KNOXVILLE -- Defining moments near his high school and college graduations eventually led Aaron Ausmus to his dream job.
The former University of Tennessee track and field All-American has returned to his alma mater as the director of strength and conditioning.
"Everything kept pointing to this," Ausmus said Thursday evening from his new office inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center's massive weight room. "Now I look back and I realize why. Now it makes a lot more sense."
Ausmus -- a tall man with board shoulders, a shaved head and deep voice -- looks and sounds like a strength coach and former shot putter. But he never dreamed such a scenario was possible until a 1998 conversation with John Stucky, the renowned former UT strength coach who died in 2007.
Ausmus, the 1997 NCAA indoor shot put champion, was set to graduate but hadn't figured out his future. Stucky knew, though, and he offered him a graduate assistant position.
"My first reaction was, 'Well, I've never coached before,'" Ausmus said. "But Coach Stucky said, 'I just want you to bring what you brought with your work ethic and just bring that to our players. You'll learn this stuff as you go. Just be you. I want your work ethic to rub off.'
"That's the course I took -- and here I am."
Four years earlier, a history teacher at Campbell County High School had given him a similar psychological shove. The teacher stopped class and asked some seniors, point-blank, about their post-graduate plans.
"He said, 'Find something you love to do and pursue it,'" Ausmus said. "At the time, I was basically a track athlete, and I loved lifting weights. The teacher said, 'Take Aaron Ausmus, for example. Obviously he likes lifting weights, and he throws the shot. He loves doing that. He needs to choose a career that will allow him to be that person.'
"At the time, I'm thinking, 'I'm a senior in high school. What's he talking about?' But he was right."
If his career path didn't seem destined at that point, it soon would.
Chris Carlisle, the strength coach who has built a long line of All-Americans and NFL draft picks at Southern California, left UT's top assistant position to take over the Trojans in 2001. He convinced Ausmus to tag along.
"(Carlisle) told me Pete Carroll was the new head coach at Southern California, and he told me I had to come with him," Ausmus said. "My first question was, 'Who's Pete Carroll?'
"That sounds kind of funny now, doesn't it?"
Ausmus enjoyed a second national championship three years later, when the Trojans completed a remarkably quick return to the top that started with a 6-6 record in Carroll's first season.
"I saw firsthand that year what all goes into winning that national championship ring, versus winning the first one (at UT) after being on the job just three months," Ausmus said.
When the USC coaching tree started expanding, Ausmus got his first two head strength-coaching gigs -- at Idaho under Nick Holt in 2004 and at Ole Miss under Ed Orgeron the following year.
"If you're going to follow a model for success, you can't follow anything better than what we did at SC," said Orgeron, now UT's associate head coach who also handles the defensive line and organizes recruiting.
Added first-year Vols head coach Lane Kiffin, another former Southern Cal assistant: "If you recruit like we did at SC, and you train and coach the guys up like we did at SC, you can win like we did at SC. That's the plan we want to follow here at Tennessee. That's where we want to set the bar."
Setting the strength staff wasn't that simple, though. Ausmus was considered for the opening initially, but Kiffin ultimately plucked more prominently known Mark Smith from South Carolina.
Differences of opinion quickly emerged between Smith and Kiffin, though. No parties involved have discussed specifics on the record -- Kiffin still claims that Smith is a "great coach who will succeed somewhere else" -- but the bottom line is UT will pay two full-time strength directors until Smith finds another job.
Ausmus had just settled into his job at North Texas when Kiffin called with a "dream job" offer. Still, understandably, there was hesitation -- plus UT's mandatory job-vacancy waiting-period policy.
"My family had just gotten moved April 1," Ausmus said. "When this came about, it was very shocking. I felt like in my five or six months with North Texas, I was getting my guys to the point of what I'm looking for with the motivation to train. And again, this happened, and you're kind of bent and twisted a little bit, but this was just such a great opportunity."
Ausmus had met his wife, the former Andrea Pappas, at UT. He joked that "no other job" would have allowed him the spousal permission to uproot for a second time in six months. He said Andrea was excited about the opportunity to raise their two sons -- Max Aden, 3, and Bo David, 1 -- in East Tennessee.
Now comes the professional hurdle, though. Ausmus' typical preseason itinerary has been modified for a late start. Monday was his first workout with the football team, and he said his philosophies are drastically different than Smith's in several areas.
"It's totally different," Ausmus said. "I want to see these guys be able to move better. I want to see them trim down and get as lean as they can possibly get, especially the O-linemen. Again, it's kind of based on me wanting to see them move better and buy into working hard.
"Coming into this time of the year, right at the middle of summer training, I don't have a lot of time to do a lot of evaluations and see where we are. That would be wasting time at this point. The bottom line is they need to be in great shape for Aug. 3 (the team's first practice), so if we waste a week doing introductory lifts and breaking it down, and they don't get a lot of stimulating lifts, we're missing a week while everybody else in the country is rocking and rolling.
"We've kind of hit it on the fly. We're trying to teach a few little things as we go, but the bottom line is I'm trying to instill that passion and that energy that I think needs to be in this program."