as much time with Caralla and the Wolverines strength coaches as he did with his position coach. During Burzynski’s senior year, Caralla worked with him after practice to improve his boxing technique – something Caralla didn’t have to do, but took the time to do, to help Burzynski.
Four years later, Caralla uses the same approach of passion, positivity and unity to help the Bulls prepare for their first bowl game since 2013. Those days begin before the sun rises, when the Bulls prepare to lift weights before much of the UB campus is stirring.
“There’s a feeling you get when it’s 5:30 in the morning and you’re blowing a whistle, and these kids are coming in, and you’re screaming,” Caralla said. "We couldn’t tell you what time it was. We’re all in this together, and we’re all going for the same goal.
“The total camaraderie feeling of a big group, training for the same goal, it’s why I love it.”