This undated photo provided by the University of Tennessee shows UT men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher in Knoxville. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Amid all the history and emotion that accompany a Tennessee-Vanderbilt game, these instate foes now have a real sibling rivalry.
Vanderbilt hired Garry Christopher as strength and conditioning coach last summer, a year after his younger brother Nicodemus took over the same position at Tennessee. They’ve been anticipating Wednesday’s men’s basketball matchup between Tennessee (14-7, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) and Vanderbilt (12-8, 4-4) ever since.
“You could say it’s been double circled back since July 1, absolutely,” Garry said.
Their parents live in Jacksonville, Texas, and are making the trip to Nashville for Wednesday’s game. Three of the Christophers’ five sisters also are expected in the Memorial Gym stands, one making the trip from San Diego.
“My mother says she bleeds orange,” Nicodemus said. “And my dad says he’s all about the black and gold.”
These brothers grew up competing against each other everywhere from the dinner table to the classroom. They still talk or exchange text messages almost every day.
“To this day, anyone who knows us knows if Garry was to walk in this room, about 10-15 minutes from now we’d probably be competing in something,” Nicodemus said.
The Christopher brothers took similar, indirect routes to their current occupations.
Both graduated from Baylor, but they were initially in different fields. Garry was a pre-med student at Baylor after playing Division III college basketball for one season at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. Nicodemus was pursuing a career in physical therapy.
Garry eventually decided he didn’t want to leave athletics completely behind, so he switched his major to health and human performance with the intent of becoming a strength coach. Nicodemus eventually chose the same major.
Garry said their father was into competitive weightlifting.
“I could see it every day,” he said. “It’s amazing when you’re 7 years old and you’re hanging on your dad’s big old biceps and you’re swinging from it. You get fascinated from those things at a young age. Growing up playing ball and everything, we had a general attraction to the weight room.”
Nicodemus was a speed and conditioning coordinator at Purdue before Tennessee hired him in May 2012. When Nicodemus left Purdue, Garry replaced him. After a year at Purdue, Garry got the job at Vanderbilt.
Both have earned raves for their performances at their current schools. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin calls his Christopher brother “one of the best out there.”
“He’s just a guy that really studies his craft,” Martin said. “It’s not just about weightlifting. He’s watching film, the way guys eat. He prepares for our meals for our guys on the road, home games, makes sure the guys are eating the right way on campus. ... He does a great job in preparing and getting guys ready.”
Garry, who at 28 is a year older than his brother, has a particularly tough job. Injuries and off-court issues have left Vanderbilt with seven healthy scholarship players. It’s a testament to Vanderbilt’s conditioning that the Commodores have won three straight games. Dai-Jon Parker has played all 40 minutes in four consecutive games. Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom have played 40 minutes in three of their last four games.
“Honestly, without him, there’s no way I could play 40 minutes,” Fuller said.
Nicodemus said any discussions about their respective teams are generally restricted to what workout plans have produced good results in the weight room.
The upcoming game has stoked their competitive fires. The basketball game might not be the only matchup of the night.
“I’m trying to get him to compete with me in a foot race now,” Nicodemus said. “Now that he’s getting a little bit older, I think he’s slowed down a little bit. ... I can’t get him to race me. I think he knows what would happen.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.
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