UW muscle: Edgerton's Erik Helland returns home
July 21, 2013
Three decades later, Helland has some folks scratching their heads as to just how he wound up back near home.
After 25 years—and six championship rings—with the Chicago Bulls, the Edgerton native accepted a position as the head strength and conditioning coach for the Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball team over the summer. He'll move to Stoughton, with his wife Michele and sons Gunnar and Trevar, early next month.
“I've always loved the university and have been a big Badger fan,” Helland said in a recent phone interview. “Growing up south of Madison, that's what you see growing up. I always kind of considered myself a Wisconsin guy.”
He grew up in Edgerton, and first took a liking to weightlifting and training when he and friends went to “Huey's,” a small gym owned by Steve Hustad.
“It was just a home-grown kind of thing,” Helland said. “The guys who were training there at the time were guys that were within five years of graduating high school. We were the high school kids, and they just kind of took us under their wing.”
He went off to UW-Eau Claire to study physical education, always eyeing a gig as a football coach and phy ed teacher.
Some of the coaches of the Blugolds teams took notice of Helland as he continued his training and began competing in lifting during his college years. They asked if he'd be interested in working with their teams. He obliged, working with those teams for a couple of years prior to graduating.
After student-teaching during the spring semester in 1987, it was time for the next step. Helland headed to Chicago and looked into graduate school. He also met with Al Vermeil—brother of NFL coach Dick—who was the head strength coach with the Chicago Bulls.
“Three months into volunteering, it became a full-time position,” Helland said. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Little did Helland know that he was joining what was about to become one of the most dominant teams in the history of the NBA.
The Bulls twice completed three-peats, winning NBA titles consecutively from 1991-93 and 1996-98.
“My responsibilities just seemed to increase on a year-to-year basis,” Helland said. “We got into the '90s and were such a dominant team that it would have taken something really extraordinary to pull me out of there at that point.
“Then Al retired, and I took over in 2000, and I had been the head strength coach there ever since. It's been a pretty interesting trip.”
After 25 years, however, Helland was thinking he could use a change of scenery.
And when the Badgers called, wondering if he might be interested in taking a position with head coach Bo Ryan's staff, Helland believed he had found the perfect fit.
“It's an opportunity to come home,” he said. “I've got a son that's going to be a freshman and a son that's going to be a junior (in high school). The hardest part about the NBA is the time commitment. I was away from my family 150 days last year. That's a lot.
“It's the right place at the right time, with the right people involved. I couldn't be happier.”
Helland is looking forward to taking more of a hands-on role at the college level.
“The amount of time you get to spend with these guys is more extensive than you can probably do in the NBA,” Helland said. “To have that much contact with young athletes is really an opportunity to make a difference at a time in their lives where there are a lot of changes going on.”
And for those questioning why in the world he'd leave the NBA for college hoops?
“To some people, the idea of going from the NBA to college is kind of an odd one,” Helland said. “But the kind of guys they recruit at the University of Wisconsin, the quality of the coaching staff, the whole athletic department—it's really pretty impressive.”
UW's facilities will certainly feel much bigger than “Huey's,” but Helland feels right at home.