Rick Majerus covets such a job. So does Frank Layden. You could probably add coaches such as Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski to the list, too. Everyone, it seems, wants a job like Tommy Connor.
Last July, Connor, the former University of Utah guard and assistant coach, landed a position even big-name, millionaire coaches drool over: a small-college, no-pressure, education-oriented post, where all you really have to do is recruit and coach.The pay isn't seven figures, or even six, which scares away a lot of high-profile coaches. Still, there's no booster club pressure, no know-it-all media and no late-night games to accommodate the TV networks.
It's hoops without the entanglements.
Connor was hired by Westminster to bring back basketball, which the school abandoned 20 years ago while in the throes of a financial crisis. But Westminster has gone through a remarkable trans-for-ma-tion in recent years. Revenues and enrollment are up. It is rated among the elite colleges in the West. It has a fine student-to-faculty ratio, a prestigious academic reputation and a picturesque setting. What more could a self-respecting private college want?
A basketball team, naturally.
Connor, then, was just what the school was looking for. He's young enough for players to relate to but old enough to respect. He has a well-known name in Utah - which helps recruiting significantly. He spent seven years as an assistant at Utah, where he worked under Majerus. He was academic all-WAC when he played there (1985-90), and thus has a healthy respect for the "student" part of student-athletes.
And Westminster didn't have to offer enough him money to buy an island, either.
That Connor would end up at Westminster isn't such a big surprise. He was the stereotypical coach-on-the-court player. If you ran to the wrong spot, you could count on Connor telling you as much. You might get out of earshot of the coach but not the point guard.
He continued as a graduate assistant with the Utes, then a restricted earning assistant. He spent a year running the Champions Athletic Academy in Orem. But after seven years of big-ticket college basketball, he figured out something Majerus knew a long time ago: major college basketball takes over your entire life.
And so when he discovered Westminster was thinking of adding basketball, he was the first guy in line. Officials told him something many coaches would have had a problem with: "The only ultimatum they gave me is that I keep in perspective what this job is, and that isn't to practice at 1 a.m. if we lose, and not practice five hours a day at the expense of study time."
The place doesn't want to be a basketball factory, it just wants a team to help unify the campus.
"To the purists, this is a neat level of basketball," Connor says.
So if the Parsons happen to lose three in a row, you won't see him haunting the convenience stores late at night, unable to sleep, as did BYU's Ladell Andersen. Nor will he call a reporter back at 2 a.m., right after watching game film, as does Majerus. He definitely won't be flying to Finland or Africa, hoping to discover a diamond in the rough. A recruiting trip for Connor might mean driving down to UVSC or Dixie to talk to the eighth player in the lineup.
So for the next year Connor will concentrate on building a team of true student-athletes. Since there are no NAIA schools in Utah, all the road games will be out of state. They will play in the Frontier College Conference, which at the moment consists of five Montana schools. Most of his players will come from the Wasatch Front. Con-nor also hopes to rely heavily on local junior college players who don't go on to Division I schools.
Though Westminster doesn't offer scholarships, it can offer an academic scholarship/financial aid package that makes getting a private school education surprisingly cheap. The player gets to go to a school that actually looks like a college, not a cement factory. It's the kind of place that makes you want to put on your old letter sweater. There's a stately old building out front and plenty of shady places to sip latte. Best of all, a river - OK, a creek - runs through it.
Meanwhile, the fans will get something, too. "Real good seats," says Connor. "In the niche we're in, it's such a pure form of intercollegiate athletics, and you're seeing true student-athletes doing something they love - yet they're going to be up late that night getting ready for the chemistry finals. There's not much size, but they'll be very good players."
And the big college coaches can eat their hearts out.