Rock Oliver had a nice gig with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. As associate strength coach, he was a favorite of owner Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis and developed close relationships with players Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Rudi Johnson, Willie Anderson and the late Chris Henry.
Yet when new Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips reached out to Oliver about leading his strength and conditioning program, Oliver decided to leave all that behind.
Oliver admits he's heard the "Why?" question often since making the move to replace Marc Hill, who is taking an administrative position with the university.
"But a lot of people that have asked me that don't understand how special of a place Lexington is," Oliver said. "I've got a lot of history here."
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Oliver became a household name in Kentucky as the strength coach for basketball during Rick Pitino's magical run in the 1990s. It was then that he became close with Phillips, who was an assistant under UK football coach Bill Curry.
"Joker and I had always talked about if he ever became head coach, he'd want me on board," Oliver said. "And three years ago, after he was named head-coach-in-waiting, he asked me about if I would still be interested. He thought I was kidding when I said I would be."
It all made sense. Oliver's wife, Winone, always had a special place in her heart for Lexington. Oliver's 21-year-old daughter, a student at Vanderbilt, has applied to law school at UK, and his 19-year-old son will be transferring to UK from the University of Cincinnati.
As soon as Phillips took over for Rich Brooks, he made the call. The Bengals tried to hold on to Oliver, but his affinity for Lexington and the unanimous support from his family made the decision for him.
"If you've never worked here, you don't understand how special this place is," Oliver said. "(Former UK athletics director) C.M. Newton once told me, 'You'll regret leaving this place.' And he was right. There isn't a guy that ever worked here that left that won't admit to you, 'That might have been a mistake.' Rick (Pitino) even said it."
Oliver also is close to UK basketball coach John Calipari. They first met at Kansas when Calipari was an assistant coach. Oliver was the head strength coach for Calipari and the New Jersey Nets in 1996-97 and at the University of Memphis from 2001-03.
Calipari has said he'll pick Oliver's brain, but Oliver made no bones about his task during his second go-round at UK.
"John knows I'll always be there for him," he said. "We started out together at Kansas. He's going to lean on me, and I'm going to lean on him. We're close. But as far as what I'm here to do, I'm here to build an army for Joker. I'm here to work for Joker and get this thing the way he wants me to have it."
Oliver has the reputation of a no-nonsense taskmaster. But he's a soft-spoken, introspective guy in public.
"He's steady on your butt," said freshman linebacker Will Johnson. "He wants to win games, and he wants everybody to do what they're supposed to do. He's basically one of us, like another player on the team. He's just pushing us to do more."
All you have to do is check the Twitter accounts of some of the UK players to get insight into winter conditioning Rock Oliver-style.
"I heard that the workouts were a monster," Johnson said. "And they are."
Oliver is achieving the difficult balance of being well-liked by the players while commanding their respect.
"He's the man," sophomore safety Winston Guy said. "Everybody likes him so, when we get to the weight room, we're already amped up."
Oliver had a simple description for his relationship with the players.
"I love them, and they love me," he said. "The ones I get on that day, they'll never leave thinking I'm mad at them. That's not what this is about.
"The best relationships I have today aren't with people my age. They're with people I've coached. Richie Farmer, John Pelphrey, Sean Woods, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Rudi Johnson. People will tell you, 'Hey, you can't fall in love with these guys.' But I've always been in a situation where I can flip that switch and get them to do what I want them to do."
Oliver has instant credibility with college players because of his NFL years with the Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We all want to know what it's like in the NFL, and he knows what it takes to get there," Guy said.
Oliver said he doesn't know of another strength coach in the Southeastern Conference with his experience in the NFL.
"If a player wants to know what it takes to make it to the next level, physically, I'm a living cheat sheet," he said. "I know the techniques you're going to have to do, I know the workouts you're going to have to do."
Oliver, 47, doesn't just stand with a clipboard barking out instructions. He participates in drills with the players.
"You have to show them," Oliver said. "A lot of strength coaches, the actual coaching isn't there. Coaching is teaching. People nowadays are visual learners. If you think you've got some pretty presentation you're going to give and, because you drew it up on the board and gave them a sheet of paper that tells them what to do, that they're going to do it you're wasting your time."
Oliver also differs from many strength coaches in that his drills are specialized. So, instead of endless wind sprints, players do more position-specific training.
"When spring practice comes around, they'll have that metabolic cycle while, at the same time, they're actually getting better as a football player," Oliver said. "The only way a guy can get better at football is to practice football. We can be in the weight room doing all these exercises feeling good about ourselves, benching 500 pounds, but you can't play. That is for nobody but your girlfriend. We've got to be better at fundamental things."
Phillips hopes Oliver's tutelage can take the Cats from a perennial bowl team to a perennial Southeastern Conference contender. One thing's for certain: He has the players believing.
"We're on board," Johnson said. "We think this is what can get us over the hump."