COLUMBIA – It’s come a long way from orange slices and Gatorade.
Rashad Fenton competes in making milkshakes as much as he does shaking down opposing receivers. Javon Kinlaw’s sweet tooth can only be satisfied with the strawberry jelly he spreads on the PB&Js that are the rewards for him plowing under another quarterback.
Jamarcus King? Well, let’s just say they’re going to be real careful about doing Cajun Night again, after he carted three to-go boxes back to his room.
“I tell everyone I have 110 kids,” beamed Kristin Coggin, South Carolina’s Director of Football Nutrition. “They’re all their own person. I’m with the players four times a day, breakfast, practice, lunch … I just made one a sandwich before I walked over here.”
The Gamecocks have several MVPs this year but one of the biggest hasn’t thrown a pass or made a tackle. The former Tennessee rower who studied under one of the best dietitians in the business is in charge of feeding – strike that, “fueling” – the Gamecocks for every day of their careers, not just gameday.
“The meals are my game,” Coggin said. “I’m setting them up for whatever’s ahead for us.”
Coggin’s job isn’t to plan supper or hand out crackers at halftime. She’s in charge of all of it. Every meal, every snack, every beverage for every player during a 13-game, four-month season.
And it doesn’t slow down during the offseason – her constant message to the team is to always keep an eye on what they’re putting into their bodies, even when they’re on their own away from her watchful eye.
“They give us our vitamins, what we need, meals, if we need to go grocery shopping, they’ll take us grocery shopping,” said defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth, listed at 305 pounds. “Kristin, she does a great job with that so I give her two claps!”
Stallworth punctuated his comment by twice pounding his massive paws together, and it’s echoed among his teammates and the staff. Coach Will Muschamp has credited Coggin several times this season for how she’s completely transformed the nutrition aspect of the football program.
Hired in May, Coggin served at Alabama under Amy Bragg, a pioneer in sports nutrition. A dancer and soccer player in high school, Coggin joined the crew team with the Lady Vols and found a serendipitous route to her calling.
Afflicted with Celiac Disease (gluten allergy), Coggin was diagnosed during her junior year and once treated, her performance shot through the roof. When her rowing days were over, she applied to dental school and was informed that if she worked with the sports dietitian, she could stay on scholarship.
“I thought the only way you could stay in college athletics was if you coached, and I thought, ‘I’m probably not going to make too much money by coaching rowing,’” she said. “I loved the athletes, I loved the competitiveness, I loved teaching about food and how it affects your performance.”
The NCAA actually helps
In 2014, the NCAA changed its rules governing how much food could be supplied by the athletic department. The three-squares-a-day, limited snacks or a small stipend was lifted in favor of an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.
“You could talk to them about nutrition, but you couldn’t do much for them. Now it’s a lot more hands-on approach,” Coggin said. “Now it’s like you’re their coach on the field.”
Like most of the NCAA’s regulations, this came with its own set of problems. The kids could eat as much as they wanted, sure … but what were they eating? Simply turning them loose in the school cafeteria wouldn’t work very well.
Coggin’s job is regulation and routine. Football players have their lives planned to the minute, so it was a case of learning what each player liked to eat, needed to eat and what weight and strength they needed to remain at; and making eating the right foods as much a part of their day as brushing their teeth.
“We feed them all here,” Coggin said, just down the hall from the Gamecocks’ locker room. “We have breakfast before practice, a full meal after practice. When we watch film on Wednesday, we feed them there. On Thursday, we start game prep, so it’s a meal then, breakfast Friday morning, lunch set up for them right outside of the locker room after they watch film. Everything has to be in flow.”
That’s fine, but how about a little of this?
Think of gargantuan offensive tackles eating and the vision is of trays of chicken wings and pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling.
Try Greek salads and asparagus.
“Some guys like Jamaican food, some guys have never eaten breakfast, some love fast food, and we all know that doesn’t help your performance,” Coggin said. “I walk around and see if they’ve had enough. If they haven’t, I encourage them to eat more.”
Coggin got to Columbia and immediately began researching. Not just what individuals liked, but what their favorite restaurants or meals around Columbia were.
Much of the team likes Zoe’s Kitchen, so Zoe’s Kitchen will cater a few Friday nights. During the offseason, USC will bring in chefs to teach players how to operate a Hibachi or make a simple sauce.
