LAWRENCE (WSJ) -- When the 7-foot center Jeff Withey showed up on the Kansas campus in 2009, he was a gawky San Diego kid who weighed a shrimp taco or two above 200 pounds. So how did he develop into the bruiser who has helped put the Jayhawks into the NCAA tournament's Final Four?
Withey credits two people. The first is Kansas assistant coach Danny Manning, a Jayhawk legend who won the 1988 national title, was selected No. 1 in the NBA draft and recently was named Tulsa's new coach. The other is a blonde-haired former college volleyball player named Andrea Hudy.
Withey describes her as "one of our secret weapons."
As a female strength and conditioning coach for a Division I men's basketball program, Hudy is a rare breed. She's believed to be the only woman in the country who holds that position. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, women account for just 5% of NSCA-registered trainers across all sports. But what really stands out about Hudy is her track record: She's worked with nine national-title teams and produced over two dozen NBA players who remain loyal to her. She is such an asset that elite high-school prospects point to her presence as an appealing reason to play for Kansas. One of Hudy's projects, Houston Rockets forward and former Kansas star Marcus Morris, sings her praises loudly. "If it weren't for Hudy," he said, "I wouldn't be in the NBA."
Detroit Pistons guard Ben Gordon, who won the 2004 NCAA title with Hudy while they were both at Connecticut, put it this way: "There's no question she had as much to do with us winning a national championship as anyone."
Hudy's job is to shape tantalizing physical specimens like Withey and All-American forward Thomas Robinson into basketball brutes with heavy shoulders and light feet. This means Hudy, 39, has authority in the one place on any college campus where testosterone flows more freely than a fraternity house: the weight room.
"I don't get instant street credibility because I'm not a male," Hudy said. "But I have enough on my résumé that the guys will trust what I say."
In the weight room, "she demands the respect," said former Kansas center Cole Aldrich, whom Hudy whipped from an admittedly chubby freshman into an NBA reserve with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Every big-time college sports program these days has a strength coach, usually a male one at that, but strength training won't necessarily stay a man's world for long, said NSCA founder Boyd Epley. "She's at the top of the top," he said. "You see the results on TV when you watch Kansas."
These athletes swear by Hudy partly because of her unconventional methods: juggling, yoga, boxing, mountain biking and even the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution. Hudy has partnered with exercise-science researchers at Kansas to measure the force and velocity of players while they're squatting, said Kansas professor Andrew Fry. And if someone futzes around in a workout, then the punishment comes in the form of 300 floors on a StairMaster.
The youngest of five children, Hudy grew up helping her oldest brother train in the football off-season by hopping on his back during resistance climbs up Appalachian trails. Years later, she made Gordon and fellow UConn standout Emeka Okafor run the steps of the football stadium while carrying her. A former college athlete herself, Hudy played volleyball at Maryland in the early 1990s.
At UConn she teamed up with a kinesiology professor named William Kraemer—Epley calls him "the very best sports scientist in the world"—and studied a training philosophy known as nonlinear periodization.
The strategy requires Hudy to react to specific needs. For example, if Kansas coach Bill Self puts the Jayhawks through a brutal practice, Hudy lightens their load that afternoon. The off-season calls for a diversity of repetitions—muscle endurance one day, maximum strength the next, a power lift after that—in an Olympic-style program of the clean, jerk and snatch.
But there is always an emphasis on individualization. Hudy said she would rather give a fatigued player a massage this time of year than see him overexert himself with lunges. "Too many coaches think if you're not in a pile of sweat and puke then it doesn't demonstrate a good workout," Kraemer said.
Hudy has a compassionate side that makes her not unlike a team mom, said Gordon, who still trades text messages with her eight years after he and Okafor were picked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the NBA draft. "It was similar to having a mother figure—but she was also our strength and conditioning coach," Gordon said. "It was a funny combination. But it worked."
Like so many NBA players, Withey attributes his progress to Hudy's simultaneously no-frills but sympathetic approach. Hudy used to bar him from the weight room until he stuffed himself with enough calories. She still makes his protein and Muscle Milk shakes—his favorite flavor: strawberry—and keeps the big man company while he chows on breakfast burritos.
Before this season, Withey hadn't averaged more than 2.3 points per game. But last weekend, he blocked 10 shots against North Carolina State and then poured in 15 points against North Carolina and its NBA-ready front line.
Hudy watched that game in a white top and black pants from the end of the Kansas bench. Her role this time of year, she said, is mostly supportive: "My work is pretty much done at this point."