KNOXVILLE — In the late spring and heat of the summer, the University of Tennessee football team took to Neyland Stadium to run the steps — every last one of them.
It might have been something the Volunteers had done previously, but with Ron McKeefery, who became the program’s fifth strength and conditioning coach since the start of the 2008 season when he replaced Bennie Wylie in January, the message might have been a little different.
“He just wanted us to put all our blood, sweat and tears in that stadium so when we go out there and work, we know we ran the stadium, it’s our stadium, nobody’s going to take what we earn or put into the stadium away from us,” senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson recalled last week.
In a three-part endeavor, the Vols ran every step in the 102,455-seat stadium. Jackson admitted it was as physically demanding as it sounds, but McKeefery’s message created a different tone to the work.
“The point that Coach McKeefery was trying to make is this program and this institution is way bigger than any individual that’s within the program,” said Jacques Smith, a sophomore defensive end from Ooltewah. “That’s the point he was trying to get across. You do this for a reason. You do this for the people who can’t, the people who really want to and the people who want to see you succeed.
“That’s why we’re out here every single day; that’s why we run these steps; that’s why we work our butts off for the state of Tennessee. That’s just a workout that tried to exemplify what that meaning was.”
McKeefery also put a different twist on how the Vols worked out when they weren’t running stadium steps. The primary goal during the offseason was increasing strength, so the Vols simply focused on bulk weightlifting during workouts. In addition to other tangible measurements as progress evaluations, McKeefery had the players do “before” pictures in January and “after” photos at the end of July to see how much each had changed physically.
But for a group of players who have seen strength coach after strength coach stroll through the doors of the weight room inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, McKeefery quickly made an impression on the Vols.
“Honestly, I think it took like less than a week and a half, and then he was telling us our own tendencies and what he sees in us and what we could potentially be if we started doing certain things,” Smith said. “Coach McKeefery is a great mentor, and he’s helping the team out in so many ways other than just being a strength coach. It’s a blessing to have him.”
Questions and answers with Ron McKeefery, UT’s strength and conditioning coach
With a raspy voice and a stern facial expression, Ron McKeefery looks like a drill sergeant.
There’s much more to the University of Tennessee strength coach than what meets the eyes, though.
“He’s a smart guy,” Volunteers coach Derek Dooley said earlier this month. “He can talk with the best of them on the intellectual part of his industry that nobody understands, including me. He’s got enough drill sergeant in him to motivate and push the guys the way he needs to.
“That’s the hard thing with a strength coach. You know some guys are great strength coaches, and they’re doing things they probably shouldn’t do. Then some guys are really intelligent and they’ve got the computer and they’ve got these nice reports, but they’re not pushing the guys. The key is having that blend.”
After a 10-year stint as South Florida’s assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning and the Bulls’ head strength and conditioning coach, McKeefery began working as a human performance coordinator for the U.S. Army Special Forces in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Dooley tabbed him to be UT’s strength coach in January, and McKeefery has been putting his stamp on the Vols throughout the offseason.
The Times Free Press went one-on-one with McKeefery a couple of weeks ago to discuss his role as the most important figure in UT’s program six months out of the year.
Q: You had a short stint with the U.S. Army Special Forces between your 10-year tenure as the strength coach at South Florida and your arrival at UT. How much of the drill sergeant did you bring with you to Knoxville, and how did that experience translate to football?
A: “I wasn’t actually a drill sergeant up there, but I grew up in a military family. Obviously being there, what’s great about the military is those guys, the job they do for all of us is beyond reproach. It’s phenomenal, so it doesn’t compare in that regard. However, a lot of the same values in terms of leadership and team building and commitment and all those types of things, they carry over. I would say not a whole lot. I probably brought all of it with me.”
Q: When I’ve talked to Derek Dooley a few times during the summer, he said you and he had a great relationship and were very much on the same page. Do you feel some pressure knowing how important you are to this program from January to spring practice and from spring practice to August because you’re the only who can really interact with the team on a daily basis? How much did your relationship with Dooley help you do your job?
