July 25, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Ron McKeefery joins ex-coach, friend Chris Creighton in building Eastern Michigan football program

Ron McKeefery, who has worked for the Bengals, Buccaneers and two Division 1 football programs, oversees a weight-room workout. (Mark Bialek / Special to the Detroit News)

Ypsilanti — The importance of building relationships with college football coaches can prove to be beneficial.

Just ask Eastern Michigan strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery.

McKeefery, then a senior at Ottawa (Kansas) University in 1997, played for first-time coach Chris Creighton, who was hired to turn around a program that was 1-9 in 1996.

With McKeefery’s help, Ottawa went 9-1 and reached the NAIA national playoffs.

And he must have made an impression because Creighton named McKeefery his assistant defensive backs/strength coach in 1998-99.

Now they’re together again, trying to rebuild Eastern Michigan’s football program.

“What we did and experienced together (at Ottawa), it’s a lifelong bond,” Creighton said. “And it was more than just winning. It was all the things we did together.”

Said McKeefery: “I was fortunate Coach Creighton came in my senior year in college. ... He was the guy I believed in as a player, a guy I believed in to stay on and coach with for a year. He’s a guy that’s been in my wedding, the first guy I called when I adopted our kids. He’s been a big part of our life.”

Being part of the journey

Creighton, who never has had a losing season in 17 years as a college football coach, believes he’s fortunate to have McKeefery on board at Eastern Michigan.

After all, in his first season with a Division I school, Creighton knows having someone with Division I experience helps.

“I told my wife whenever (Creighton) got a Division 1 school, which I knew he would, I would go with him,” McKeefery said. “That’s the reason I’m here. It’s a great opportunity to take a program that hasn’t been where they wanted it to be and build it from the ground up. Some guys shy away from that, but I know Coach Creighton doesn’t, and we’re kind of cut from the same cloth that way.”

McKeefery worked for Tony Dungy in the late 1990s with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers before moving down the street to help Jim Leavitt start South Florida’s program. McKeefery spent 11 seasons with the Bulls before returning to the NFL last season with the Bengals.

McKeefery said he enjoys his job as strength coach because he gets to work with the entire team, not just a certain number of players.

“If you’re a running backs coach, you coach six guys, a tight ends coach, four guys,” McKeefery said. “I wanted to make sure I touched every guy on the team, and I wanted to do that year-round.

“When you have a guy coming in, you know truly by sitting down with them, not just what their performance goals are — like how much they wanted to bench, squat and run — but what their life goals are, and you find opportunities throughout the lifts and runs and throughout their experience off the field to be a part of that journey with them. You experience a lot of things with them.”

'They're not breaking'

While McKeefery continues to mold his players for life outside football, he knows building them for the field this season and beyond is vital to Creighton’s goal of taking the Eagles to the top of the Mid-American Conference.

And six months into his tenure, Creighton is pleased with the results.

“They are in a different place from where we were six months ago,” Creighton said of his players, part of a team that is trying to bring Eastern Michigan its first winning season since 1995 and its first conference title since 1987. “They’ve responded to everything we’ve thrown at them. When we’ve taken them to a breaking point, they’re not breaking.

“We were out here in February, warmed up in the bubble (indoor practice facility) for our normal workout and Coach McKeefery after the stretch said, ‘When I was playing we would have practiced in the snow.’ One of the guys said ‘Let’s go then,’ so we had our entire workout in 6 inches of snow. ... That day was a special day.”

To some players, every day is special.

Take offensive lineman Campbell Allison. He keeps a before and after picture of himself in his locker, proud of the progress he’s made from McKeefery’s workouts.

“He’s the kind of guy who walks in the room, where he reminds me of an old Marine,” Allison said of McKeefery. “He stands up straight, looks like a pit bull up there, and demands respect. ... You go through his workouts and it’s like, ‘This guy knows what he’s talking about.’

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in my strength levels. I’ve seen the body change with a lot more of the weight moving from my midsection to my chest and shoulders, so I’m carrying my weight in better and healthier places.”

And therein lies the first step in McKeefery beginning to develop his own relationships.

“There’s a level of expectations, and if you don’t meet them, then there’s consequences to that, and you’re choosing those consequences,” McKeefery said. “I think when you do that and you truly care about them, it’s a recipe for success.”