Kentucky strength coach keeps up his energy for both his families


Head strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris trains with Reid Travis. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

One word to best describe Kentucky basketball’s strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris: energetic.

Before every home game, fans sitting in the Rupp Arena seats can see Harris bouncing around with the much-taller players on the jumbotron as they get pumped up in the backstage hallway before taking the court. Harris is often seen standing in the middle of the huddle screaming at the players, getting them ready for the battle they are about to face on the court.

Rupp Arena isn’t the only place you will see Harris display high amounts of energy. In fact, anywhere he goes, Harris always brings the same intensity fans see on the jumbotron.

“You can ask my kids, I’m probably the embarrassing parent at the soccer field, yelling and screaming,” Harris said. “I have the same level of energy that I do here as I do at home, when I’m with friends; it’s just who I am.”

A high amount of energy is something Harris believes any great strength coach needs, especially at a place like Kentucky. Every year a fresh batch of 18-year-old high school graduates come to Lexington with little experience, and every year it is Harris’ task to turn those boys into men, sometimes in less than a year.

In high school, most five-star players spend little time in the weight room and more time practicing their shot and other basketball skills. At such a young age, players don’t see the importance of building strength and conditioning, and would rather work on their skills that can be displayed on the court.

Harris has had some players come to him during their first days on campus and tell him that they don’t like lifting weights. One player who delivered that message to Harris was Isaiah Briscoe.

The two-year UK player and now guard for the Orlando Magic once told Harris that he wasn’t going to lift weights, but when he left Kentucky after his sophomore season, he had a completely different opinion of the weight room.

“By the time he left, he was probably one of the biggest transformations body-wise I’d ever had and absolutely loved the weight room and was probably one of the strongest guys on the court,” Harris said.

How exactly did Harris get him, and many others, to go from hating weights to becoming a gym rat? It’s the high-energy weight room plus the bonds he creates with players as he encourages them to be their best.

Harris always tries to be the first one in the weight room and the last one out, so he’s always available when the players are working out or have questions. When players are in the weight room, Harris will have music blaring through the speakers, but that isn’t enough to drown out Harris completely.

“He’s an uplifting guy, he’s bringing the energy when we are in there lifting weights,” freshman guard Ashton Hagans said of Harris. “…When I first got here I wasn’t as built as I am now.”

With the music pumping in the background, Harris is always running around the weight room, yelling at the players and motivating them to work harder or do an additional set. However, telling someone to do something and getting them to actually do it are two completely different things.

The way Harris motivates players to actually push harder is with the energy that he brings at all times.

“The excitement that I bring is— they can never match that,” Harris said. “If they can go only go halfway to that then they’re in great shape. If they can meet my excitement, which some do, then I think that we’re in the right direction as far as me being the motivator to them.”

Motivating the players to work harder and improve their strength is the basic job task for any strength coach. Aside from that, Harris believes he has an additional obligation with his job, and that’s to provide the players with a sense of comfort in an area that’s completely new to them.

Harris thinks of himself as a big brother for the players, someone to always have your back and encourage you to be the best you can be at the same time. Harris believes he’s the perfect fit for the big brother role on the team because of the way he can interact with the players on a personal level.

“That’s why I say I’m more or so that big brother role as opposed to some of the coaches,” Harris said. “With me being a younger guy, being closer in age, I think we just kind of mesh well with their personalities and my personality.”

Making personal connections and helping people is what led Harris into strength and conditioning. When Harris graduated from Kentucky State with a bachelor of arts in physical education, he became an intern on Kentucky’s football strength and conditioning staff.

Even as an intern, Harris displayed the excellent work ethic he’s known for that eventually helped him move his way up the ladder.

“When a lot of people spent time going home, I was like cleaning weight rooms, getting extra training sessions in with different athletes that I could,” Harris said. “It’s all about literally keeping your head down and just working to when you feel like you can’t go anymore, and going even further.”

Since the internship at UK, Harris has been involved in the strength and conditioning programs at Ohio State football, the Cincinnati Bengals and Arkansas football.

Harris joined the Kentucky basketball strength and conditioning staff as an assistant strength before the 2014-2015 season, and for the last two seasons, he’s been the head strength coach for UK. Harris loves the role he’s in now, as it provides him another platform to help kids improve their fitness.

“I have a passion for helping people, I have a passion for strength and conditioning and I also have a passion of knowing that when I go home, I got three women that are looking up to me as far as my wife and two daughters,” Harris said.

Harris’ family of his wife, Maria, and two daughters, Anaya and Alaya, is the first of his two families, the other being the basketball players he coaches in the weight room every day.

When Harris isn’t in the weight room screaming at freshmen, he’s often spending time with his real family, and the tight-knit group’s favorite hobbies are horseback riding, playing board games and watching family TV shows.

“The home life is great, we make it a point to spend a lot of time together as far as— we eat dinner together as a family when we can, we also have like movie nights and pizza nights,” Harris said.

When Harris goes home after a long day at work, he doesn’t mellow down like many others might. In fact, he keeps up the same amount of energy as he would if he were yelling at a basketball player to push harder.

“We’ve done a test, a personality test the performance staff did, where it’s like this is who you are at home,” Harris said while moving the palms of his hands from closed to open. “Everybody else’s was like ‘This is who you are at work [palms open], this is who you are at home [palms closed].’ Mine was ‘This is who you are at work and this is who you are at home [palms closed].’”

Life as the strength coach at Kentucky can sometimes keep Harris away from his family, especially when he coaches a team that spends so much time in the gym. When Harris is away from home, he is still spending time with his family, however, the one that he continues to push and chase greatness with in the weight room.

“There’s a lot of people who would love to be in the seat that I’m in, so it’s like I’ve been blessed to be where I am and I don’t want to take that for granted, so I give it 110 percent,” Harris said. “Sometimes it might be too much but it is who I am.”