Trainer playing to the Spurs’ strengths

Twelve years before he would return to the San Antonio area to become the Spurs’ new strength and conditioning coach, Matt Herring was a middle school teacher in Schertz.

In terms of propensity for cutting up, some of the students in Herring’s world history class probably could give notorious prankster Tim Duncan a run for his money.

“It’s a little different now, although some of the athletes we’ve come across acted like eighth-graders,” Herring said with a smile. “It’s easier to handle them in eighth grade, because they’ve got little kid bodies.”

Hired earlier this month away from the University of Florida, where he was part of two national championship teams under coach Billy Donovan, Herring would like nothing more than to have some NBA bodies present.

With the league’s lockout still in full effect, players have been barred from the team’s training facilities and from contact with club personnel, so Herring is a strength and conditioning coach with nobody to strengthen and condition.

A 40-year-old Austin native who started his first NBA job just after Labor Day, Herring has spent most of September getting the lay of the land, brainstorming with Spurs coaches and other staffers and reacquainting himself with Texas barbecue.

So far, the bored strength coach in him has resisted the urge to force Gregg Popovich to run suicide sprints up the hill behind the team’s practice facility in triple-digit heat.

“It’s actually been very peaceful,” Herring said. “It’s sure nice to be able to come in and get organized now, before everything starts.”

Make no mistake. Once everything starts, the task of replacing the retired Mike Brungardt — the only strength coach in franchise history — is sure to be a daunting one.

Brungardt, who began working with the Spurs full-time in 1994, is largely credited with building the team’s strength program, which includes conditioning and injury rehabilitation protocols, from the ground up. Brungardt earned four championship rings with the Spurs and, according to general manager R.C. Buford, earned each one.

“Mike Brungardt set a standard that produced outstanding results,” Buford said. “Our guys worked and enjoyed their work and were diligent with it. They were well-instructed and well-monitored, and that’s not easily replaceable.”

In a way, Herring is to Brungardt as the Spurs’ next starting power forward is to Duncan. Intimidating? Sure.

“You’d almost rather the person before you got booted out,” Herring said, with a laugh.

Yet there is also an upside to following a legend. After watching Brungardt operate for 15 years, nobody in the organization is likely to question the value of a good strength coach. That includes the players, who can sometimes bristle at the dirty work they’re asked to do in the weight room.

“‘Brungy’ made this one of the premier jobs in the league because of the culture he developed,” Herring said.

In Herring, the Spurs believe they’ve found a suitable torch-carrier for that culture. He and Brungardt share a bond, and a fondness for Mexican food, dating to 2003.

Having given up his gig as a middle school teacher and coach four years earlier for graduate school at the University of Texas, Herring had just begun his new life as the strength and conditioning coach at Oklahoma State and was looking for guidance.

A mutual friend slipped him Brungardt’s number.

One day that summer, not long after the Spurs had finished celebrating their second championship, Herring spent a weekend with Brungardt in San Antonio.

“He opened up his whole facility, philosophy and home to me,” Herring said.

The two kept in touch throughout the years. When Herring was up for the Spurs job this summer, Brungardt was one of the first people he called.

“There are things that are time-tested, and a lot of those elements are things Brungy and I share,” Herring said. “That’s what’s going to make the transition moderately easy, because it’s not going to be that different.”

Herring has come a long way from his days teaching eighth-graders in Schertz. His students’ bodies are bigger, and so are the stakes.

Heady stuff for a former world history teacher, who believes he is up for the challenge of a lifetime.

“I’ve never tried to look forward, dreaming big,” Herring said. “It’s always been a journey for me, and whatever life brings me is what I’m excited about.”

Matt Herring, a 40-year-old Austin native taking his first NBA coaching job, was the strength coach for two national championship basketball teams at the University of Florida. (Edward A. Ornelas/

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