There are certain things that don't really add up about University of Tennessee football Strength and Conditioning Coach Ron McKeefery. With his blunt snub-nose features and burnt sienna hair, he looks a lot like that kid who used to beat you up in grade school. Yet his operant vocabulary is littered with phrases like "kinesthetic awareness" and "flexibility prehab" and "functional strength."
Which is to say, yeah, there is that bellicose Irish pug/jock thing about him, but it's that of a normal-sized human being—if a bit heavy in the shoulders, and possessed of an oyster-crushing handshake. He's a former defensive back, fer chrissakes, was at Ottawa University in Kansas—and everyone knows defensive backs don't make for strength coaches. Linemen are strength coaches, maybe linebackers, or the occasional running back, but not some scrawny-assed copper-top DB.
And yet: "He's brought a new intensity to our weight room; he's really refreshed it, brought a new work ethic in," gushes Ooltewah sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith, one of McKeefery's prize pupils. With a suit of muscles that seems welded onto his impeccably lean 6-foot-2-inch frame, Smith says he's added an astonishing 50 pounds to his bench press since McKeefery's arrival, pushing his maximum within scraping distance of the sought-after 400-pound mark.
McKeefery took over the UT post in early 2011 when Bennie Wylie, Coach Derek Dooley's original hire for the position, bolted after one season for a job with the Texas Longhorns. The move made McKeefery—previously the human performance coordinator for the U.S. Army Special Forces and the head S&C coach at South Florida for 11 seasons—the fourth man to hold the job in three years.
Since his arrival, reviews have been beyond glowing. There have been stories from local sportswriters and radio jocks about how McKeefery hit the weight room with a group of players within one hour of his arrival, of how UT's notoriously brawn-deficient young and often undersized players have added dozens of pounds to their core weightroom lifts over the course of just a few months and pounds of lean muscle to their frames—pounds they'll need to physically engage the Nephilimian tackles and raptor-esque linebackers of Alabama and LSU. According to a statistic quoted on a local radio station, just two of UT's players could perform a back squat with 500 pounds when McKeefery arrived; now that figure has apparently risen to 28.
All of which makes one wonder whether UT fans might do well to include Texas Coach Mack Brown on their Christmas lists this year, because now one hears, time and again, how McKeefery has "changed the weightroom culture." This is something which would seem to be of paramount importance to a team that, by the head coach's own admission, was lacking team size and strength due to youth, lapses in recruiting, attrition, and coaching turnover.
Of course, no one around the program has anything bad to say about Wylie, who, for reasons that are becoming increasingly less clear, is considered a top-drawer S&C coach. Least of all McKeefery. "All the guys that have been here before me helped lay a foundation," he says, seated in his office looking out on the aforementioned state-of-the-art weightroom, with its awesomely perfect rows of geometrically elaborate benches and racks. "I think the condition we were in when I got here wasn't a reflection of any of them. It was a reflection of the fact that there were so many of them and the fact that guys were in critical stages of their development and didn't have consistency in programming."
McKeefery may not have been the tallest or heaviest guy on the field when was playing defensive back or throwing javelin at Ottawa U. in Kansas, but he has that steely determination about him, the kind of iron-jawed grit that made him play bigger than his 5 feet 11 inches, big enough to earn all-conference and Academic All-American honors during his collegiate career in the mid-'90s.
He was a gym rat from age 14, when a floor tech job at the local Gold's Gym led eventually to a trainer's position by age 16, a passion and a way of earning extra money that carried over into his college years.
Then at Ottawa, wavering between medicine and biology, he started thinking about ways to combine his athletic passions, training knowledge, and the science courses he was beginning to pick up in school. "I started exploring some options, went to an athletic training, went to physical therapy," he says. "But I liked the athletic development part, and I'd always taken pride in training myself for competition. So once I learned there was actually a field called strength and conditioning, it was kind of a no-brainer for me."
