The Bearded Bear
Ryan Napoli came to North Dakota State five and a half years ago and has been on a ride like any other coach since his arrival. He climbed through the strength and conditioning ranks from an intern to assistant strength coach for Jim Kramer and the Bison football team. Napoli is also the strength coach for the wrestling team and throwers on the track and field team.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Bison Illustrated: What’s it like to work for someone who is so well respected in the strength and conditioning world like Jim Kramer?
Ryan Napoli: I got the best strength coach in the country. He demands a lot, expects a lot, but that’s what it takes to make this place go and to be better. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to work with anyone else. I know that someday, I’m going to be better prepared than almost everybody else in the country because I got to work for him.
He’s so meticulous, the details, how he approaches things, there ain’t nobody better as far as who to learn from.
I’m blessed to be here. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to work for Jim. I’m blessed he thought that I was the guy for the job and blessed to continue to be a part of the culture and continue to be a part of the fabric of not just Bison football but Bison Nation by working with the throwers, the wrestlers and the other two sports I work with. It’s cool because the athletic director knows who I am and I know the other head coaches. This environment of Bison Athletics is really special.
￼￼￼￼BI: The guy you work under, Jim Kramer, is regarded as one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. What can you learn from him now?
RN: I don’t know if I’ll ever truly grasps the breadth of his knowledge because he’s really smart and knows a ton. But I mean, every day is, it’s like we talk about: You have to go 1-0 for the day so you can go 1-0 for the week.
Every day you’re trying to get better, that’s what we’re doing around here so I’m always kind of watching him and how he handles situations and how he handles this. People don’t know he’s the one putting all the meals together on the road. When we travel and stuff, he’s the one who sets up all the meals. He’s the one that gives them all the menus and sets up times and this and that. Even here (on campus), he works with the dining halls and gives them the menus. That’s what we do. He has me help him and it means a lot.
He’s the guy who gets workouts ready and does injury adjustments, he does the food, postgame meal. He’s actually given to me over the past couple of years so I’m in charge of getting all the meals after an away game set up, and delivered to the buses, hand it out and stuff like that. There’s just so much more that he does that’s more than just being the strength coach. It’s learning all the different hats that Coach Kramer wears so I’m going to be prepared someday to take over my own program, whether it’s here or somewhere else or whatever down the road because I’m just better prepared.
If I could ever be as good of a strength coach as Jim Kramer, I’d be really happy. I mean, my goal is to try to be better than him. And I’m not going to say you can’t be better than him because I’m a competitor and I’m always going to try because that’s my goal. I’m just so honored. He’s so great. Just look at what the kids say about him. Every senior that comes through here talks about the impact he has on this program and on them. Every single senior. That’s really cool. That’s who I want to be. I got into coaching to have an impact on kids’ lives. Not just make them better football players but better members of society, whether it’s football, throwers or wrestlers. Make those kids better so when they go off into the working world, they’re prepared and Kramer does that.
BI: A lot of people have noticed you on the sidelines during football games. What are you doing there?
RN: We’re (Kramer and Napoli) the Get Back Coaches. We’re in charge of making sure the guys stay behind the white line so we don’t get penalized. We get those special teams. So when Coach Kramer, on the third down, says, ‘Hey, punt D,’ Coach Kramer will pull the special teamers, I have to run up and down and make sure to get everybody, make sure the defensive guys are ready or making sure the offensive guys know that we’re getting the ball back. I’m always the guy yelling that stuff.
I’m also getting the guys at halftime. We hand out rice crispy bars, bananas and the Gatorade and the water. We do whatever else coach needs us to do, whether it’s getting a guy salted Powerade because he’s cramping, or Coach (Chris) Klieman needs me to find somebody or Coach (Jamar) Cain needs me to find somebody. We’re there to do whatever that needs to be done. It’s as simple as Coach Klieman needs to talk to somebody, he’ll say, “Hey Nap, go grab me this guy.” I’ll go down and grab Chris Board, “Hey, Coach Klieman needs to talk to you” or whatever the case it.
BI: Sounds intense. Are you wrapped up in the emotion of the game as much as a regular coach?
RN: Oh yeah, it always is. Football is an intense game. You ain’t there to just watch. It’s keeping coaches back, it’s making sure that the referees don’t flag us for stupid stuff. It’s making sure guys are ready to go. I’ll talk to certain guys and try to get guys fired up. We’re there to be motivators and we’re there to help out. Believe me, Coach Kramer and I are wired different and I think that’s why we work so well together. The guy is freaking wired and he’s super intense and that’s how it is. That’s why we are who we are. We’re the Bison. We’re not lackadaisical on the sidelines. All the coaches are intense. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s always intense on the sidelines. On game days, you take a couple scoops of preworkout. Let’s go to work and it’s intense. It’s fun. It’s exciting.
Believe me, if I could do one thing—I tell the guys this all the time—I’d love to go put the pads on, me and T-Roehl (Tyler Roehl), he goes in at tailback, I’ll go in at fullback and I will kick out power. We’ll run power one time. I’d love to go kick out power and play fullback for the Bison. It would be so much fun.
BI: It’s always horrifying to watch a player go out of bounds and run into a coach. Has that ever happened to you?
RN: This one time, it was Langer (Derrick Lang) who took me out pretty good. It was the Northern Iowa game. He was coming and I was kind of ready to stop him, but then he went down to his knees and was sliding and just took me out. (Ryan) Perreault had a picture a few years back and I never saved it but you see Langer sliding, knees first and I’m going up and over him, because I was going to try and pick him up and stop him. I’ve had a couple close calls. But, I usually see it. I’m that guy that’s like, “Oh, okay, now, I’m only going to get out of the way. I’m not going to sprint back.” I just step to the side and let the stuff go straight by. I can’t show the guys I’m scared or nervous, that would ruin my image (laughs).
