SU Athletics

Will Hicks is still influencing Syracuse athletes even after his role has changed

Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

Will Hicks is still bringing joy and working hand in hand with Syracuse athletes. Just instead of football players, it's the softball and tennis players.

Will Hicks stood on the 10-yard line of the Manley Fieldhouse turf in his blue Syracuse jumpsuit with five SU tennis players in a line beside him. The athletes waited for Hicks to launch a tennis ball down the field. They’d run down as soon as the ball left Hicks’ hand, needing to catch it before it bounced twice on the turf.

“Like a dog in the park,” Hicks boomed as Gabriela Knutson chased one down.

“You get a treat if you bring this one back,” the assistant athletics director for athletic performance yelled as Anna Shkudun caught it on the fly.

The players breathed heavy as they got back in line to continue the drill. But their coach, who already downed two cups of coffee and two bottles of Mountain Dew upon his arrival five hours earlier, showed no signs of fatigue.

That’s how “the old professor,” as Hicks called himself, has been influencing his athletes for 34 years. He worked with SU football players from 2000 to 2016, when football coach Dino Babers fired former coach Scott Shafer’s staff, including Hicks, which is common as new coaches implement their system. Babers runs a high-pace, no-huddle offense that requires a specific strength and conditioning program.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always brought my strength and conditioning coach with me.” Babers said. “What we do is unique. It hasn’t been seen before. The way they condition the way they handle the strength department is very different than what other people do. It’s important to keep that continuity as we move forward.”

Now, Hicks works with Olympic sports but a change in job description hasn’t prevented him from bringing the same fire.

“Truthfully,” Hicks said, “I’m having a blast.”

Despite losing the job he held for 16 years, Hicks had no interest in leaving Syracuse. He’d become a part of the community and couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to the people who became his closest friends. And he understood what kind of influence the coaches had on their players.

He learned that in high school. Hicks’ dad died when he was young, and Hicks turned to his football coach, who pushed him to spend extra time working out. It led to an offer from North Carolina State, something Hicks doesn’t think would have been possible without his coach’s motivation.

He arrived on campus as one of the strongest players on the team, but knee injuries derailed his Division I athletic career. So, he left school. At 21, Hicks spent his days powerlifting and his nights as a bouncer.

Then, his former coach at N.C. State, John Stucky called. Stucky urged his former player to return to finish his degree while helping coach in the weight room. Stucky, who was named one of the 10 Master of Strength and Conditioning Coaches by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, counseled Hicks to specialize: Push something heavy, pull something heavy, press something heavy, and condition.

That phone call was in 1983. Thirty-four years later, Hicks still attributes the start of his coaching career to Stucky.

“Coaches change people’s lives,” Hicks said. “Not just how they are physically and how they play and all that, but coaches can change lives. Somebody was willing to do it for me. I was always one of those that thought you should pay it back.”

When Hicks began as graduate assistant strength coach, the National Strength and Conditioning Association didn’t even exist. The man that predates the association has earned emeritus status from the NSCA, meaning he no longer must renew his certifications.

Yet the thing players remember most about Hicks can’t be credentialed. It’s the trust he earns with players.

“That was my guy,” former SU wide receiver Ashton Broyld said. “… You could go in and talk to coach Hicks and talk about anything, and I mean anything, and I promise he ain’t telling anyone else about your business.”

In 2010, following his redshirt senior season, former Syracuse linebacker Derrell Smith traveled to Boca Raton, Florida, to train for the NFL combine. A nagging knee injury prevented the eventual Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Houston Texan from attending the combine, but when Smith returned to Syracuse to train for his Pro Day, Hicks worked on Smith’s mobility. Within two days, the knee problems were fixed.

“That’s not even his job,” said Smith. “He did that just out of the kindness of his heart because he wanted to see us succeed. That was the biggest part of the trust between us. He really wanting to see us succeed and doing what was necessary to do so.”

 

When Smith visited SU a few months ago, he visited Hicks first. Former N.C. State standout and St. Louis Ram Tory Holt still texts Hicks every Father’s Day, often before Hicks’ own children.

Last summer, Hicks got knee replacement surgery on a Tuesday. After he was released from the hospital that Saturday, doctors told him he should be sidelined for the next six to seven weeks. With the help of a walker, the 55-year-old returned to work with the softball team the following Monday.

“I had to check on my girls and make sure they were OK,” said Hicks. “They were surprised I was out that long.”

That summer, the same country music playlist blasted over the speakers each morning. Pitcher Sydney O’Hara and second baseman Alicia Hansen could recite the entire country music mix by the end of the summer, Toby Keith stuck in their heads. The pair shuffled back and forth while rolling the softball to practice scooping groundballs. They practiced their gasser test weekly, which helped O’Hara drop two seconds off her usual time and Hansen pass the test with ease after previously struggling. Hicks cheered the duo on during the test.

In the fall, Hicks had hosted the “Softball Ultimate Frisbee Championship of the Free World,” as he called it. Instead of their normal running for the day, the entire softball team participated in the Frisbee extravaganza for 45 minutes. For a day in the summer, tennis players had focused on trapping a balloon between their legs and balancing a tennis ball on a spoon.

Since the switch over a year ago, women’s tennis made its first NCAA tournament. O’Hara has hit better than ever and leads the ACC in batting average. Hansen has started every game this season and finds herself one hit ahead of her total from last year with over 20 games left.

“He expects you to work your hardest,” O’Hara said. “If you don’t you feel like you’re letting him down in a way.”

Hicks has mostly stayed the same. Each morning at 5:15 a.m., he’s still the first Syracuse employee to arrive at Manley Fieldhouse. He still begins the day by brewing “the juice,” his daily dose of coffee and Mountain Dew. “Bring the juice,” Hick’s yells at dreary players. “You gotta bring the juice!”

But after that, he no longer follows a regimented schedule. One day he meets with tennis at 4:30 p.m., and then at 9 in the morning.

Hicks finished instructing the tennis players after about 30 minutes into the morning workout but they didn’t stop. Instead, each returned to the starting point and tried to break more personal records in Hicks’ drills.

“If you coach them the right way they’ll want to stay all day,” Hicks said with a smile. “They stay for extra work because it’s fun, not because they have to.”

Hicks didn’t have to stay either. But he did.

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