Tennessee basketball’s 29-year-old director of men's basketball sports performance, a position known better as “strength and conditioning coach,” wasn’t the most popular interview at the Vols’ annual team media day last week. However, there weren’t many people on the Pratt Pavilion court that have contributed more to the restoration of Tennessee basketball than Garrett Medenwald.
It looked slightly odd when Rick Barnes tabbed the then 25-year-old to run his strength and conditioning program when he took over the Vols’ program in April of 2014, but like he’s proven in his tenure in Knoxville, Barnes knew what he was doing.
“Garrett’s methods and approach to elite performance training are on another level,” Barnes said. “He’s a star in his profession, and our students enjoy not just how he trains them, but also the personal relationship he develops with each of them.”
It didn’t take clairvoyant skills for Barnes to know the success Medenwald would bring to Tennessee, just the hard work he saw in the Madison, Wisconsin native in his four years as a manager and intern under Barnes at Texas.
As Barnes and Medenwald embark on their fifth season in Knoxville it’s that hard work from Medenwald that has greatly helped develop the Tennessee basketball program into one of the SEC’s best.
Combine Medenwald’s hard work with tough, undervalued players who have a commitment to get better, and what you get is a program that’s won 57 games, a SEC Championship and spent five weeks at the top of the polls the past two seasons.
“It starts at the top with coach (Barnes),” Medenwald said. “Coach is amazing with what he stands for, and more importantly, the people he puts around him. We have an amazing staff, and we’re really lucky to have players that are amazing.”
“It starts with the culture, number one. Number two, it starts with these guys (players) and the hard work they put in. We’re lucky enough that everybody loves this game and with love and passion comes hard work. It’s been really fun to be a part of that.”
If you’ve arrived early enough to watch Tennessee warm-up for games you’ve seen some of the unconventional methods Medenwald uses, but all with a focus on winning games and making the players better.
“He’s great. The stuff we do with him I’ve never done before,” freshman Olivier Nkamhoua said. “Obviously I’ve never been in college before, but it’s great. My body feels stronger and more balanced than it has ever. … I feel like we work on the things that translate to basketball. I don’t feel like I’m lifting to lift.”
Medenwald brings a focus and intensity to everything he does. As I spent a few minutes talking with him, I couldn’t help but think that he must’ve thought he was talking to John Wooden, but according to those around him, everyday it’s just his nature to always be locked in.
“It’s hard to explain him, but if I could explain him in one word, I’d say relentless,” Lamonte Turner said. “He’s a guy that’s always focused. You’re never going to catch him off focus. You’re never going to catch him playing around or goofing off. If he is, we’re nowhere near a gym. He’s about his business.”
When asked to describe his demeanor, Medenwald said to ask the players. When he heard Turner’s answer he laughed before elaborating more.
“It’s my job to create an environment,” Medenwald said. “I feel a responsibility to these guys, this team and this staff to make them the best that they can be individually and what this team can come together and create.”
“I have a unique job to create that environment, and that environment is going to take a lot of relationships, a lot of trust, and it’s also going to take a lot of hard conversations, it’s about being real. So, I’m going to bring the intensity every day. I’m going to be resilient.”
Medenwald’s approach goes beyond the basketball court or weight room, but to every part of his relationships with players.
When asked about any certain player he often added that he was proud of “how he’s grown as a person” just as much, if not more than his joy in watching them grow as basketball players.
“He takes personal interest in each and every one of us,” Turner said. “Not just class or not just basketball, but ‘How’s home? How’re your parents?’ Stuff like that. It means a lot to the players.”
For Medenwald, his work in Knoxville is as simple as working as hard as he asks others to work. It’s safe to say the Tennessee basketball program is better because of it.
“We expect a lot of our players,” Medenwald said. “So, the expectation has to be flipped onto yourself. You have to come in with a great mindset and great energy that you’re going to provide the best environment to these guys every single day. That’s my mindset.”