“I’d love to go put the pads on, me and T-Roehl (Tyler Roehl), he goes in at tailback, I’ll go in at fullback and I will kick out power.” – Ryan Napoli
BI: How did you become a strength coach?
RN: I wrestled at Simpson College, which is a Division III school in Iowa, just south of Des Moines. I actually wrestled my freshman year at 174 pounds. Then my sophomore, junior and senior year I wrestled 184, and I weigh 240 now. I was a little tyke in college. I got into strength and conditioning in college. I went to college to be an athletic trainer, didn’t like other people’s injuries, and I’ve always been a meathead, so my coach was like, “Hey, do you want to try strength and conditioning?” So I interned second-semester, got paid as an undergraduate assistant during my sophomore, junior and senior year, and then after college, I decided to go on to be a strength coach.
BI: How did you get to NDSU?
RN: After college, I went to the Air Force Academy as an unpaid assistant. I went out there on my own dime and worked with their football team for a whole year. One of the full-time strength coaches at the Air Force Academy was Kim Pinske. She was Coach (Jim) Kramer’s graduate assistant like 12 years ago or something. She got me in touch with Coach Kramer and I interviewed to be the paid summer intern and moved out here May 23, 2011.
BI: What did Jim Kramer have you doing that summer during your internship?
RN: I was around the guys every day at lifts and at runs, and calling out coaching queues and doing what interns do. I got to do some coaching stuff, but not a ton. But I was there, around the guys, got to know about them. Ryan Smith and Brock (Jensen), who I ended up stretching before every football game his whole career here. I stretch Easton (Stick) before every game. I stretched Carson (Wentz) before every game, and it’s just kind of the tradition. We don’t talk. It’s just before the game, it was, “Hey, this is what we do now.”
BI: Your internship turned into a graduate assistant position and now you’re a full time member of the staff. Why do you think that is?
RN: I just got immersed right away. I knew I wanted to be a Division I football strength coach so I got the opportunity to come here and be a strength coach, and I just immersed myself 100 percent because that’s all I can do. There’s no point in me coming out here and giving a half-assed effort and getting coach pissed off because I’m not good enough. I don’t play video games or roll dice or play cards if I’m not going to try to win. The same thing with my life. I wasn’t going to try and be an intern that was just here. I wanted to make an impact and be the best intern that’s ever been here. That turned into being a GA, and that’s turned into me being hired full-time.
BI: How do you handle assisting the football team while coaching track and field and wrestling teams?
RN: It’s fun. I want to be a football guy. That’s my long-term plan.
(Handling multiple sports) It’s a lot of time and scheduling stuff and sometimes I have to miss certain things which I hate, but it’s what I do and it’s a part of my job. I love the kids that I work with and I’m going to give them everything I got. Whether it’s football, wrestling, throwers (track and field), I’m going to give them everything I got, even if I’m tired because they deserve it. I’m here for these guys.
They’re all unique. Football is a bunch of meatheads. Love it. Wrestling, these are my people because I wrestled in college, and I understand wrestling. That’s just a tough sport. Wrestlers are a different breed. The throwers, lifting is throwing so they love being in the weight room. So all three sports are different dynamics. The way you handle each athlete, every athlete is different, but with teams, you don’t have to handle them differently but your relationships are different, so for me it’s fun. I like it, I love having those guys.
I go to the home wrestling meets when I can and I get to sit down on the bench with the guys. When we have home throwing events, I get to sit down there with the guys, sit right by coach in the circle, which is pretty neat, and I go to events when I can, and follow results, but I’m a coach, so to me, that’s what you do. You’re there for the kids. If I have to work 14 hours a day, which his sometimes I do, I do it. That’s my job. I love coaching. To me, it’s what I do. “How you handle it?” You just do it. You find a way to get stuff done and have fun with it and do the best you can and that’s what we do. Sometimes it gets to be a nightmare of a schedule and my throwers train at 5:30 at night, and I’m here until 7:30, four nights a week pretty much all year long but you know what. Depending on the time of year, but I’m usually here between 5 and 6:30 every morning.
BI: Shoot, you must be opening this place up?
RN: Everyone is working just as many hours. Everyone here puts in just as many hours, it’s what we do. It’s what being a strength coach is and we do it because we love it. If you don’t love being a strength coach, you won’t last in this industry. Plain and simple.
It’s not like you can bounce around and go where it’s easy. That’s the private sector, no offense to those in the private sector, but that’s the private sector. I’m sure you can find people but put it this way, I’m about as passionate as they’re going to come. And I love what I do, and I’m going to continue to grind as much has I can no matter how long that it to be the best strength coach I can be.
I don’t necessarily care to be recognized as the best coach, I don’t like the recognition. I just want to have an impact and when kids go off five years down the road, “hey, man, Coach Nap, I still appreciate everything you did and you still have an impact on my life.” That to me is the recognition that’s worth it, not getting awards.
Coach Kramer hates being known as the best strength coach in the country. He’d tell you to (expletive) off. Those kinds of recognitions don’t matter.
Like I said, this is the first time in the last year, people have bought me food at Chipotle, people have bought me my monsters at the grocery store. If I’m at the bar, they say, “hey, you’re Coach Nap” and I don’t know who the hell you are, but I appreciate you. That’s how it’s been over the past year or two. Ever since I got the hair and Spencer Hall blew me up on Twitter, it’s been a little different.”