Apprenticeships followed with the Kansas City Royals—"I was sort of thrown several multimillion-dollar athletes, sort of out of nowhere," he says—and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then a head S&C position with a team in NFL Europe, before taking his job with the University of South Florida.
He calls himself a principle-based S&C coach, not a philosophy-based one, meaning that he'll use any method applicable to sport, rather than working primarily within a rigid system, such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting.
"When you're philosophy-based, it's almost like a religion," he says. "You kind of pigeonhole yourself into specific type of training. Early on, I learned that scientific principles of overload and progression and reversibility, you can apply those to many different disciplines. So why not take the best of everything?"
But it's not all about overload training and fast-twitch fibers and pyramid sets. A family man with three adopted children from Ukraine, McKeefery often mentions his passion for character-building, in addition to his obviously keen interest in developing superior athletic machines. It's one of the reasons he says he knew the fit was right when Dooley came knocking at Special Ops in Fort Campbell, Ky. "He's got a real commitment to invest in players' lives. It was a seamless relationship."
But he says that Dooley warned him up front that "we were not where we need to be as an SEC program. Our numbers in the weightroom weren't reflective of that. So it was a matter of coming in and creating an environment that was extremely competitive, extremely accountable, and where you were required to give an extreme amount of effort."
One of the ways McKeefery has improved that "weightroom culture" is by setting goals for every member of the team, with metrics drawn from NFL combine statistics (where would-be rookies are tested in 40-yard dash, bench reps with 225 pounds, vertical leap, etc.). "That's helped us with buy-in early on," he says. "We take the NFL combine stats, and compare where they're at. When you get 104 out of 105 guys saying ‘I want to go to the NFL,' and you show them, look, the NFL combine average is 25, and you're at five reps, it's easy to say, ‘We need to put some work in.'"
McKeefery is also given to some unorthodox training methods, tactics like unscheduled field trips and other curveballs to promote team-building or up the intensity on stale workouts; at South Florida, he once brought in MMA-style caging, piped in smoke and loud music, and had lifting competitions all night long. His UT crew went on a field trip to work with Marines; on another occasion, they did an American Gladiators workout, competing in events from the television show. "It's a mixture of having fun, but also putting in some work," he says.
It's an interesting insight into McKeefery, the man, that even his reading schedule is regimented. He reads one book per week, in a rotation. "Usually one business leadership book, one strength and conditioning book, and then one family book," he says. He just finished Outliers, a book about the nature of success by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, and began The Vault, a powerlifting e-book.
"My wife jokes at me, I never read anything for pleasure," he says. "The last thing I did read for pleasure was a John Grisham novel, Playing for Pizza. It was about playing football overseas in Italy. Since I had been in NFL Europe, it was familiar… I'd had a lot of similar types of experiences."
Not a surprise, though, this lack of light reading, given his routine 10-hour-plus days. Plus there's the family. He and his wife Angela, adopted the three Ukrainian children in 2005: Tyler, and twins Ava and Maya, now ages 9, 11 and 11. They also took in McKeefery's younger brother, James, now 13, when McKeefery's father died in Honduras during the 2010 football season.
"It basically orphaned my brother there, so we went down to Honduras and got him and he's been with us ever since," he says.
It's a busy household, with son Tyler following in his footsteps on the football field, the girls having taken up cheerleading, and all three in karate.
And for all the rapidity of his success in developing UT's malnourished football players into a promising group of up-and-comers for the 2011 season, there's something equally reassuring about his domesticity, his steadiness, his comforting predictability on certain fronts; about the notion that after three years, three headmen, and four weightroom captains, the university finally has a steady presence, a firm guiding hand it can count on to build better bodies and better men for years to come.
"I trained my whole career to get to an elite level SEC football program that has a tradition for winning and a commitment to strength and conditioning," McKeefery says. "On top of that, you've got Coach Dooley, who's a phenomenal coach, very smart and challenging. He pushes me to be a better strength coach.
"At the end of the day, we're on the same page in terms of character development. And that's why I got into coaching. To develop young men."