It was the 1996-97 University of Utah basketball season, and assistant coach Tommy Connor, who previously served as a graduate assistant, was in his seventh season with the team. That year, the former four-year starting point guard for the Runnin’ Utes welcomed his first child, Jake, into the world.
During the first year of Jake’s life, Tommy was hardly around due to basketball. Not being as heavily involved as Tommy would have liked to be during Jake’s first year was a challenge. It was because of that Tommy felt like he needed to figure out how to better manage time when it came to the game he was invested in and his family that he loved.
“I quit,” Tommy said. “I told coach [Rick] Majerus at that time that I know I’m going to coach somewhere and keep doing it, but I got to see my son a little bit.”
Tommy left the Runnin’ Utes, and he landed a job as the head coach at Westminster College. Over the course of 12 years (1999-2011) at the helm, Tommy built up the program. This job position allowed Tommy to not only grow as a coach, but also as a dad. He was able to be with his kids more often, and that was exactly what he needed.
Then in 2011, Tommy found himself back at the same university he had said goodbye to years earlier. Current head coach Larry Krystkowiak hired Tommy as an assistant coach for the Runnin’ Utes, and in 2014, he earned the title associate head coach.
The journey for Tommy that involved leaving the school he played for and coached, to being a head coach at another college, before winding up back at his alma mater is quite the ride. For Tommy though, he explains it best as coming “full circle.” He left the Runnin’ Utes to be in Jake’s life more, and when he returned to Utah for the second time, Krystkowiak offered Jake a chance to be a preferred walk-on. Tommy said going through all of that to ending up coaching Jake on the same team felt like “good karma.”
Jake had opportunities to play elsewhere out of high school, but he felt Utah was the best choice, because he wanted to stay close to his dad and the rest of his family. During his first year as a freshman, Jake admits it was a difficult adjustment to be on the same team as his dad, but they’ve both noticed how it has made their relationship stronger.
“It was hard at first, because it’s never been a player-coach standpoint with him,” Jake said. “We got use to it, but it was can’t call him dad on the court, things like that. We adjusted, and we still have a really good relationship at home. It’s just kind of different up here, which it needs to be.”
Having a coach-player relationship on the court and a father-son relationship at home is something the two have worked on over the years. It’s separating the two duties when need be that has been key in helping the two progress. Jake said at home they watch and talk basketball, but they are also able to talk about other things and leave what they need to on the court.
“It’s a fine line,” Jake said. “I think he really emphasizes he’s not going to give anything to me just because I’m his son. He’s harder on me than other players if anything.”
Tommy grew up the son of a college coach as well. His dad coached at Boise State, and although he never played for him, Jake believes his dad has a feel for what it’s like to be in his shoes.
“Growing up being the coach’s son, I think he has taken a lot of those experiences and put them into teaching me,” Jake said.
The father-son duo has learned from each other on and off the court. According to Tommy, Jake has taught him patience, and he has learned he needs to step back at times. For Jake, his dad and coach have taught him irreplaceable lessons.
“He’s pushed me in the right direction academically. I’ve gotten where I want to be with that” Jake said. “He’s taught me you need to work really hard for things if you want them.”
Tommy said he didn’t foresee this happening, but the way the scenario played out with both Tommy and Jake being Utes together has been an experience of a lifetime.
“It’s pretty surreal at times,” Tommy said. “Seeing him on the floor with No. 10, which is the number I wore until my last year, and seeing ‘Connor’ on the back of the jersey is pretty cool. Very proud.”