He avoids the limelight because his only concern is doing his job to make sure coach John Calipari’s players are as healthy as possible on a daily basis, but Kentucky head athletic trainer Chris Simmons has a contagious personality that players have to like.
He says strength and conditioning coach Mike Malone is the “tough guy” on the staff.
“I am the guy the players all come talk to when they have a problem. When the coaches go crazy on them, I let them sit in my Dr. Phil chair and talk,” said Simmons. “But when parents come here and I make a commitment to them to take care of their son, that’s what I am going to do. If you are going to trust UK with your son or daughter, then my job is to make sure they are taken care of.”
Simmons, a Mississippi native, was a graduate assistant athletic trainer for football at Arkansas after completing his undergraduate work at Memphis. He was an intern with the Cleveland Browns and spent the 2005-2006 season as head trainer/coordinator of basketball operations with the Arkansas RimRockers of the NBA Developmental League.
He went back to Memphis to work for Calipari and was there three years before coming to Kentucky when Calipari did.
“When I left Arkansas and went to the NBA Development League, I was kind of in between whether I wanted to go back to the NFL or work in basketball,” Simmons said. “I took the road less traveled and did the developmental league for a year, but when my alma mater and coach Cal called, I went back.
“I did not know I was coming to Kentucky when he got the job. I didn’t know (assistant) Josh Pastner would stay at Memphis (as head coach). He used to come into my office and say he couldn’t believe Cal was going to Kentucky and then one day he came in and said he would not be going with him after all. I am happy for him, but I am happy to be with coach Calipari. After all, I was a student-trainer with him during my early year at Memphis. That’s when I got my start.”
He says keeping up with Calipari can be hectic, but it can be done.
“I do get to rest, but one thing about it is he cannot go all day any more, either. He’s in his 50s now. He goes and goes, but I can keep up with him,” Simmons said. “I always say he drives the train and I sit back in the caboose and just make sure the players are OK. I take care of players and make sure they are healthy. We’ve been rolling for years and have had great success I believe will continue. It culminates every year in June with the NBA draft. Graduation and draft night are the brightest days of the year for me and coach Cal.
“You just have to love your work. You put in a lot of hours. You’ve got to be passionate about it so the players see it. If you dread coming to work, they know it.”
Kentucky’s returning players have been on a brief break and now the incoming freshmen are also reporting to campus for summer school and workouts. Freshmen Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer comprise the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
“Players are coming back now for eight weeks, then they will get to go home and then we will crank it right back up for the school year,” Simmons said. “Me and the strength coach are here all the time with them. He (Malone) is working the guys hard and I am making sure they are doing what they are supposed to do to take care of their bodies. I am here for health and safety reasons. I try to always be around when the players are doing anything. I want them to see me working. You have to lead by example, so I try to be here every time they are.
“I am looking forward to this new group and seeing how they respond and adjust. They have never been away from home for this long. The first few weeks we get them locked in about their daily business of study hall, going to class, working out and playing open gym and other things they must do daily. They have to learn to rest at night and not play Xbox all the time.
“It really takes time to figure that all out. A lot of them have never been in a totally structured environment like this. Even the most talented kid has to come here and work because the one thing we stress around here is work. Coach Cal expects them to strive for perfection. We try to work hard and be consistent.”
However, Simmons has an engaging side players and coaches can’t help but like. He helped record-setting sprinter Tyson Gay at Arkansas, and the two remain friends. Simmons even arranges for Gay to get tickets to UK basketball games now when he’s home in Lexington.
Then there is Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt, who was at Arkansas when Simmons worked with the football team there.
“I like horses, and it has been fun to have all the horse people come into the Joe Craft Center that do each year,” Simmons said. “I used to ride horses with coach Nutt at Arkansas. He has a whole stable of them. I was supposed to ride with him this year the morning of the Ole Miss game, but it was raining and we couldn’t do it. But I love the horses, and that’s another part of being in Lexington I have really liked.”