The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that Utah State head coach Stew Morrill will be stepping down after this season. So why do Utah fans care? Perhaps because Utah associate head coach Tommy Connor could be one of the top choices to replace Morrill.
Morrill, now 62, will retire as the winningest coach in Utah State men's basketball history. Since his arrival, the on-campus basketball arena known as The Spectrum has become a graveyard for visiting teams. Morrill's home record is 243-29, 117-18 in conference play. The fans in Logan have come to expect wins and NCAA Tournament berths, and they'll want a coach that can reignite the fire Morrill initially set ablaze, which brings us to Utah assistant Connor. The reason USU may contact Connor is his resume, his ability to recruit Utah, and his defensive genius, learned from a long line of quality coaches.
When Larry Krystkowiak first arrived at Utah, he made his best hire right away, luring Connor away from nearby Westminster College (NAIA). Connor immediately told Krystkowiak that the first player he needed to see was not on his roster. It was a local phenom named Jordan Loveridge. Since that time, Loveridge, now Utah's starting small forward, has said that Krystkowiak's (and Connor's) attention and interest in him was what made him sign with Utah. None of that happens without Connor, as previous Runnin' Utes coach Jim Boylen was known to have the attitude that Utah had no division I-level talent. (That attitude, of course, was what kept Boylen's teams severely less talented when faced with BYU teams littered with local players.)
Connor has been on the Utah recruiting scene since his first stint as a Utes assistant under former head coach Rick Majerus (1994-1997). The former Utah point guard knows the lay of the land, both literally and figuratively. He has relationships and contacts with local coaches, and, most importantly, he has demonstrated success landing some of the most high profile athletes in the state (Loveridge and Brekkott Chapman). It's likely that Connor is the primary recruiter for 4-star Lone Peak guard Frank Jackson, although it would probably take more than Connor to get Jackson up to Logan.
Many times in the last four years, Coach K has credited Connor with designing the defense that led to big wins or solid performances. Against BYU in Provo during the 2012-2013 season, Utah dropped a close 61-58 road game against a much better, more talented team. Krystkowiak said it was Connor who suggested using a triangle and two defense against the Cougars, which limited star guard Tyler Haws and center Brandon Davies to 25 points combined on 6-of-20 shooting. (In fact, Haws scored only 14 points, mostly on 10-of-10 shooting from the foul line.) Because of the stifling defense, which is now the Utes' national trademark, Utah held a 12-point lead during the game but simply didn't have the offensive firepower to pull off the upset. That game, however, set the tone for the next three years and established what we're seeing on the court today.
Rick Majerus once called Connor one of the smartest coaches he'd ever been around. That definitely makes him head coaching material, and his defensive wizardry would play very well with the rabid fans in Logan. Morrill was known as a defense and rebounding sort of coach himself, and he's had a long, successful run up north.
Coaching Blue Blood:
Tommy Connor is a coaches coach. What does that mean? He has a tremendous coaching pedigree, resumé, and comes from a solid coaching tree. Connor is as close as it gets to a blue blood in the coaching profession. First, he's the son of a coach, Buzz Connor, who coached Tommy at Borah High School in Idaho. Second, his coaching tree includes the late Rick Majerus and, of course, his success as the top assistant to current Utah head coach Krystkowiak. Thirdly, he has a track record as a solo artist of sorts, having built the Westminster men's basketball program practically from the ground up. In 12 years as the head man at Westminster, Connor's record was 264-114 (.698). In conference play, Connor's teams were even better, with a 126-40 record (.759).
Connor coached 17 players to NAIA All America status and had one NAIA National Player of the Year. The Griffins also had five players named Frontier Conference Player of the Year and saw 36 players earn all-conference honors.
What might keep Connor from accepting another job, ? To begin with, Connor is a Utah man. He was a point guard (and a very good one for those who never saw him play) at Utah from 1986-1990. He's also very likely the hand-picked successor for the head coaching position if Krystkowiak ever moves on or steps down. In fact, Connor was one of the top candidates among fans to replace Boylen when the former Michigan State assistant was fired. Another impediment is that Connor's own son Jake, a 6-3 guard out of Highland High School, is a freshman on the current Runnin' Utes squad. But money talks, and the distance would be fairly negligible. The younger Connor could even transfer. Ultimately, his loyalty to the program and probable desire to be the head man at his alma mater may be the deciding factors.
Among other names being bandied about is the name Randy Rahe, a former Utes assistant and the current head coach at Weber State. Rahe spent 13 seasons on Morrill's staff, starting at Colorado State and following Stew to Utah State, and is likely to be the top candidate to replace his former boss in Logan.
Runnin' Utes Extras:
Utah star guard Delon Wright is listed third on ESPN.com's Wooden Watch, tracking the top candidates for the John R. Wooden Award given annually to the best player in college basketball. (Former Utah center and All-American Andrew Bogut was a recipient of the Wooden Award.) The senior from California is ranked behind Wisconsin's 7-foot Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky who is averaging 16.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. Kaminsky's Badgers are 15-1 and ranked No. 4 in the country. In second place is Duke's center Jahil Okafor. The 6-11, 270-pound behemoth averages 18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.6 blocked shots per game. Duke is 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. As Utah continues to climb up the rankings and gain notoriety from Pac-12 play, expect Wright's name to become more respected, as well. However, those are big shoes to try and overtake... literally.