Tasked with completing a roster and laying the foundation for a program on short notice, Larry Krystkowiak may have found his most significant recruit in the form of an eligibility-exhausted point guard two decades removed from his peak.
That's not to say Tommy Connor needed much convincing to return to the University of Utah after a dozen successful years as the head coach at Westminster College.
"I want to see Utah basketball successful," said Connor, a starting point guard for the Utes for four seasons culminating in 1990. Connor subsequently spent seven years as either a graduate assistant or assistant coach under Rick Majerus and was a head coaching candidate before the Utes hired Jim Boylen in 2007.
For this year's Utes, now 4-11 and on the road this week at Stanford and California, Connor's return brought a link to the Utes' strong tradition.
"He doesn't boast about the past a lot," guard Chris Hines said, "but obviously we know that he was a good point guard here. He kind of helps because he has the same pride that we have."
Connor, 44, said it was the right time to make a move from Westminster, where he spent 12 years and amassed a 264-114 record. Seventeen of his players earned NAIA All-American recognition. But when the offer from Krystkowiak came, after a three-hour getting-to-know-you dinner, Connor said it took just a late-night conversation with his wife, Kathryn, to convince him to take it.
"We're pretty rooted here and I didn't have to move my family," said Connor, who is originally from Boise, but hasn't lived outside of Salt Lake since coming here for college. "Even though I wasn't looking to leave Westminster, it was the right time for a new challenge."
While his title is no different from assistants Andy Hill or Demarlo Slocum, Connor has slid into a role as Krystkowiak's top assistant. He is the most senior and experienced of the coaches; he focuses on coaching more than recruiting. Krystkowiak will frequently step aside at practice and allow Connor to walk the team through offensive and defensive sets, and Connor is, often, nearly as vocal as a head coach.
But, he said, he's still learning to occasionally find his way to the background.
"You go back from being a decision-maker to a suggestion-maker," he said, "and there's a big difference between the two."
Connor matches Krystkowiak's famous intensity, and is often off the bench waving his arms like a symphony conductor, trying to get Josh Watkins to sag on defense, to encourage Jason Washburn to call for the ball. Anything to make Utah consistently competitive in the Pac-12.
Through his first eight months on the job, the Utes have shown few signs of it.
"It eats at me every day, man. It's hard," Connor said. "It's very difficult. This is a very, very challenging time for all of us. I desperately want this program to succeed."
Utah at Stanford
P At Maples Pavilion (Stanford, Calif.)
Tipoff • Thursday, 8 p.m.
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 4-11 (1-2), Stanford 13-3 (3-1)
Series record • Utah leads 14-7
Last meeting • Utah, 82-77, OT (March 20, 1997)
About the Utes • Utah is 1-2 all-time at Maples Pavilion, with its only win in the building coming on in 1971.
About the Cardinal • Senior Josh Owens leads Stanford with 13 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. â¦ Stanford's losses this season came to Syracuse, Butler and, last weekend, to Oregon.