CHARLOTTESVILLE — VirginiaSports.com regularly checks in with members of the UVa athletics department who play vital roles but generally operate outside of the public eye.
One such person is Kelli Pugh, a UVa alumna who’s a fixture on the sidelines during football practices and games — and in the McCue Center training room. Here’s some of her story:
Title: Associate athletic trainer for football
Age: 31 years old
Hometown: Born and raised in Fairfax County, Pugh preferred dancing to playing sports. As for football, “I grew up watching my parents watching the Redskins, but we never watched much college football,” she says. “Now they love it. My parents come to the games, and they’ve become die-hard UVa fans.”
Family: The former Kelli Frye and her husband, Gary Michael Pugh, are expecting their first child. The baby is due in March. “I’ll probably miss spring football, but I should be back in time for summer workouts in June,” Pugh says.
Education: A 1996 graduate of Hayfield High School, Pugh earned a bachelor’s of science in kinesiology, with a concentration in sports medicine, from UVa in 2000, and a master’s in athletic training from the University of Florida in 2002. She’s also a graduate of the SunCoast School of Massage Therapy in Tampa, Fla.
Back in the day: As an undergraduate at UVa, Pugh worked as a volunteer in the athletic training room. She helped with the football team in 1998 and ’99, when George Welsh was the Cavaliers’ coach. She considered a career in physical therapy before opting for athletic training. “Physical therapy is clinic- or hospital-based,” Pugh says. “Athletic training focuses more on active people, and you’re out in the field and get to do a little more emergency management, because we’re the first responders on the scene.”
Gator country: While pursuing her master’s at Florida, Pugh worked as a graduate assistant with the school’s football and golf teams. She was there for two seasons with Steve Spurrier — his final two in Gainesvile — and one spring practice with the Ol’ Ball Coach’s successor, Ron Zook. “I loved my time at Florida,” Pugh says. “Coach Spurrier gets a lot of flak from the press for throwing his visor, but he’s really a nice family man … It was a real shock to the whole town when Coach Spurrier left. People were almost in mourning.”
Homecoming: Pugh went looking for full-time employment after earning her master’s. She found it at her alma mater, working for head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba as an assistant trainer for football. “I love football, but I didn’t really expect to get a Division I job out of college, especially being a female,” Pugh says. “But when the opportunity presented itself [at UVa], it was a no-brainer, especially to come home.” Her parents still live in Northern Virginia, and she has a brother who’s a junior at Christopher Newport University and a sister who lives in Raleigh, N.C.
Promotion: In the spring of 2008, Pugh took over as UVa’s primary trainer for football. “We had some staff changes and shuffled some things,” she says. “The opportunity presented itself. I went to Ethan and told him, ‘If you think I’m ready, and the coaches think I’m ready, I’d like the challenge.’ But it’s not like Ethan isn’t involved.” Pugh calls Saliba and Chris Patrick, Florida’s assistant athletics director for sports health, “by far my two greatest mentors.”
Pioneer of sorts: As a profession, athletic training is becoming increasingly dominated by women, Pugh says. In major-college football, however, very few women are head trainers for football. “I’d say less than five,” Pugh says. But the Wahoos’ coaching staff has been supportive, she says, and it’s not a big deal with the players, because “most athletic trainers at the high school level are women.”
New role: Pugh meets daily with Al Groh. “I think that the was the biggest change, the interaction with the coaching staff,” she says. “Before, Ethan did most of that.” Pugh oversees a staff of about a dozen, including Andy Baker, the assistant athletic trainer for football, three master’s candidates who are certified athletic trainers, and students who help keep players hydrated during practices, games and workouts.
On the clock: Most days, Pugh doesn’t leave the McCue Center until 8 p.m. She’s usually at work no later than 8 a.m., but her starting time varies. On the day of this interview she’d arrived at the McCue Center at 5:30 a.m. On Sundays during the season, she works from 1 to 8 p.m. After a road trip, her day isn’t done when the team bus pulls up to the McCue Center. Pugh and Baker head to the training room, where they re-evaluate players who were injured in the game and make sure they’re comfortable for the evening before sending them home.
On the job: Pugh has an excellent perspective during the games. “Andy has the hard job,” she says. “He’s back on the bench dealing with injuries and letting me know who can play and who can’t. I’m on the sideline looking for injuries as they occur, so I get to actually watch the game. I have the easy part on Saturdays.”