KNOXVILLE — Ron McKeefery missed “just having fun with the guys.”
McKeefery, the University of Tennessee football team’s head strength and conditioning coach, said he didn’t get the day-to-day interactions he does now when he was the human performance coordinator for the U.S. Army Special Forces, 160th Special Operations Aviations Regiment.
“At the end of the day, I love to work with athletes,” McKeefery said at his first media opportunity since being hired on Jan. 17. “I love to touch them on a daily basis, and I love to have an impact on their lives.”
But McKeefery wants that impact to last longer than players’ tenures with the Volunteers and to carry off the field as well.
“I’m all about character and making sure I have an impact on these players’ lives beyond the four or five years that they’re here,” he said. “I tell them on a recruiting visit, my job is to make you better husbands, better fathers, better citizens.
“If I can do those things right there, football takes care of itself.”
He views the opportunity to join a program like UT’s as a lifetime achievement.
“I had worked my whole career to get to place like the University of Tennessee,” he said. “I put a lot of time and work in at the University of South Florida and through the NFL, and the different experiences I’ve had, to get to a program of this caliber where they are going to provide you the resources to be the strength coach you want to be.”
McKeefery’s program has produced significant progress in a short time.
“The last eight weeks, these guys have made huge strides,” he said. “We’ve increased our bench press by 25 pounds a guy. Our squats are 40-50-pound increases. We’ve got significantly faster. We’ve doubled our speed in the areas that we wanted to improve.
“We’ve made some huge strides, but we’ve got a long way to go still, and I’m looking forward to continue to keep the training through spring ball and obviously into the summer.”
Being the fifth strength and conditioning coach in the last 25 months for the Vols, McKeefery knew he couldn’t sell the players with typical coach-speak during his first meeting with them.
“I walked in and said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to hold you accountable to your goals. You hold me accountable for caring more about you as a person than as a player,’” McKeefery said. “That’s what I’m all about.”
He believes the early success in the weight room despite the coaching turnover is an indication of the veteran leadership on the team, and the type of players being recruited by the coaching staff.
“These guys are resilient and it’s a testament to the upperclassmen,” McKeefery said. “It’s a testament to the recruiting class that Coach (Derek Dooley) has brought in, and the type of person that he is bringing into this program.”
Having come from a diverse coaching background, which includes stops in major league baseball as well as the NFL and NFL Europe, McKeefery feels his experiences help him find a way to relate to each player individually.
“I’ve been able to see a wide range of being able to reach each player,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve got. When you’ve got 105 different personalities, you’ve got to be able to push the right buttons. So you go with a Da’Rick Rogers, you have to approach Da’Rick a certain way, and you have to approach Justin [Hunter] a certain way, a Tyler Bray a certain way, and a James Stone. They all are a little bit different. By having a wide range of experience, I think it’s prepared me for being able to reach these guys beyond just the weight room.”
The approach he’s taken with Hunter has had a positive effect on the Vols’ sophomore wide receiver.
“I really can say he’s doing his job, because I never thought I was going to get bigger and stronger, but he put pounds on me,” Hunter said. “He’s the real deal, so I give him props.”
With all the coaching changes in Knoxville in recent years, McKeefery knows the players have doubts going forward, but he wants to reassure them he’s in for the long haul.
“All I can say is that I’m going to give them everything that I possibly have,” he said. “I was at South Florida for 11 years. I have a young family. I have a wife and I have three adopted children and a younger brother that stays with me as well. So they’re in school and I have no intentions of going anywhere, and that’s all I can give them.”