As her U-Haul pulled up to move her into her new home in western Kentucky, Ryan O'Connor got a call from UK.
She couldn't say no.
UK had called to offer O’Connor the job of head cheer coach, a position that was vacant because the previous coaching staff was fired following a hazing investigation.
O'Connor had just accepted the head cheerleading coach position at WKU in March, moving her family to Bowling Green during quarantine. The UK coaching job opened in May.
"I'm not even going to tell you that this was a dream job because I never even dreamed that it would be open, that I would have the opportunity to have this job," O'Connor said. "I didn't know that the stars could ever align."
But they did, and two months later, O'Connor was in Lexington holding virtual tryouts for UK's 2020-21 cheerleading squad.
O’Connor, a lifelong Kentucky fan, cheered for UK from 2008-2009. However, she decided to transfer to the University of Alabama her sophomore year.
After graduation, O’Connor decided to move on from cheerleading, despite multiple graduate assistant coaching offers. Instead, she moved to Memphis for an editor position at American Cheerleader magazine.
Nine months later, she had quit her job, packed up her things and moved to Birmingham— the editor job wasn’t what she expected. The University of Alabama-Birmingham was looking for a new coach. The only problem? She didn’t have the job yet.
“I thought it would make me a better candidate,” she said. “Thankfully God took care of me.”
O’Connor spent four years at UA-B, meeting her husband along the way. But she wanted to coach in the SEC. In 2017, she accepted a position at Ole Miss, where she stayed for three years.
However, after having her son in early 2019, she almost quit coaching entirely.
“I was kind of like, I just want to move to Lexington, I want to be back where my family is,” O’Connor said.
She had already accepted the fact that moving meant her coaching career was over when WKU offered her a job. A few months later, UK also had an opening, and O’Connor applied. She said WKU was “incredibly supportive” of her decision.
“It is a job you just can’t turn down,” she said.
The timeline was quick. Typically, the UK squad would have been selected by April, but this year, virtual tryouts weren’t held until July. The cheerleaders didn’t arrive on campus until early August for conditioning, when normally they would have already been in “tip-top shape,” O’Connor said.
One of O’Connor’s hallmark philosophies is coaching people, not just cheerleaders, she said. She’s a resource for her athletes long after they leave the program, because she cares about them as people, on and off the field.
However, her focus on relationships has been difficult during COVID-19, with Zoom meetings and face masks.
“I can't read my athletes’ emotions when I say something in practice or when I'm correcting them,” she said. “How are they really accepting it? I can't always tell.”
Communication difficulties aren’t the only pandemic complication. Due to COVID-19, the cheerleading squad will not be allowed to perform at football games. Instead, they are pre-recording pre-game and timeout routines for game days to keep the energy up.
These routines will also prepare the squad for the annual Universal Cheerleaders Association national championship, to be held January 2021. The UCA championship is collegiate cheer’s sole competition opportunity, so while the two-and-a-half-minute performance doesn’t define the year, O’Connor said it often feels like it does.
Assistant coach Jason Keogh, called “Keo” by the team, said winning what would be UK’s 25th title is a “very realistic goal” given the squad’s talent level.
“We’ve got the best kids, we’ve got the best athletes in the nation,” he said.
When cheerleaders hear that "Keo" is going to be their coach, they are usually nervous. He has a reputation for strictness, Keo said. But his athletes quickly learn that Keo’s structure is paired with encouragement, which together helps push them to their full potential.
Keo's legacy isn't specific to college cheer; his two decades of coaching have included stints at Ole Miss, Memphis and Purdue, as well as experience working with athletes of all ages at his local gym. He has also competed in multiple arenas, collegiately at Kentucky and nationally as a former Team USA cheerleader.
O'Connor, who grew up watching Keo perform, competed alongside him for Team USA.
So when Keo reached out about an assistant position, thinking it would be a good opportunity to continue the program's winning tradition, she didn't hesitate to say yes.
"He just has a special drive and he makes everyone around him better," she said.
Keo's four years of Team USA experience also helped him hone his own coaching skills.
"It was awesome to be coached by all of those great coaches and learn from them,” he said. “Learning the way they wanted things done, learning the way they communicated with the athletes and especially communicating with all of the athletes that at that point were the best of the best.”
Keo knows the kind of cheerleader UK is looking for, having coached multiple cheerleaders from a young age through to their eventual UK cheerleading careers. He said they are looking for someone who is not only a talented cheerleader, but a great university ambassador and dedicated student.
“I think I have a pretty good eye for that talent," he said.
O’Connor said that one of the coaching staff’s other goals is to make Kentucky innovators again, like in the past, when UK was always performing the newest skills.
“There’s other schools that are doing skills that have never been competed, and that’s what I want to do,” O’Connor said. “Not just do the hardest skills, but do the hardest skills ever been done.”
It’s the job of the coaching trio—O’Connor, Keo and Bergmann—to push their athletes toward these goals. O’Connor said that their styles complement each other; she focuses on planning, leading and vision, Keo brings loud energy and a laid-back Bergmann calmly leads by example.
“I think it’s great for the program to have three people that sort of look at things differently,” Bergmann said.
While O’Connor looks at the big picture, Bergmann said he tends to focus on the outliers, the things that might quietly slip through the cracks. One of his specialties, he said, is mentoring those cheerleaders who might struggle a bit their freshman year. Through individualized motivation, Bergmann helps to transform them into team leaders and "studs.”
"I think that's the most rewarding part for me—you're seeing them come into their own a little bit,” he said.
But performance goals aren’t the only objectives he has set for the team.
“It's kind of my goal to make sure that we're well-rounded,” Bergmann said. “Once they're done with a journey here, they can just take that well-roundedness and championship mentality into everything they do.”
Bergmann met O'Connor through cheer at Alabama, and when she got the Ole Miss coaching job, he asked her for a position.
O'Connor said that then and now, Bergmann was the only assistant coach she wanted. She knew he would be someone the cheerleaders would respect, both talent-wise and as a human.
"He really understands that coaching is a 24/7, 365 job," she said. "It's not, you walk into practice and pretend that you're this person and tell them to do these things and to follow these rules and then you leave practice and don't do that."
While UK’s winning culture is unmatched, O’Connor said that she wants her cheerleaders to be more than athletes, with ongoing goals of surpassing a 3.0 GPA team average and getting more involved in the community. O’Connor said she wants to make her mark by creating a culture that embodies four characteristics, her “Four C’s”—commitment, choices, challenges and character.
In the shorter term, though, O’Connor said she is solely focused on giving her best to this year’s team, even though she would normally be recruiting next year’s squad by now.
“I know they’ve been through a lot and I want to make sure that they get the year that they deserve,” she said. “I hope that Lexington and BBN are ready because this team is special. We are going to write our own story.”