MORGANTOWN — Oliver Luck was hired four years ago Monday as West Virginia University’s athletic director and his legacy so far is for engineering a whole lot of changes in the Mountaineers athletic department.
New conference affiliation, new multimedia partner. New coaches, new salaries for the head coaches and their assistants. New sport, new expectations for existing sports. New venues, new parts of older facilities.
Maybe the most interesting change, though, is one that Luck calls a “small, little deal,” but one he believes possesses the potential for a major impact. WVU, with its soon-to-be 18 varsity sports and 400-plus student-athletes on campus throughout the year, never had a full-time sports dietitian before Nettie Freshour was promoted from a consultant’s role last year.
“Her job is to work with all our student-athletes to make sure they’re fueling themselves properly,” Luck said. “I think that’s one of the areas where we haven’t focused enough. Make sure these kids eat properly. Some of the endurance athletes historically have done that — track, soccer — but you get some football and basketball players who are still eating McDonald’s and French fries.
“All those little things, that little switch, which didn’t cost us much money, of being able to say ‘Hey, we have a full-time nutritionist,’ that might make a difference. Who knows?”
Who knows? Freshour knows. Oh, normally she’s as modest as a BLT, a culinary counselor who pours the praise atop the pupils she empowers to be smart about what they put into the bodies that mean so much to the Mountaineers. But on this one point, Freshour is willing to capitulate and credit herself, if only just a little.
As Division I sports enter the age of unlimited meals in August, Freshour and all the other dietitians across the country are powerful parts of a new arms race in college sports.
“I’m never really one to say it’s going to be me because it’s always going to be the athletes and what they buy into and getting the athletes to understand that this is a big component to what they do,” she said. “Something I say to them is you can’t outtrain a bad diet.
“So can they be? Absolutely. You can look and see it, especially when you think about the whole fourth quarter aspect, or late in a game. Who still has energy?
“Who’s still going? It’s because they trained properly and they fueled properly.”
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TAKING FRESHOUR out of the part-time consultant’s role and away from her full-time job as the program director for WVU’s dining services wasn’t solely Luck’s idea. According to Freshour, who earned her bachelor’s degree in 2003 and master’s degree in 2005 from WVU, Mike Joseph, the athletic department’s director of strength and conditioning, had been pushing to elevate Freshour soon after his arrival in 2008.
Sports dietitians were already assuming that level of popularity. To her knowledge, Freshour was the 34th in the country when she was hired last year. The University of Florida has four. The University of Georgia has four, plus a graduate assistant and someone with a fellowship. Texas, which hired its first one right around the same time WVU did, is looking for a second. That would give the mighty Longhorns as many as the University of Virginia.
Once Freshour was in place, WVU moved her from her office in a residence hall building in a corner of the Evansdale campus to an office in the Coliseum. Student-athletes can pop into her office for a recipe or a question before or after class or practice at the Coliseum. Before, they needed to make a special plan to go out of their way to get to her office.
Staying connected with the student-athletes was one of the top items on a list of two dozen or so goals she wanted to go after during her first year.
“I probably text message almost every single athlete on campus,” Freshour said. “It’s a really good way to follow up and check in on them. And then I have a weekly email with the teams that ask me to do that for them so we’re all on the same page. Fridays are kind of like my communication days, especially right now. But this will be all year long.”
Now at the end of her first year, Freshour spends more time with the football team than any other simply because most of the team is on campus, but also because it’s that important at a school that relies so heavily on football revenue. It will become even more important when scholarship players and walk-ons are allowed unlimited meals.
“When I first started back in August, it just went very, very well in the sense of people buying in and wanting my time,” Freshour said. “Now that I have a little breathing room this summer, my focus is back on the football team. It’s going to be even more a part of my job with the deregulation of eating.”
With just football, Freshour will make plans and approve menus for the daily training table and make sure there are specific options for players who want to add weight or lose weight or do anything else — and those players know Freshour can only help them if they tell her what they need.
She is cautiously optimistic about the NCAA’s new rule that gives student-athletes all they can eat, but she has worries, too. The new rule doesn’t solve the old problem. Because of practice or competitions, classes or study halls, student-athletes on many teams won’t be able to make it to a free meal. A lot of their nutrition will still be left up to them.
“I want to educate them,” she said. “I don’t want, ‘Tell me what to eat.’ I want, ‘Teach me what’s best for my body and best for performance.’ I don’t want to say, ‘Here’s seven days of meals and a couple of meals for each day,’ and then they look at lunchtime Tuesday and see they’re supposed to have a grilled chicken salad and they don’t have it and don’t know what to do. That’s when they go get a cheeseburger in place of that.”
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FRESHOUR HAS organized and offered a wealth of options to help teams help themselves, things like the three cooking classes with a huddle of football players.
She started by showing them how easy it was to make grilled chicken, sauteed broccoli and couscous on their own.
“The first one, Mike had to nudge them like, ‘Hey, this will be beneficial for you,’ ” Freshour said. “After the first one, he didn’t have to nudge anyone.”
In the next class, she taught them to make fish tacos. By the time the third class rolled around, it was so popular that she did needed to do add another session on making pizza.
She’s done cooking classes with the gymnastics team and has them scheduled for the rifle and women’s soccer teams, and any other team could ask for one. Freshour and the gymnasts put together a cookbook, and other coaches have said they’re interested in doing the same for their teams.
In May, a member of the swimming and diving team called Freshour to ask if she could take her grocery shopping so she’d be eating the right foods and getting back on track before her season started. A few days later, Freshour went to the farmers’ market with gymnasts.
She does more than tell student-athletes what to eat, what to buy and how to make meals. A lot of her work is enlightening students about foods. There are occasional food-tasting nights where a bunch of foods are spread out for student-athletes to try.
“Maybe they’ve never had hummus and don’t want to spend $3 on that for fear they might not like it,” Freshour said. “So we buy it and spend the money on the food and they’re not nervous to taste it since it’s in a team setting with me educating them and showing them how easy it is to do. We’ve made spaghetti squash in the microwave in quite a few different training facilities on this campus because it’s so easy to make it. You put marinara sauce on it and you’ve got a meal in 20 minutes.”
Every now and then she’ll put something new on the training table, a tactic that’s converted many to guacamole, acorn squash, jasmine rice, broccolini and all sorts of things players never would have thought to try.
“We have a lot of picky eaters and I tell them all the time, ‘You’re only picky because you choose to be picky. You may be missing out on your favorite food and not even know it,’ ” she said. “I had an athlete earlier this semester say, ‘What’s this? White broccoli?’ It was cauliflower. A lot of times they don’t even know, but they end up liking it.”
Freshour insists she’s not the food police at WVU. In fact, she calls herself a foodie with a soft spot for pizza — but not six slices of pizza.
One of the most important lessons she shares with her pupils is that a cheeseburger is fine and sweets are acceptable, but in moderation and not as part of a routine.
“I tell them the poison in the dose,” she said. “You can have a dessert. It’s how much dessert you’re having. One cooking class we did was with the gymnasts and about 10 different desserts, but done in a healthy manner. Another thing we did was a junk food makeover with a buffalo chicken wrap and hand-cut fries. Food can be fun. It doesn’t have to be a punishment to eat healthy. You just have to learn a little bit.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymailcom/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.