When Tommy Connor arrived on Westminster's campus a decade ago, his task of building a men's basketball program from scratch looked beyond formidable.

The college had only Payne Gym — an antiquated facility with cramped offices and cramped locker rooms — to house a basketball team. Connor's own office had a desk in it and little else.

It was a far cry from the Huntsman Center and the amenities that came with being on the staff of a nationally respected program at the University of Utah.

For about a week, Connor wondered if he had put himself in a bad situation.

"I had no players and no balls — literally nothing in terms of a basketball program," Connor said.

Those humble beginnings seem foreign in all aspects to where Westminster is only a decade later.

This season alone, the Griffins have risen as high as No. 1 nationally in the NAIA and are off to their best start in school history at 20-2. Such success is a direct result of the foundation laid in previous seasons.

Connor has coached the Griffins to five Frontier Conference titles during the past seven seasons, and his teams have earned seven NAIA tournament bids over the last eight seasons. His record stands at 206-96 overall in his 10th season at Westminster — including a 100-31 mark in Frontier Conference play.

Adam Hiatt, who played at Westminster from 2002 to 2004 and is currently an assistant coach on Connor's staff, attributes the continued success to Connor's ability to help his players realize their potential.

"What makes him the best is he's able to get the most out of every player," Hiatt said. "Not many coaches can do that. A lot of coaches can draw up all the X's and O's in the world. But they can't get their players to play to their potential. That's what he does better than anybody I've ever been around."

Connor's roots as a coach go back to his childhood. His father, Bus, spent eight years (1972-80) coaching at Boise State and has enjoyed a career spanning more than four decades at various colleges and high schools throughout Idaho. Basketball became a large component of Connor's life in his formative years.

He quickly envisioned carving out a niche as a coach and a teacher — just like his dad did before him.

"It's been in my blood since I've been born," Connor said. "It's what I've always wanted to do, and it's what I always hope to do."

Connor got a nice boost in his future coaching career when he came to the University of Utah. He ran the floor as the Utes' starting point guard from 1985 to 1990.

Playing point guard offered a crucial step in Connor's eventual coaching career because he felt like he saw and understood the game much better than he could have from any other position on the court.

"I was lucky enough as a point guard to be able to see the game from the coaches' eyes," Connor said. "I am a much better coach from having played that position in college. It always came pretty easy for me to be a coach on the floor. It was pretty natural for me."

Connor further honed his coaching skills with a seven-year stint on the staff of Rick Majerus at the University of Utah.

During his time with Majerus, the Utes enjoyed some of their biggest successes. They reached five NCAA tournaments, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen three times and went as far as the Elite Eight during Connor's final season with the team.

Connor saw his time at Utah as instrumental in furthering his progression to becoming a head coach.

"I was a sponge," Connor said. "I soaked it up. I filled up (several) yellow pads worth of notes. I was given responsibility with teaching and game prep and things that I think have helped me as a head coach — especially early in my head-coaching career."

Those who have played for Connor at Westminster — past and present — believe he does all the right things to develop skills possessed by each individual player. His players feel motivated to put their best foot forward because of the energy he consistently puts into making them better basketball players.

"He cares more about his players than anybody," senior guard Jordan Jacobs said. "He wants the best out of his players and he gets the best out of his players."

Connor's most satisfying moments over the past decade have not come from what his teams have done on the court but from what those students have accomplished away from it.

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During the past 10 years, the Westminster men's basketball program has turned out a cumulative grade point average of 3.4. Last semester, the team averaged 3.5 and four players posted a 4.0 GPA. Griffin players have received Academic All-Conference honors 78 times and have been named NAIA All-America Scholar-Athletes 27 times.

With hardly any professional basketball teams looking to raid the NAIA ranks to fill their rosters, Connor sees his program at Westminster as more of a leadership factory than a basketball factory.

"People that are involved in our program recognize that we are trying to do it the right way," Connor said. "We're trying to mold college students and prepare them for life after basketball. As we're doing that we're enjoying a lot of success as a team at the same time."

E-mail: jcoon@desnews.com

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