For Billy Napier, building new culture for Florida football begins with strength coach Mark Hocke | Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports

All was quiet in a room just off Florida’s indoor practice field a few days ago. Then in came the bearded human tornado.

“First, I want to thank y’all,” Mark Hocke roared. “Appreciate y’all coming to cover us.”

Hocke is Florida’s strength coach. He was speaking to reporters, though “speaking” hardly conveys the overall tone.

Strength coaches in general are booming personalities, genetically engineered to own any room they enter. Hocke said players had been pridefully busting their tails in offseason workouts.

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Mark Hocke knows how to motivate

Just like … reporters?

“You work really hard on a daily basis, show up and do your job at a high level. Take a lot of pride in your job,” he said. “And they’re no different than you.”

Well, other than being younger, faster, stronger, slimmer and much better looking, players aren’t much different from guys like me.

I don’t know whether Hocke was blowing smoke. But by golly, he sure sounded sincere. I was so pumped, I could have bench-pressed my notebook 100 times.

If Hocke can do that to a room full of nonphysical specimen sportswriters, what can he do for Billy Napier’s roster?

That is an underlying but fundamental question about this new Gators administration. Napier is the leader, calm and imperturbable in his manner and approach.

Hocke (pronounced like “hockey”) is the fire to Napier’s ice. It’s no coincidence he gives off pirate vibes, with a black beard and commanding presence.

Pirates would fly black flags to strike fear into anyone who crossed their paths. Hocke posts black flag emojis in his tweets. Don't be shocked if he shows up one morning wearing an eyepatch and has a parrot on his shoulder.

“It’s a black flag mentality, right? Attack or be attacked,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, you want to show up with a pirate mentality. We’re trying to pillage the village for gold.”

Florida Gators strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke watches from the sideline Thursday during a spring practice on the outdoor fields in Gainesville.

Hocke’s official title is associate head coach/director of football strength and conditioning. The first part conveys how important his role is.

The word “culture” has been used about 10,000 times since Napier was hired. It starts with him, but strength coaches are the ones who really implement it.

NCAA rules limit the time position coaches can spend with players, especially in the offseason. Strength coaches are allotted more hours and almost year-round access.

“Culture” is a catchall phrase for being accountable, honorable, relentless, disciplined, bigger, stronger and nastier than your opponent.

“This is a demanding game, right?” Hocke said. “It’s a physical game. It’s a violent game.”

Position coaches are tacticians, teaching strategies and techniques. Strength coaches prepare players for the nastiness of SEC trench warfare.

They must be a combination of Tony Robbins, a drill sergeant and Sigmund Freud. Most people are not predisposed to running gassers before dawn or lifting heavy objects until their eyes pop out.

Billy Napier sticks with his guy

A weight coach has to push players to their physical limits, then make them want more when it’s over. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Hocke’s job came with a built-in drawback.

Say what you will about the rest of Dan Mullen’s assistant coaches, but most players loved strength coach Nick Savage. When the staff was let go, current and former Gators started a #KeepSavage Twitter campaign.

We’re talking guys like Dameon Pierce, Kyle Pitts, Gervon Dexter and Zach Carter. Napier was aware of their sentiments, but head coaches have a special bond with strength coaches.

He and Hocke clicked when they first met as lowly assistants at Alabama. Hocke went from there to Georgia, then FSU. He headed to Texas A&M with Jimbo Fisher, then Napier hired him at Louisiana and brought him to Gainesville.

“I feel like our visions are aligned,” Hocke said of his boss. “Sometimes you have different coaches from different backgrounds. We were kind of cut from the same cloth.”

Not so much personality-wise but philosophically. Coach Fire and Coach Ice are more into developing speed than bulk.

Players got their first heavy dose during the “Identity” phase of Napier’s program. The six weeks before spring practice resembled boot camp at Camp Lejeune.

“We know that growth comes from struggle,” Napier said when it started. “We want to introduce adversity.”

Florida strength coach Mark Hocke during the Gators' practice on Thursday, March 17, 2022 at the Sanders football practice fields in Gainesville.

Identity phase ended when spring practice began last week. The early verdict?

Anthony Richardson was happy to be recovering from knee surgery and just got to watch.

“Honestly, I’m kind of glad I wasn’t a part of some of that stuff,” he laughed. “Because those runs that I’ve seen them do, they did look kind of tough.

“It was kind of hard. I feel like it's helped us because you see guys moving around quicker. Guys are stronger.”

It’s early, of course. Cultures aren’t built in a day, and there are about 165 until the first game. That will be the first real look at the new Gator product.

I won’t predict Florida will be ready to pillage a team like Utah. I will say if Hocke drops by the press box for a pregame chat, reporters probably will be pumped to do their jobs.

I might even try to grow a beard.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley