For much of his life, Sanford Health exercise program coordinator Steve Bliss has been helping people get better at what they do. That includes things like scoring goals, getting first downs, grabbing rebounds and walking around the block.
With the same passion and expertise used to help college football teams win national titles, Bliss went on to serve a major role in developing Sanford POWER and now helps people regain mobility after knee and hip replacement surgery.
His successes don’t get the attention they did when this innovative and nationally known strength and conditioning coach was helping football teams at Nebraska, Miami, Ohio State and North Dakota State win national championships. But the personal satisfaction is similar.
Bliss was recently named the 2022 National Strength & Conditioning Association Impact Award winner for his work in this profession over five decades. It’s a peer-driven honor that covers a lot of ground, like Bliss himself.
Through it all, he has been viewed as a pioneer in the role strength and conditioning can play in improving athletes and improving lives. That includes technical elements that can make a difference for elite athletes but also outside-the-box innovations in the way strength and conditioning can exist within the dynamics of a team and its athletes.
“My whole career I’ve always liked to create something from nothing with a group of people,” Bliss said. “It isn’t really me, it’s a group of people and we work on new ideas.”
Collaboration comes up a lot in a conversation with Bliss, who with Wellness Center director Cal Hanson (now retired) in 1998 developed what was originally known as the Sioux Valley High Performance Program and then became Sanford POWER.
Strength and conditioning, plus power
The original assignment was to create unique training options for athletes. It would combine strength and conditioning with agility and plyometrics. It would be supported by the principles of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and it would be like nothing the region had ever seen.
“Right away we had high expectations,” Bliss said. “We had to come up with innovative ground-based training because that’s how you do sports – the best athletes in the country don’t train on a machine. They train on the ground.”
Likewise, Bliss and Hanson built the program from the ground up. It began with no athletes and after five years was the favorite source in the region for those seeking sports enhancement training.
The support of Sanford leadership was crucial during this time, Bliss said, as was the word-of-mouth endorsements among athletes who were talking about how much the training was helping them.
“When we needed new equipment, Sanford got it for us,” Bliss said. “When we needed more staff, they got it for us. We really kept the program unique. If we’d been trying to copy the competition it would not have worked nearly as well.”
A persistent powerlifter
Bliss was a gymnast and powerlifter when he enrolled at Nebraska in 1970 and was going to pursue a law degree. His first week on campus, he saw a class outside his pre-law curriculum that interested him, however. There was a guy named Boyd Epley who was teaching a weightlifting class.
Bliss needed to get a signature from the instructor to officially enroll, however, and when he tried to do that, Epley told him the class was full. Then Bliss asked again two days later. Epley told him again he would have to wait until the second semester.
Then one more time at the end of the week, right before he’d have to give up the quest, he talked to Epley again.
“He says, ‘I’ve never had anybody come back three times trying to get into my class. OK, I’ll sign it,’” Bliss said. “It was 4:30 p.m. on the last day and I got his signature. It ended up changing my whole life.”
In the late 1960s, Epley was in the beginning stages of establishing a training program for the Nebraska football program – and all the other Cornhusker sports – that would be the envy of college football and push the Cornhuskers to perennial national championship status. After a month in the class he asked Bliss if he would be interested in helping Epley work with the football team.
Bliss took him up on the offer and worked with South Dakota athletes like Larry Jacobson (Sioux Falls) and John Dutton (Rapid City), a pair of defensive linemen who went on to be first-round NFL draft picks. There were many other outstanding athletes over the years who benefited from their time with Bliss, who went on to become the first fulltime strength and conditioning coach for the Miami Hurricanes and then the first in the same position for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
‘Somebody from Ohio’ called
His move from Miami to Ohio State came about after the Buckeyes made a visit to the Miami weight room while the team was in Florida to play in the Orange Bowl. Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes saw his players using the Hurricanes’ facilities and had an assistant ask Bliss for his phone number.
Bliss went out of town for a few days and when he got back, his roommate told him somebody from Ohio called and left a phone number.
Bliss thought from a minute. He didn’t know anyone in Ohio.
“Yep,” his roommate continued. “He said his name was Woody Hayes.”
Bliss knew who Woody Hayes was. So did every college football fan in America at the time.
“I flew up there and we talked for three hours,” Bliss said. “We really hit it off. He wasn’t going to let me leave until I told him I’d take the job.”
Early on during his tenure at Ohio State, Bliss had a meeting with a freshman named Cris Carter, who would go on to a Hall of Fame NFL career, primarily with the Minnesota Vikings.
“I met with every freshman who came in,” Bliss said. “Cris said, ‘Coach Bliss, I’m not going to lift weights.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, Cris, but you’ll never see the field. You’ll never play a down.’”
Carter ultimately relented.
“After a few months in the program, he stiff-armed a guy in a nationally televised game against Iowa,” Bliss said. “Carter flattened him. Then he was in the weight room all the time.”
Still helping athletes get better
The Carter story is memorable because Bliss was working with an athlete who ended up as one of the greatest receivers ever. But the real point was that a strength and conditioning coach helped an athlete get better. It has been the fuel that has sustained Bliss through a career now in its sixth decade.
“It’s that human connection that makes it worthwhile,” Bliss said. “When you’re dealing with athletes and getting them involved in your program – and all of a sudden they might jump a little bit higher or maybe they can play harder in the fourth quarter – that’s when the light goes on.”
When Bliss, Hanson and their staff began establishing themselves in the community, they occasionally worked with whole teams rather than individuals. It lowered the cost for athletes and introduced a team culture to self-improvement.
A lot has happened since then. Sanford POWER now includes six locations in four states that are fully staffed by certified strength coaches and supported by orthopedic physicians, physical therapists, certified athletic trainers and sports scientists.
Throughout his 24 years at Sanford, Bliss has been witness to that growth up close. He can list dozens of names of people who have been part of the process of building it up to what it has become.
“It’s great to come to work every day and know you’re working around people who are going to support you,” he said. “It frees you up to think about new ways of doing things.”
Coaching while learning
As an exercise specialist, Bliss is part of a team that includes a mentorship program that pairs personnel from within their programs. He was part of creating it, maintaining it and leading it to new places.
“Since I’ve been here I never wanted to have somebody look at me and think, ‘There’s the guy from 1985,’” he said. “I’ve always tried to be an active learner. When we get new people here, I advise them to get to know people and get to know what they do. Don’t be a silo.”
The NSCA that will be presenting Bliss this award was founded by Epley, the training pioneer who welcomed Bliss to that weightlifting class more than 50 years ago. The organization now includes more than 60,000 members with a mission to elevate strength and conditioning in both practice and as a profession.
As a past president of the organization, he worked to establish the NSCA Challenge Scholarship, which has helped hundreds of students pursuing careers in the field.
Bliss’s resume is filled with the work of someone dedicated to the profession. There is more to it than the recognitions, however. As a Sanford exercise program coordinator, seemingly little victories are just as big.
“No matter what department you’re with at Sanford, it’s always going to be about how you help the patient,” Bliss said. “I got to work with 10 national championship teams, but now when I see that someone is walking better, that’s a big deal. I look at it on the same level. You’re changing lives.”
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