EUGENE — This is a story about weightlifting and football, strength and flexibility, and a philosophy that was learned at Alabama before being lived in Oregon.
But we need to start with the mustache.
Aaron Feld is known most by his mustache. The facial hair of the Oregon Ducks‘ new strength and conditioning coordinator overseeing football, on the job for all of two months, is a cross between Salvador Dali and Rollie Fingers: flattened at the edges by “a whole laundry list of products,” he said, into tight, curly points.
Many strength coaches have cartoonishly large muscles. But how many sport a mustache that could light up college football Twitter after being spotted in the background of a sideline shot during January’s College Football Playoff national title game? (The answer is, perhaps, just two, due to another sighting earlier last season of a Penn State coach.)
Read one headline the day after the title game: The greatest mustache in college football belongs to an absurdly jacked Georgia strength coach.
Upon the 30-year-old’s hiring at Oregon, one fan Photoshopped an image that made him look like a hipster bartender. He appeared to like the joke because the mustache began as one — that is, until Georgia kept winning.
“At one point this mustache was undefeated,” he said Wednesday morning, before Oregon’s fifth football practice of spring, “and you don’t shave an undefeated mustache.”
For Feld and first-year UO coach Mario Cristobal, you also apparently don’t deviate from an offseason program that helped Alabama over the past decade regain its traditional hold as a national power.
Feld was hired to design and run a strength and conditioning program modeled closely after the “Fourth Quarter” strength and conditioning program run in Tuscaloosa where Feld, as an unpaid intern, and Cristobal, as an offensive line coach, briefly overlapped in 2014.
“The ‘Fourth Quarter’ is not a program,” Feld said, “it’s a philosophy.”
The program is designed to put players into drills, situations and lifts that are supposed to translate more directly to the field than the program run by Feld’s predecessor, Irele Oderinde, that players said added noticeable mass but little flexibility.
“We’ve definitely worked in the weight room on hip mobility and strengthening our flexibility because last year we were really stiff,” sophomore safety Brady Breeze said. “Everybody on the whole team had tight hips and tight ankles.”
To correct that, players this offseason have had their movement tested weekly by UO’s sports science arm, in addition to loads of data from GPS trackers worn during practice. That information, collected and interpreted by a full-time staff, is delivered to Feld and other coaches “in a way that helps me and my staff design workouts that most effectively train our guys,” he said.
But at its most basic, the “Fourth Quarter” is essentially a question.
“Everything we do we say, ‘Does this make us a better football team? Does this make us a better football player?'” he said.
Time will tell. The Ducks will break for academic finals and spring break before returning to practice April 3. The annual spring game is April 21 in Autzen Stadium, and even that will open only a small window into the team’s potential coming still months before its Sept. 1 season opener against Bowling Green.
Players say they do feel a difference after two months in the the “Fourth Quarter” but that is an oft-typical reaction for players getting used to new coaches.
What isn’t up for debate is the difference of Feld’s volume.
NCAA rules limit the participation of strength coaches during practices to a point, but they do not regulate how much or how loudly they can yell. And Feld, who has taken the field this month in sleeveless sweatshirts and boxing gloves, is a yeller. His voice was hoarse Wednesday, most likely because he’d spent the previous 10 minutes greeting players as they stepped onto the practice field with variations of a raspy “OH YEAH.” He does this, along with staffers Matthew Fyle, Shaud Williams and Mark Davis, every day.
“He’s a lot of energy. Different energy. New energy. Southern energy,” said safety Ugo Amadi, who grew up in Nashville. What is “Southern energy”?
“Something different,” Amadi said. “You know what I’m saying. he’s always having it. You can count on it. It’s consistent.”
Feld grew up in a Birmingham suburb and snapped at Mississippi State before breaking into strength and conditioning with the football and women’s basketball programs at UAB. From there, he volunteered at Alabama, where he and Cristobal “passed each other in the hallway a couple times.” He landed at North Alabama, directing the strength and conditioning for 13 teams, before joining Georgia in 2015. He holds certifications through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association.
His arrival came one year after three UO players were hospitalized following offseason workouts, leading to a monthlong, unpaid suspension for Oderinde. Feld said the “Fourth Quarter” is designed to be gradual.
“It’s a slow build leading up to the season and late into the season,” he said. “There are a couple of peak points, but you have to make sure that as you program and implement this stuff with the team that you slow build and make sure that your bodies are prepared for each stage of the training.”
Feld is one of many new faces at Oregon this spring — along with a pair of first-year strength and conditioning assistants and five new position coaches on Cristobal’s staff — but easily the most recognizable. His program, however, could be informed by a familiar face in Jim Radcliffe. Radcliffe joined Oregon’s strength staff in 1985 before becoming its director two years later and oversaw football until the 2017 season, when coach Willie Taggart ordered an overhaul after inheriting a roster he called “weak” both mentally and physically.
Feld and Radcliffe have met twice, and a third meeting has been discussed.
“He’s a legend in this field,” Feld said. “When you get in strength and conditioning there’s a handful of coaches around the country they talk about all the time, and he’s one of them. Coach Cristobal and I have actually talked about what we can do to have some collaboration with him and how we can have him get involved in helping teach us how to be better at what we do.”
By getting better, he means searching for an edge. Talent at the Division I level, he believes, is “the same everywhere.” Where the best teams differentiate themselves, he said, are in being a little taller and heavier, with a slightly longer reach.
As for Feld, what separates him is quite obvious.
In the photo that accompanies his official Oregon biography, Feld is clean-shaven and his hair has not yet been shaven to the skin on the sides. He said it must have been taken in 2016.
“I actually sent them one with a superimposed mustache on it,” he said. “They haven’t put it up yet.”
— Andrew Greif