May 31, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- A 2004 Chicago Tribune story detailed how Chicago Bulls strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland worked out religiously with players during pre-game drills. While noting his overall personal commitment to fitness, it described Helland as a “serious jock with an intense demeanor.’’
Nine years later, Helland, now 49, talked about that intensity in light of leaving the Bulls to become the strength and conditioning coach of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team. He began by making it clear that he was not “putting on a front for people’’ with his focused approach to his job.
“What I think that I am,’’ he said, “is very passionate about what I do. I can honestly say I love what I do for a living. I get very intense and I’m very engaged with the people around me because that’s how I feel. It’s not a rah-rah thing, it’s a not a cheerleader type of thing.
“To me, it’s my game day.’’
Helland’s mindset extends beyond the court to all of his daily sessions with the players.
“When the guys walk in the room,’’ he said, “(for me) it’s probably the same reaction that Coach (Bo) Ryan has when his guys take the floor. You lock into what you’re doing. You’re living in the moment, you’re making adjustments on the fly, you’re recognizing changing situations.’’
That’s the way it has been for him since joining Chicago as an assistant to Al Vermeil following the 1988 All-Star break. Helland, who took over for Vermeil in 2001, conceded “I’m really blessed in that I still feel like that when the players walk into the weight room’’ after 25 years of service to the Bulls.
Given such a long-term investment to the organization, Helland admitted it was “really emotionally difficult’’ to leave. “I think they were shocked when I initially told them and they were saddened,’’ he said of the players. “But I think they understood when I explained why I’m doing this.’’
Why, then, he was asked.
“This was very much a quality of life decision,’’ Helland said. “I calculated the number of days I was away from my family last year, and it was at 150. It’s kind of a requirement of the job and I understand that. But I looked at it and said, ‘Listen, the human cost of what I do is too high.’’’
Erik and his wife, Michele, have two teenage sons, Gunnar and Trevar. “My greatest responsibility is obviously to my family,’’ Helland emphasized. “And that is very much in line with the way the university runs their business and it kind of runs counter to what the NBA is.’’
At various times over the years, Helland had thought about relocating to a college campus. He just felt that it was something that he had to strongly consider if the right situation presented itself. To this end, the Wisconsin basketball family offered him what he was seeking.
“What’s compelling about it,’’ he said of the move from the pros to the college ranks, “is that it’s a completely different environment, and your relationship with the coaching staff, the athletic department, the university and the players is completely different.
“You’re in a situation where everybody is pulling in the same direction, whereas in the NBA, contractually, everybody is in a different place. Contractually, coaches are in a different place, management is in a different place and, certainly, the players, contractually, are in a different place.’’
Although he suggested there’s an “inherent instability in professional sports that kind of takes away that sense of purpose and that sense of mission’’ -- an element that can separate championship contenders from the pretenders -- it didn’t make it any easier to walk away from the Bulls.
“The difficult thing for me is the relationships that I’m leaving,’’ Helland said. “The Chicago Bulls and the players are my family. I grew up here. I have relationships that stretch back the whole 25 years. The caliber of people that John Paxson and Gar Foreman have brought in here is amazing.’’
Paxson is Chicago’s executive vice president of basketball operations. Foreman is the general manager.
“Derrick Rose is one of the finest young men I know,’’ Helland went on about the players. “It’s sad for me to think I’m leaving Derrick and Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, and guys like that.’’
But the opportunity to begin anew with the Badgers was something that he couldn’t turn down, especially after Helland spent a couple of hours last week visiting with head coach Bo Ryan. Any questions that he may have had about Ryan -- they had, after all, never met before -- were answered.
Helland pointed out that “when you sit down with a person across the table and just have a conversation’’ there are certain things that emerge immediately. “And I felt really good about the kind of person that Coach Ryan is,’’ he said. “He came off to me on par with anyone I’ve ever been around.’’
Helland further noted, “All of us have a body of work and if you look at what Coach Ryan has done, he has always been a builder … he has made everything that he has touched better.’’
That was one of the many things about Wisconsin that appealed to Helland.
“It’s a wonderful fit for me,’’ he said. “I’m just part of this process. My responsibilities are strength and conditioning and the physical development of these players within the context of Coach’s system. You’re either comfortable with it, or not comfortable.’’
Helland is obviously most comfortable in making this career move. Moreover, he has always placed a high value on “personal relationships’’ and the “quality of the experience and the people that I’m going to be surrounded with,’’ which all falls into line with what the Badgers are offering.
