MISSOULA — Dan Ryan tells people the secret to making his several-inch-long black beard look dapper is drinking a lot of black coffee but more so using beard oils and balms.
It takes a certain high level of dedication and consistency to grow and maintain a beard over a year like Ryan. Those same qualities are a requirement to excel in the weight room, where Ryan spends a good amount of his time at work as the newly hired Montana football strength and conditioning coach.
The move brought Ryan back to his alma mater, entrenched in a career he hadn’t considered when he was in Missoula a little over a decade ago. He brings with him years of experience at other Division I schools, as well as a beard he didn’t have the last time he was in town.
“It’s kind of become my trademark,” Ryan said. “I’m known as the guy with the beard.”
Strength coaches around the country are largely recognized for their big beards or handlebar mustaches, tight-fitting "smedium" shirts or how hyped they get on the sideline. As much as Ryan is the man with the beard, he’s also the man behind the muscle.
Even as he’s noticed that people from his first go-around in Missoula don’t immediately recognize his new look, what can’t be missed is his desire to help lead the Griz back to the top. Ryan is the one tasked with physically transforming Montana’s football players into a group capable of winning an FCS national championship.
He does the heavy lifting, both literally and figuratively, in what is widely considered the most significant position in a college football program behind the head coach. Montana coach Bobby Hauck brought back Ryan because he knows the importance of a trusted strength coach for the success of a program.
“It’s everything,” Hauck said. “Your strength coach is with your team more than anybody else. The better job that gets done in the weight room and with the training aspect of it, the more opportunity you have to win games.”
Ryan’s road to UM wasn’t some traditional climb up the strength coach ladder that he had mapped out when picking a college to attend. It’s not like he grew up wanting to be a strength coach; he didn’t even know it was a career path in high school, although his dad taught a weightlifting class at Big Timber in addition to coaching sports.
Ryan got into strength training on accident. He was a student assistant helping on the field with the scout team and special teams for Hauck ,also a Big Timber native, at UM from 2006-09. When Hauck left for UNLV, Ryan wanted to join after he graduated the next semester, but the grad assistant coaching positions were filled up, so he accepted work in the weight room and hasn’t left since.
He’s able to spend more time with players than coaches, getting to know them better than if he was coaching a specific position group. That lends itself to a sort of sports psychology role because he gets to talk with players about anything on their mind. They can open up to him because he’s not a coach who makes decisions about their scholarship status or playing time.
“I think that’s what sold me is I felt like I could I have a bigger impact on their day-to-day life in the weight room,” Ryan said. “Developing the relationships and watching these kids progress, being able to teach them things aside from strength and conditioning and football, I enjoy trying to help them with their school or their career choices or whatever advice I can lend to them and help them become more successful in their chosen field or as fathers or husbands.”
At UNLV, Ryan learned in the weight room from Mike Gerber, who had been UM’s first football-specific strength coach in 2006 under Hauck. For college football’s long history, strength training didn’t begin until Nebraska hired Boyd Epley in 1969 with the caveat that the increased weight training better not make the players slower.
Under Gerber, Ryan began developing his philosophy as a strength coach. The major lesson he learned was that he better be able to do any workout that he asks an athlete to do. It’s an approach that he still carries with him.
“If you can’t physically do the movements that you’re asking your athletes to do, it’s really hard to teach them if you haven’t been in that situation before,” Ryan said. “I was trying all these workouts, testing things out on myself, making sure I actually know what I’m asking my guys to do and if they recover, if I can physically handle it.”
Ryan tried his lessons outside a college weight room after UNLV when he worked as a personal trainer in Boise, Idaho, where he began growing his beard. He returned to football at Idaho State in 2017 to work for Rob Phenicie, who he spent time with at UM and UNLV.
There, Ryan helped turn a two-win team in 2016 into a four-win squad in 2017 and a six-win group in 2018, all the while working with every single team and athlete at ISU, not just the football team. The Bengals fell back to three wins in 2019, but Phenicie was impressed with the decrease in player injuries, part of the preventative work Ryan did in weight training.
“Really the strength program before I got here was questionable at best,” Phenicie said. “Dan brought stability and accountability.”
Hauck, who preaches the importance of the weight room, noticed that and complemented the work Ryan had done with Idaho State when UM hosted the Bengals in the 2019 season, calling them “a fit-looking, good-looking group.” It wouldn’t be that long before Hauck wanted Ryan in his weight room when he had an opening.
At UM, Ryan transitions to preaching the culture Hauck wants his program to be about. Strength coaches keep that message front and center because they’re the only staff member by NCAA rule with year-round access to the players.
“It’s my job to be the voice of our head coach. His message has got to be my message,” Ryan said. “I’m able to spend so much time with these guys, so we have to drive the culture of Grizzly football and what coach Hauck wants his teams to be. I got to get these guys to buy in and get them to work hard and work as unit and live and breathe the Grizzly football culture.”
Growing the Griz
While three of the four ways Ryan judges success are helping create culture, doing preventative work and seeing a player improve their weight room numbers, the most visible measurement comes on the field. Coaches and players are ultimately judged by wins, as is the strength coach.
Ryan knows about the high standards Hauck holds his program to and the desire to win. Games are approached with a specific style of play in mind, which plays into the type of work Ryan will have his players do in the weight room to achieve the on-field goals.
“We want to be known as the most physical team in the country,” Ryan said. “I want teams when they get done to know that that was the strongest, fastest, most disciplined team they’re going to play all year. We want them to feel that. That starts in the weight room.”
Being a fast, physical, tough and hard-nosed team fits in with Ryan’s preferred emphasis on Olympic lifting with technical lifts like the clean, the jerk and the snatch. He preaches the need to “embrace the suck” in the weight room, highlighted by Front Squat Fridays, a grueling workout that Ryan uses to make his players earn their weekend off.
He uses more high weights and low reps to match football, which is short bursts of effort followed by long recovery time between snaps. That changes throughout the year with light weights and high reps to get in shape during the eight-week development period in the summer when there aren’t any football practices.
Ryan hopes the work he does with the players in the weight room translates to the field with helping them become more confident in their abilities.
“I want other teams to be intimidated, and I think the weight room, one of the things it can really teach is confidence,” Ryan said. “These kids come in and they develop strength that they never had, they lift weights that they never have, they accomplish things they’ve never done. I want them to develop confidence that when they step foot on that field they know they’re the strongest, fastest athlete out there and there’s no confidence issues.”
While Ryan calls himself a dinosaur who likes the tried and true workouts, not the fancy Instagram workouts, he’s looking to innovate with technology. He used an app his final year at Idaho State that allows for better workout tracking and exercise breakdowns, and he’s hoping he can implement that at Montana.
He already has a state-of-the-art facility with the Champions Center, which he said is a higher quality than some FBS weight rooms he’s seen. It’s a luxury he didn’t have during his previous stint at Montana.
“It’s the first time in my career that the facility has not been a limiting factor in any way on how I’m programming,” Ryan said. “I have basically every tool I could ask for, all the space I could need.”
It’ll take time for Ryan to make major leaps with the players at UM, a program that prides itself on the weight room. He’s had only a couple months to work with the team, but watch out when they return for the fall season, the players more bulked up and Ryan potentially with an even more impressive beard, both the result of dedication and consistency.
“Well, he’s had two months with them, so that’s a pretty quick turnaround,” Hauck said. “It wasn’t like we were not doing anything before. But Dan’s done a nice job, and I really think come August we’ll have a marked difference in our weight room numbers.”