When he was 8 years old, Ron McKeefery came across a football field. During the middle of a practice, he walked right through it — beelining between tacklers, overwhelmed by and unaware of what he was watching.
“I had never seen anything like that,” McKeefery told The Times in a phone interview Monday. “The coach in that moment, he could have easily kicked me off the field and yelled at me, cussed at me, whatever. Instead he took me by the hand and walked me to the sideline and he let me watch football practice the rest of the day.
“That single decision by that coach single-handedly changed my life and set me down this path of being able to coach in the NFL and coach athletes and teams around the world and do some pretty incredible things. But it was all because of a decision a coach made in a split-second 30-plus years ago. So that’s the type of impact I want to have on these guys’ lives.”
In the years since, McKeefery has made a wide-ranging impact — with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1999-2000), NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder (2000), the University of South Florida (2001-10), the University of Tennessee (2011-12), the Cincinnati Bengals (2013-14), Eastern Michigan University (2014-16), PLAE Academy (2016-20) and Fresno State (2020-21). Along the way, he’s twice been named national collegiate strength and conditioning coach of the year.
McKeefery has established himself as one of the country’s premier strength and conditioning coaches, and he’s done so alongside longtime friends in UW head coach Kalen DeBoer, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell.
But, beyond relationships: why Washington?
“Washington is obviously a place where you can win a national championship,” said McKeefery, who was named the Huskies’ head strength and conditioning coach last month. “The competitor in me, the competitor in all of us, is such that we want to be at the highest level and we want to go after the biggest prize on the biggest stage. And you can do that here. You’ve got great resources. You’ve got an incredible fan base. You just pour into these kids and you recruit the right kind of kids and get them in here, and you can do some really special things.”
But not without trust. Not without buy-in. Not without a comprehensive commitment from the players and staff.
And for McKeefery and his Huskies, they have to forge that on the fly.
“I met with every single player on the team (last week),” McKeefery explained. “What I told these guys is there has to be a certain level of trust that exists when you’re meeting people for the first time and you’re trying to chase a common goal. For us to go win a championship in a year here, we don’t have time to get to know each other for two months.
“I asked every single guy if I had their permission to push them — to coach them hard. Coaching hard isn’t yelling and screaming and cussing and getting in their face. Coaching hard is pushing them outside their comfort zone. Because there’s no growth in comfort. We want to push them outside where they feel comfortable, because that’s where growth occurs — both in the weight room and in life.”
Which is where the “why meeting” comes in.
It’s a meeting that addresses both the weight room and life. It allows McKeefery to sit with each player individually and compare their testing numbers to standard NFL combine statistics, to determine their areas of strength and what needs improvement.
Then, it allows him to build a foundation that transcends football.
“The other part of it is really getting deep with them really fast, just to get to know them, so you know what buttons to push,” McKeefery said. “I ask them questions like, ‘If football were to end for you tomorrow, what would you do with the rest of your life?’ Because most of the time they’ve never thought about the mortality in the sport.
“The second question I ask them is, ‘What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever been through?’ To hear these guys’ stories about some of them being homeless and living through some super traumatic things, that gives you a different perspective for them when you’re coaching them. But to get that kind of depth that fast, I have to show them vulnerability, too, and share those types of things.
“The third question I always ask is who the most influential person in their life is. Really, I ask that so I can get their permission to call that person and let them know. Because we don’t do a very good job as humans of letting people that are closest to us know what they mean to us.”
This is how McKeefery makes an impact.
Through communication … and competition.
“Most of these athletes come from various different training backgrounds,” he explained. “For some, (strength and conditioning) is what they live and breathe for, and for some it’s the last thing they want to do. They just want to play the game. But they all love to compete.
“What we’ve done through the years, we’ve had this winter competition. It’s been a major part of our offseason program, and it leads to feeding that competitive spirit and helping the time to pass. Because it’s a tough deal when you’re eight months away and you wake up at frickin’ 5:30 in the morning and you’re getting your butt kicked in a workout. If you can’t relate that to going out on the field and winning ballgames, it becomes a long road.”
So McKeefery transforms his winter workouts into a competition. He tasks the program’s seniors with drafting eight different teams, by selecting players from various pools based on ability levels. Each workout is then graded with either a plus, a zero or a minus, determined by the athlete’s performance, attitude and effort. UW’s lifter of the week and honorable mention lifter of the week earn points for their team. If you’re late for a workout, you lose five points. If you miss a session entirely, you lose 10 points. If you wear the wrong clothes, you lose points for that too.
Eventually, the competition will yield personal accountability — and beyond adding strength and stamina, McKeefery will have done his job.
“The big thing that coach DeBoer and I preach at all times is initially it’s going to be very coach led, because we’re coming in and implementing a new system and a new process and those types of things,” McKeefery said. “But we’ll never win a championship if we’re a coach-led team. We’ve got to be a player-led team out on the field. If we can foster that with competition, that’s what we love to do. Because that’s where curiosity and joy is, you know?”
McKeefery has been doing what he loves since he was 8 years old.
Now, he’s bringing curiosity, joy and competition into Washington’s weight room.
“We’re hungry. Even better, we’re starving,” UW cornerback Mishael Powell said Monday. “Last year didn’t go the way we wanted it to, and we felt we had a lot of talent. We talked to the strength staff and they gave us a whole plan on how they’ll make us into monsters. That’s what coach Mac (McKeefery) talks about, just trusting his program.
“We’re very confident. We’re coming in every day and we’re locked in and ready to go. Today was day one. It was the first day back so everybody had to shake off the rust. But we’re just going to work here until we can’t work anymore.”