“I say this without any reservations,’’ Helland said. “Wisconsin, from top to bottom, is filled to the brim with quality people and situations. It’s a testament to everyone involved, from the university administration and how they manage athletics to Coach (Barry) Alvarez (the UW athletic director) and everybody in the athletic department and, certainly, to Coach Ryan (and his basketball program).’’
Helland’s hiring has already struck a positive chord with at least one Badgers player. “The first word that comes to mind is unbelievable,’’ said senior guard Ben Brust. “I’m sure everyone is just like me and they’re excited and ready to get back to Madison and start working with him.’’
Helland has that same anticipation level.
“I’m so excited,’’ he said, “you can’t even imagine.’’
It’s not every day that a Cheesehead gets to come home.
Helland was born in Tomahawk, Wis., but raised in Edgerton. His mom taught second grade and his dad was a state trooper stationed in Madison. Helland played football in high school and was the No. 2 man on the golf team as a senior. A freshman was No. 1 -- a freshman by the name of Steve Stricker.
Helland began lifting weights at a very young age. “The control you have over your own preparation was something that I kind of fell in love with,’’ he said. “I was really excited by the training aspect because it was something that I could control and it was kind empowering to a younger kid.’’
At UW-Eau Claire, Helland was not only a competitive weightlifter but an inquisitive student. “I kind of liked to write about things that were training-related, things that I really enjoyed,’’ he said. “I had never really thought about the coaching aspect of it.’’
Until, that is, Helland wrote a couple of papers during his sophomore year that so impressed his professors -- who also doubled as coaches, a fact of NCAA Division III life -- that they invited him to train their athletes. So he began working with men’s and women’s swimming, softball and women’s volleyball.
“Those coaches maybe saw a gleam in my eye or a little bit of passion that I had for something,’’ said Helland, who did his student teaching at Elk Grove High School. By setting up his own strength training program, he gained invaluable experience while confirming he was on the right career path.
“I’ve just been the beneficiary of being around good people my whole life,’’ Helland said. “I think that’s part of the Wisconsin culture … and it’s a little bit unique to where we’re from.’’
Helland’s next step was to move to Chicago. He wanted to explore his options in a big market, plus his sister lived there “so I could crash in her basement and not pay rent’’ during the time that he was checking out some potential leads. For awhile, he paid some of his bills by managing a health club.
That led him to Vermeil, the brother of former NFL coach Dick Vermeil and one of the most renowned strength coaches in the business. “The Bulls trained right around the corner from where I was working,’’ he said. “I spoke with Al and he was great. But at the time he didn’t have anything available.’’
This was in the fall of ’87. Helland was being considered for a graduate assistant position at Nebraska. But he was advised that if he truly wanted to be in the NBA, he needed to do whatever he could to make it happen. “I went back to Al and said, ‘Listen, all I’m looking for is an opportunity to learn,’’’ he recalled.
They both agreed they’ve give it about three months to see if it was a mutual fit. During that time, Nebraska called back and wondered if Helland was still interested. That prompted Vermeil, who didn’t want to lose Helland to the Huskers, to work out something with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.
“They basically created an assistant’s position (with the Bulls) that I stepped into and I spent the early part of my career working for Al Vermeil,’’ Helland recalled fondly. “Anybody in the sports world knows that Dick Vermeil is a passionate, emotional guy, a coach’s coach. Al is cut from the same cloth.
“I think some people in my profession are very good at maybe the technical or scientific aspects of it, but not quite so effective at the delivery aspects or the human aspects. But I’ve been really blessed all along the line that I’ve been able to work for exceptional people and exceptional coaches.’’
Vermeil helped shape Helland, who, in part, spelled out his passion for the profession thusly, “Are you always somebody who tries to get better? Are you someone who reads? Are you someone who engages other coaches? Are you talking to other people all the time?’’
His message? You can never stop learning or growing. Such is the framework for Helland’s passion as a strength and conditioning specialist. In addition, he acknowledged, “There’s really not a substitute for having been mentored by people of outstanding personal and professional character.’’
Helland brings that extensive NBA background to Wisconsin. “You think of all the players that have been with the Chicago Bulls and he has worked with them all,’’ said Brust, who was almost speechless. “We’re getting a guy with a lot of experience.’’
In a word, Brust reiterated, “unbelievable.”