A: “I’ve said it a couple of times, but Coach Dooley was easy. Coach Dooley and I were on the same page in terms of principles behind why we got into coaching. Coach, with [the Vol for Life program], with all the investment that he makes in these athletes as a person, is very much what I stand for.
“I often say that with these guys, my No. 1 goal is to make them better husbands and better fathers and better citizens. If I can do that right there, those are the same characteristics that carry over and help to win football games. By having that as a baseline of being on the same page, he’s phenomenal. Then, we’re very competitive, both of us. Whether it’s going out and running steps or doing whatever, we’re going to go at it and we’re going to attack every opposition with a relentless pursuit. It’s very important we’re on the same page.
“I wouldn’t have gotten in strength and conditioning if I didn’t love the challenge of being involved as a whole. That was one of the things when deciding whether or not I would go into football or go into strength: I wanted to be at the strength level working with these guys on a day-to-day basis and not have to go recruit, not to have go watch tape and to really know these guys and not be limited by a position. I love the fact and I embrace that I have 105 guys that I’m responsible for for making sure that they work their tails off, not only in the weight room but in the classroom and across campus.”
Q: Dooley had talked about how much the focus was on lifting bulk weight during the offseason. Was that the plan just to get people stronger and bigger? I know that’s easy to say, but did the plan work?
A: “We had a lot of goals. I mean obviously overall we wanted to improve overall athleticism, but mostly focusing on where we were least efficient: That’s the size and agility. So we spent a lot of time, we started really moving weight and learning how to strain under a tremendous amount of weight.
“That’s where you talk a lot about straining: pushing through an immovable object. When you’re confident — it takes a tremendous amount of confidence to get under a 500-pound, 600-pound squat. It’s not just something that everybody does, so to make that investment day in and day out and to have that — knowing that you put in that sweat equity so that you have the confidence to handle a tremendous amount of weight — it carried as a great correlation to football and to success on the field.
“Our guys from day one to when we tested at the end of the summer, we saw a huge amount of success and turnaround in understanding what it meant to do that.”
Q: You’re UT’s fifth strength coach since the 2008 season began. How long did it take for the players to become acclimated to you and for you to acclimate yourself to the players?
A: “We talk a lot about relationships, and the tough part about being strength coach is that you don’t have the playing time to kind of wave in front of somebody. So what you have to do is you have to make an investment in them, because you’re dealing with more than the 22 starters. I’ve got 105 guys I’ve got to motivate every day.
“So unless you spend time investing in them as a person, you can’t ask them to put themselves in the most uncomfortable situations in the weight room all year long. We talk about you spell love ‘t-i-m-e.’ We talked to our guys about we have them for two hours out of the day. They have 22 hours to mess up everything we just did.
“So in those 22 hours, I need to be involved. Whether that’s me driving home and texting them saying, ‘Hey, look I just passed by a Taco Bell, I better not have seen your butt in there.’ Or, ‘Hey, I saw a sign for your hometown, man, how’s your family doing?’ or whatever it might be. You have to spend time getting them to buy into that first.
“Initially there’s some kind of arm’s-length ‘What’s this guy all about?’ I told them right away to hold me accountable to caring about them more as a person than as a player. I’m going to hold them accountable to their goals, because in that transition and all those times, their goals hadn’t changed. Their goal was still to be a great football player, to have success on the field and get a degree.
“Those are the same goals I have for them, so as long as they’re OK with the amount of accountability that it takes for us to make sure that, one, they reach their goals, and collectively as a whole that we reach our goal of winning an SEC championship, that’s bottom line. It was easy to get them on the same page in that regard. It was easy after we kind of did our initial testing showing them where they’re at and where they need to be, that we had some work to do. Those things all kind of led to those guys buying in fairly quick.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...