Last week, UK hired Ryan Martin O’Connor to be its new cheerleading coach following the scandal that resulted in the firing of longtime coach Jomo Thompson and the assistant coaching staff and the resignation of program advisor T. Lynn Williamson. Yesterday, KSR’s Abbigale Harrison gave us a great breakdown of O’Connor’s background, which includes five UCA national cheerleading titles, one as a Kentucky Wildcat, and three world titles with Team USA. Today, O’Connor met the media during a Zoom call alongside Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Executive Associate Athletics Director Sandy Bell. Here’s what you need to know.
She’s happy to be back in Lexington
O’Connor was born and raised in Lexington and started her cheerleading career at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, winning five KAPOS state championships and five UCA national high school cheerleading championships. After building UAB and Ole Miss into national contenders in recent years, she took the head coaching job at Western Kentucky three months ago and is thrilled to be making the short drive back to Lexington with her husband and son.
“I think Lexington is the absolute best place to raise a family and to grow up and ever since I left I’ve just been trying every year trying to figure out a way that I could get back to Lexington and how I could combine my passion for my job and my student athletes, but also to get back to where my family is from. So I’m really excited just to be moving home and just to be a Lexingtonian again…To come back and work for the University of Kentucky and just to be back home, it means so much to me and it means so much to my family.”
She met with the team (virtually) last week
Due to the pandemic, O’Connor hasn’t been able to meet with her new team in person yet, but she did hold a Zoom call with them last week to field questions and talk about her vision for the program moving forward. Not only did O’Connor cheer at UK for a season under Jomo Thompson before transferring to Alabama, she also lost one of her coaches in college, so she is sympathetic to the current squad’s plight.
“I lost my coach when I was in college too and there’s that period where you’re just kind of in limbo, and you don’t know who the person is to go to. And so I appreciate Nathan, Sandy, and Mitch for taking all their questions, but I was thankful that I could step in and be that person for for them too.”
O’Connor said she’s also in the process of interviewing assistant coaches and hopes to announce her staff soon.
Tryouts will take place virtually
This year, UK’s cheerleading tryouts will take place virtually, with O’Connor and a panel of judges reviewing videos from candidates this Friday, July 3 and announcing the final roster on July 10.
“I’ve got a group of judges who will be coming over to my parents house and judging the videos with me. They’re all alumni of the program and they’ve all judged live in-person trials before so they’re a great group of judges that are going to be able to help me select the best program for our fans and for our community and our university. So we’re going to do that and announced the team by July 10.”
If you’re a UK student and would like to try out, click here for more information.
UK Cheerleading will NOT be part of a reality TV show
In 2019, O’Connor and her mother Donna (the head coach of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s cheerleading team) starred on the Lifetime show Cheerleader Generation, but for now, she said she’s done with reality television.
“No, that is not something I’m planning on doing again. I think it’s a lot of extra work for me and for the student athletes and it is not something that we are planning on as of now.”
Her motto is “Pressure is a Privilege”
O’Connor’s got some pretty big shoes to fill and the spotlight will be even brighter as the program emerges from scandal. It’s a challenge for which she says she’s been preparing her whole life.
“I think pressure is a privilege and it’s something that I always say to my athletes and it’s something that I really believe. I think being able to even be under pressure means that you’ve done something right to be in the spotlight or to be in that position. So I really do think of it as that. Also, I really feel like I’ve been in the spotlight or under pressure my whole life. I have a mom who is a storied high school coach and been on two reality shows where they’re kind of all access following us around at all times. I’ve been the face of my college program, competed on Team USA, been the face of the Universal Cheerleaders Association through college camp, so I just I think I’m just used to that. And I think that’s why I was a perfect fit and excited about this and saw it as a privilege instead of as pressure.
“He’s right, though. No matter who was here, all eyes would be on this program. All eyes have been on this program and they’ll continue to be so I’m excited about that opportunity for everyone to be watching. I think I thrive in situations like that. I did as an athlete. I loved when crowds were watching us and I think I’m going to love it as a coach as well.”
What will change now that Cheerleading is fully under the UK Athletics umbrella
After UK’s investigation found lax oversight by the former coaching staff, Sandy Bell was put in charge of the program, which is now fully under the UK Athletics umbrella. Barnhart explained the change a little more this morning.
“The difference is simply, we were more of a scheduling and a budget management process. The actual work of oversight for the entire program rested elsewhere in the university and so that has been the way it’s been for for literally decades. And so we were scheduling and we monitored our finances, the finances in terms of our pieces of the budget, and there were other pieces of the budget in other parts of the campus as well. So all those were brought under our umbrella and all of those pieces we will now manage and work with Sandy and with Nathan to do that.”
Here’s the entire press conference, including Barnhart’s adorable black lab sleeping in the background: