Rock of Ages

The strength coach for the UK football team is known for his strong words and his talent in building strong players. Most people don’t know about his other side. You might be offended by his language, but then, you might not know the man.


Portrait by Brandon Goodwin | Staff

At first, the only thing you know about Rock Oliver is that he has a dirty mouth. It is a mouth so foul, so perfectly efficient in its profanity that it has devised a way to consolidate the word “motherfucker” into a single syllable.

You want to know more about this man. In a world of political correctness and little league games where it’s against the rules to keep score, there still exists a man who’s not afraid.

So you ask if you can spend some time with him. Word goes through the program, and it’s slowly cleared at every level. You’ll get to spend the day with the Cats’ zealous, mystifying, obscene, wildly popular strength coach. But then he gets cold feet. You’ll be given an hour to meet Rock and see what he does, ask him a few questions, then leave.

You arrive at a weightlifting session on Sunday afternoon, a day after UK has shellacked Charleston Southern 49-21. Oliver emerges from his office, silences his players in one bellow, and you find that you might not even get that.

“There are two reporters here from the student paper that want to do a story on me. Now, if you guys don’t want ‘em in here, then I’ll throw ‘em out.”

There’s a tense pause. No one says anything, least of all the two intruders.

“OK,” the strength coach says.

The reporters are allowed to stay.

****

You learn something new about Rock Oliver. He doesn’t care for reporters. Maybe you’d guessed that. But you hadn’t guessed why. He’s met plenty of them, and they all write the same story about him: He’s a foul-mouthed strength coach, and the only thing he does more than work is swear. That gets him in trouble with his wife, who’s very religious. Rock Oliver doesn’t like being in trouble with his wife.

You remember seeing a picture of him after the win during the previous day, joining the players at midfield for a prayer. That’s interesting. Maybe he’s not quite what you expected. Then again, maybe he is. In the first 33 minutes of weightlifting, he manages to say a variation of the word ‘fuck’ 27 times. At least, there were 27 times you could hear it. He doesn’t always speak so loudly, and the music is blaring, and you weren’t always right next to him. Maybe the real number was closer to 40. Or 50. Or 100.

But religion can wait. He’s talking about his players. He’s been a strength coach about half his life, and like most coaches, he’s been all over the country. He’s saying that Lexington is a special place. It might be his last stop after 26 years and nearly a dozen coaching jobs.

There’s nothing he loves more than coaching young people, he says. You can tell it’s true.

“I spend an enormous amount of time worrying about and praying for young people,” he says. “It’s a different world we live in. When I’m 70, if I’m still around, I want to know who I’m turning this country over to. The guys that I’m turning it over to, I’m spending time with them right now.”

There it is again – prayer. You also know he pulled Ronnie Sneed aside during UK’s win over Vanderbilt on Nov. 13. The Cats were trailing, needing a win to become bowl-eligible, and Sneed was on the bench with an injury. Quietly, Oliver took the junior linebacker away from the commotion of the sideline and prayed with him. Sneed eventually re-entered the game, and UK rallied to a 38-20 win.

His players love him. He wept on the field after UK’s win over South Carolina earlier this year. No one ever says a team has a bad strength coach, but no one ever talks about a strength coach like his players talk about him. Junior wide receiver Randall Cobb says Oliver cares about every player on a personal level, and his drive to make them better makes the players want to work for him. Those players have noticed his mouth too (how couldn’t you?), but that’s never what they think of when their time with Rock is done.

“He doesn’t leave without letting us know he loves us,” senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. “He won’t let you leave that weight room thinking that he’s mad at you. He means the world to this team.”
Few strength coaches can inspire their players to go to war the way Rock Oliver does. You don’t realize how he does it at first, but it starts with the swearing. You realize it when you think about his tears after the South Carolina game. When it comes to his football players, Rock Oliver, the tougher than two-dollar jerky strength coach, is as emotional as a father on his daughter’s wedding day. When it comes out of his mouth, though, it’s not always pretty.

