Our Rich History: “Gentleman” Jim Connor, a Thomas More College legend;
By Dr Raymond Hébert
Thomas More University
Part 21 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College / University, 1971-2021.
To his friends, family and players, he was known simply as the “coach”. However, James Robert Connor (1922-1996) was much more than that. Upon his death on March 23, 1996, he had been a devoted husband to his wife Mary Agnes Meinken since 1951, a devoted father to their seven children, and a proud grandfather to their eight grandchildren. As indicated in a previous edition of 1990 Kentucky Post editorial, “everyone calls him ‘Coach’, even members of his own family. The editor added, “It’s a title Jim Connor cherishes after spending 42 years shouting instructions in moldy gyms and practicing on dusty baseball diamonds. These were the classrooms where Coach produced his best teaching. Its high school and college teams have won more than 500 basketball games and 800 baseball games. (Kentucky Post, April 27, 1990, p. 4K).
Close examination of Coach Connor’s career and influence shows, without a doubt, that he was one of Northern Kentucky’s most respected coaches for decades. Many have said that coach Jim Connor has taught all of his players the important balance between “competitiveness and sportsmanship”. In that same article, mentioned above, former professional basketball player and National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Fame member Dave Cowens said of him that “he helped us as a as people, not just as athletes ”(p. 4k). This statement has been echoed by many of Coach Connor’s former players on several occasions.
On July 14, 1978, Thomas More College issued a press release announcing the appointment of revered high school coach Jim Connor as the new athletic director of Thomas More College. By this point, Connor had been praised for a successful coaching career at Newport Catholic High School, Boone County High School, and Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky. Graduated in 1950 from Thomas More College (then Villa Madonna College), he was excited about his return. In terms of records, the TMU archival records show Thomas More 127 basketball wins and 149 baseball wins, bringing his career tally to 558 wins. In 1980-81, he was honored as the NAIA District 32 Coach of the Year when his team set an academic record of 21 wins, a record broken the following year when they won 23 games. . In 1983, when he recorded his 500th career victory as a basketball coach, he was named a fellow of the Bellarmine College Sports Hall of Fame and the Northern Kentucky Athletic Directors’ Hall of Fame. He was also regionally recognized that he had served as a local scout for the Chicago Cubs, and that two of his former players had made careers in the National Basketball Association (Dave Cowens and Larry Staverman) and one played baseball. pro with the Atlanta Braves and York New Yankees (Dave Justice) (TMU Archives – Coach Jim Connor’s file).
What is not well known is that accomplishing what Connor has been up to has not been easy. Over the years Jim Connor, the Thomas More College men’s basketball team trained in a gymnasium at an elementary school in St. Benedict Parish in Covington, Ky., And played in high school. Catholic Church in Covington and other gymnasiums in the area. The women’s basketball and intramural program were hosted at St. Pius X Seminary, with some play sessions at Villa Madonna Academy and St. Thomas Parish in Campbell County. The volleyball team trained at the Villa Madonna Academy and the men’s tennis team trained and played at the Northern Kentucky Racquetball Club. The men’s baseball and women’s softball teams trained and played in a number of local parks where space could be found (August 22, 1986 letter from coach Jim Connor to the new president, Dr. Charles Bensman, with details on the state of the sports program at TMC in 1986, TMU Archives).
Rather than complaining, Coach Connor instead congratulated his loyal players, coaches and the Booster organization who have worked so hard to support all athletic programs. In his words: “They are there for all the students, not just the athletes… our biggest fundraiser is our Friday night Bingo, every Friday except Good Friday and Christmas. Among the leaders of the Boosters were the O’Conners, the Romes family and Milly Faust, among others, all parents of current and former basketball players at Thomas More College. Over the years, with the help of the Boosters, Coach Connor has been the driving force behind the construction of the Convocation and Athletic Center, which was a long-held dream. During his years as athletic director, fields were also built for baseball and softball, and five new sports were added: Softball, Volleyball, Men’s and Women’s Soccer, and Football (TMU Archives – Coach Connor files ).
At the end of his career, Thomas More College honored Coach Jim Connor in a ceremony that honored his exceptional career. In the words of Kentucky Post editorial, “It was appropriate that the college name its new convocation and its sports center in [Coach Connor’s] honor… his training standards complemented Thomas More’s academic philosophy ”(April 27, 1990, p. 4K).
Years later Brad Moore, a history student at Thomas More College, wrote a local history article (his main project) on Coach Jim Connor. After interviewing many players and former players, he concluded:
“Dedication, sacrifice, honesty, fairness, gentleman. These are just a few of the words used to describe Jim Connor, a man who has helped shape the lives of so many young men during his illustrious 42 years of training. Everyone who played for him saw Jim Connor as more than just a coach. For many, he was a father figure they would put next to their own father. He not only wanted to teach his players to play basketball and baseball, but also wanted to teach his players to be good citizens and to lead a good Christian life. Jim Connor didn’t care about wins and losses, how many professional athletes were on his resume, or even having the best facilities. He loved the opportunity to coach and be athletic director of small schools because he reveled in the challenge of taking every program he was affiliated with to new heights. Not only did he have the ability to shape the lives of young men into successful leaders, he also had the ability to turn average programs into winners. Jim Connor was a selfless individual, who did so much for people and asked for so little in return.
This point of view nicely sums up what has been said by decades of athletes lucky enough to have been coached by, or even simply known by, “Gentleman” Jim Connor.
Dr Raymond G. Hebert is Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Freedom at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with this training, he will now serve as the official history editor of Thomas More College / University from 1971 to 2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, he will serve following on to RETROSPECT AND VISTA by Sr. Irmina Saelinger, the story of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at [email protected].
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