Coggin moves between tables at team meals, encouraging bigger portions for some players and lesser for others.
“My approach is give and take. ‘If you want this, but need more of this, how do we balance that?,’” she said. “‘If you want this big piece of lasagna, we also need you to get a little more protein, some more nuts and vegetables.’”
Coggin admitted she doesn’t sleep much. There sometimes will be a call at 11:35 p.m. with a 20-year-old on the other end asking her what he should eat.
“‘Do you have anything in mind? What do you feel like eating?,’” she’ll ask back. “Then I’ll suggest, and say, ‘We need to make sure we get this or that.’”
That leads into having options available after weightlifting, after film. If there’s milk at the stadium players can take home, she’ll hand it out. Yogurt has become a stockpiled item at Williams-Brice since the players go through it so fast.
Then there are the field trips.
Bi-Lo, Publix or the Pig?
“See, if I go grocery shopping with her, I’m just gonna go to the snack aisle, just grab everything down the snack aisle and put it in the cart,” Stallworth laughed. “She might not want to go with me.”
It’s part of college life, adjusting to being away from home with no parent around to cook a meal or a stocked refrigerator to reach into. Many players just haven’t been on their own.
“If I see a guy that’s maybe taking a box of Kristy Kreme doughnuts home and ask him why, he’ll say, ‘Well, Kristin, I don’t have any food in my house,’” she said. “‘OK, we can fix that.’”
She’ll take them to the grocery store. First turn to the right is always the produce aisle, and she starts there. Fruits, vegetables, up to the top where the meats and proteins are, then around the left side for milk and eggs.
It’s not grabbing a box off the shelf and going down the list of calories, carbs and amount of polysorbate 60. It’s keeping a simple focus – the healthier food is usually on the outside, processed is in the middle.
Goose Creek’s Javon Kinlaw shed 40 pounds during the season and became a vital part of the Gamecocks’ defensive line. Coming from junior college where there weren’t many options, he was amazed at what he found at USC.
“He was really quiet. He’d sit with me every morning at breakfast,” Coggin said. “I studied his plate, watch his portions and we’d talk. He was a new kid and started to open up.”
The media darling who once called himself a chihuahua for the way he attacks the ball-carrier had a fondness for strawberry PB&J.
No problem, Coggin said, but how many are you eating at a time? Half the loaf isn’t good.
“Here’s a guy that has lost over 40 pounds, completely dedicated himself to our nutrition program,” Muschamp said. “Kristin Coggin … does a fantastic job of what they need to eat, how they need to eat and going about understanding more about their diet and how important that part of being a good football player is.”
The 12-ounce curl
She’s dealing with 110 college men.
College men have a stereotype.
“I tell them to be smart,” she said. “They’re here to be a college athlete, they understand how it negatively affects their performance.”
She and strength coach Jeff Dillman also made a game of it, inspired by a master of fun (and beer), Will Ferrell.
“Remember ‘Talladega Nights?’ ‘I wake up every morning and piss excellence?’” Coggin said, quoting Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby. “We hydration-test the guys on Thursday. We make it kind of competitive -- you’re either green, yellow, red. The guys get their pictures up on the wall if they piss excellence.”
Don’t laugh. One player made the wall during the summer and gloated about it so much that half the team was up there by the end of the month.
Got to be strong for the Saturday fight
Game halftimes offer plenty of varieties for more fuel. Sandwiches, Rice Krispies Treats, applesauce, fruit. All gleaned from Coggin’s research about what helps and what players want.
No soda or juice. Water, Gatorade and Propel Water, sometimes with electrolyte packets for the linemen who sweat buckets.
Coggin is directing all of it and can tell if somebody slipped during the week, maybe got the two-piece from Bojangle's instead of the milkshakes (with ice cream) that Coggin lets them make Friday nights before games.
“Sometimes players have to learn the hard ways on some things. We learn, we talk about it, that mistake doesn’t happen again,” she said. “They may have to figure out some things by themselves, but then they’ll come by and say, ‘You were right.’”
Football punishments can be brutal, from running every step in the stadium to belly-crawling every square inch of turf. Coggin doesn’t resort to that.
She tells the player that she worked very hard on a nutrition plan to help him, and he didn’t follow it. She is so, so disappointed in him.
You never want to let Mom down.