“There’s nobody happier than me for the players when we see them do well,” Oliver says. “I’ll tell you this, though. After a loss, they know that I’m mad, but I’m not mad at them. I’m disgusted that we didn’t win, I’m not mad at them. They’re 18, 21 years old. Fuck, they did their best.

“That might be very well why they go out there and do what they do, because they know that I care about them so much. I think the one thing that they don’t understand is I don’t want to let them down any more than they want to let me down.”

Rock Oliver kneels to pray after UK played Charleston Southern. Photo by Britney McIntosh | Staff

Asked what player he has had the biggest impact on during his career, Oliver doesn’t hesitate. It’s Richie Farmer.

“I made that sonuvabitch work,” he says of the state’s lieutenant governor hopeful. “I love him.”

This is Oliver’s second stop at UK, after working with the basketball team from 1989-92. He’s back because there’s no place he’s ever been that’s quite like Lexington, and he’s never found a type of young man like the kind he has found at UK. That’s something you didn’t know about Rock Oliver.

He’s also back for Joker Phillips, a close friend. Years ago, he told Phillips that he’d like to work with him if he ever became a head coach. In December, Oliver saw the crawl on ESPN announcing that Rich Brooks was planning to retire. Less than five minutes later, his phone rang.

“He calls me up and says, ‘You ready?’”

There’s never been a coach Oliver has worked for who he feels as strongly about as he feels about Phillips. Maybe that’s why he arrives at the office just after 4 a.m. during the week, often staying for 13 hours on weekdays. He does things other strength coaches don’t do.

There was a countdown clock in the weight room at the Nutter Training Facility from the Cats’ first workout, marking the days, hours, minutes and seconds until UK’s season opener against Louisville. There are 104 players on the football team, and he’s spent the last year learning what makes each of them tick. Without knowing that, he can’t get them to work, can’t push them to their limit. He says that he’s trying to imprint his personality, his fire, on the heart of the program. He’s trying to make sure the players won’t quit.

“He can take this team over the edge with how we’re going to be conditioned mentally and physically,” Lumpkin said. “It’s going to be exciting to see what happens. Coaches come and go, but if he stays he can take this team over that hump.”

You’re getting closer to learning who Rock Oliver is. It’s been about an hour. The two intruders wonder if their time is up. Then, the man who wanted to throw the reporters out earlier that afternoon invites them into his office.

****

Rock Oliver talks about swearing like an alcoholic talks about vodka. He tried to cut the profanities out earlier this year, actually. That lasted about two minutes, until the first time he got angry.

“I try not to, but I’m emotional,” he says. “It’s not what makes me who I am, I’ll tell you that.”

You’ve learned that by now. You know who he’s not. But you haven’t quite learned who he is. Now’s the time. You’ve learned that he grew up in church – his father was a deacon. Surely, he must realize the irony. He must know why he’s interesting. He’s the hard-edged strength coach who’s loved by his players for his fire and a devout Christian – with a mouth you can’t believe until you hear it firsthand.

“I’m the kind of guy, people are going to believe whatever the fuck they want to believe. But I know I believe in Christ, and so does my family.

“So that being said, I do understand that probably that mouth of mine is the biggest thing that when He looks down at me, He shakes His head. But when He looks at my heart, I know the reason this guy’s on the cross is for people just like me. People that are going to make mistakes.”

Barely 10 minutes later, the man who wanted to throw the reporters out earlier that afternoon is quietly giving them a motivational speech for all-time in his office. He’s talking about duty to God and country and self and, jeez, this guy could probably give one helluva halftime speech.

“This is the greatest opportunity and greatest challenge that exists for people your age right now,” he says. “And don’t fucking give in. There are more people doing it right than there are doing it wrong your age. Don’t give in. You’re going to have families, you’re going to have kids, you’re going to have everything. Don’t give in.”

Your hour with Rock Oliver was up two hours ago. Now he’s inviting the two reporters he wanted to throw out earlier that afternoon to stick around for the rest of the day.

But you don’t need to. You’ve finally learned who Rock Oliver is.

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