Personal recollections from 1984 to 2022
… not just a coach, but a true role model
Everyone who knows basketball Coach Tom McConnell has a favorite story about him. I am one of them, and I am not certain which to use as my lead as he has announced his retirement as a college basketball coach.
I first met Tom when I was coaching football at St. Francis College, now University, in Loretto, Pa. in 1984. He was an upbeat, positive and unique individual and had just been hired as an assistant men’s basketball coach for the Red Flash.
We also shared something in common that was special: Our love of the Boston Celtics, who at the time featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, and other stars.
I and members of my staff, along with the men’s basketball staff and others at the college who loved basketball would gather in our homes to watch the games.
Those were special times.
However, the story that I relate in this writing is not a direct quote but is one that tells the tale of a very sincere, but concomitantly very devout, coach. This was from a conversation more than 25 years ago after Tom had finally become a college head coach. He had returned to Loretto after serving as an assistant at various schools.
This is the gist of the story that was related by a person who was a well-known employee on that campus and who knew everything that was transpiring at SF. He asked me this after closely watching Tom for a few years,
How well do you know Coach McConnell? He does something that I have never seen in my life, especially with a coach. He will go into the [Immaculate Conception] chapel and stay in there for hours.
It is unbelievable. I never saw a person pray for as long as he does.
But, here is what I don't know. These players are often from the streets. Can they relate to someone who is that religious?
Re-creation of a conversation from 1995
I told him that what he saw in the chapel was the true Tom McConnell — and that while the players may not be able to understand the depth of those spiritual connections, they will certainly respect him for holding them.
Tom grew up as the eldest child in a very religious Catholic family, and he has carried that with him for his entire life.
Tom and his sister Kathy coaching together at Colorado
The love of basketball
The McConnell family is one of the most famous group of hoopster siblings in Western Pennsylvania. His sister, Suzie McConnell-Serio, was the most famous of the children, becoming an All-American at Penn State and then a two-time gold-medal champ in the Olympics. She coached three PIAA high school state champions before moving on to coach collegiately at Duquesne and Pitt and then in the WNBA.
Tom concluded his coaching career last week when he decided to step down as the head women’s basketball coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania after building that team into a national contender. Women’s basketball may not have seemed the logical landing place for him after working in the men’s game at numerous Div. I schools, but it paid dividends for the IUP women.
However, it was the culmination of a career of hard work, interrupted for a time by a satisfying period of introspection, before then returning to coach a different gender of athlete.
The IUP record
Here is a summary of what he accomplished in those years at IUP,
McConnell leaves IUP as the most successful head coach in program history and one of the best leaders in Division II women's basketball. During his eight coaching seasons on the IUP bench, McConnell put together an overall record of 197-50 [80 percent], with four Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Western Division regular season titles (2015, 2018, 2019, 2020), two PSAC tournament championships (2017, 2019), and led the Crimson Hawks to back-to-back Atlantic Region crowns and NCAA Elite Eight national semifinal berths (2018, 2019).
His 197 victories, .798 overall win percentage, four division titles, and two regional championships are all program records. McConnell owns five of the top 10 seasons in IUP history according to win totals - including two 30-win seasons - and has five of the six longest win streaks in program history, highlighted by a record 19 straight victories during the 2019-20 season.
A perennial threat in the PSAC and Atlantic Region, McConnell led the Crimson Hawks to seven straight 20-win seasons and seven consecutive NCAA tournament selections - also program records.
He turned the Crimson Hawks into one of the top threats in Division II during a recent three-year run. Between the 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons, IUP's 88 wins were tied for the third-most in the country in addition to their back-to-back regional crowns and two straight Division II national semifinal games.
“Tom McConnell retiring as IUP women’s basketball
coach,” IUP Sport Information, July 2022
Imagine winning 80 percent of your games. It was an incredible run, but he said that it was time to move on in life. Family has always been vital to his life. He has six children and some grandchildren with whom to spend time, and the life of a college coach can be stressful and chaotic.
So, now he will have more time for them.
While Tom ended his career by coaching women’s hoops, he started his college mentorship at St. Francis in 1984, moved to Wake Forest for a season, and then to Marquette for three and to Dayton for another three. Then in 1992, after eight years as a men’s assistant, he was hired as the head coach of the St. Francis Red Flash, returning to where he had started his collegiate career.
He struggled in the early years after succeeding Jim Baron, finally putting together a strong season in 1997-98 when the Red Flash recorded a 17-10 record. He finished his career as the second-leading coach in terms of wins, 85, behind the legendary Dr. William T. (Skip) Hughes [and now is third].
However, his last season at St. Francis was such a disappointment that he left coaching for a while. In 1999, the Flash floundered terribly at the end of the season, losing something like eight of his last night games. That was a terrible conclusion after showing such great promise earlier in the year.
Athletic Director Jeff Eisen told the media at the time that his job was not in jeopardy, but after some soul-searching, Tom decided to step down and leave the career that he loved so dearly. He made a major career change, accepting a job with the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese as the Director of Youth and Campus Ministry. This was fulfilling for him spiritually since he loved the interaction with the young people.
Nevertheless, the coaching bug was still there. In 2004, he became the head boys coach at Bishop Guilfoyle High School in Altoona while retaining his full-time job with the diocese. The Marauders compiled a 19-10 record, 11-2 in their conference, in 2006, but most important, McConnell finally felt confident enough to return to full-time coaching.
This time, he was hired as an assistant coach at the University of Colorado where his sister, Kathy, was the head coach. He returned to coaching and worked with one of his siblings. After four years there, he became as assistant at Old Dominion University in 2011, where he served for two years before taking the IUP job.
As one of eight children, Tom always understood the importance of a close family. When he came to IUP, what he first discussed publicly was building a family. He has done that personally, but he also did that with the IUP team with very positive results.
What I will always remember about Tom is not the wins that he accumulated, but what he represented to his players: A tremendous role model.
The man who questioned whether or not he was too religious did not realize the depth of his spiritual beliefs. Tom is a person who not only prays, but one who lives the life that is espoused in his religious teaching.
So few coaches today have the character of a Tom McConnell, and that is unfortunate. Many “talk the talk,” but few actually live that kind of life.
Tom is the epitome of what a coach or teacher should be in life.
That is what I will always remember about Tom McConnell. Not the wins or losses or his love of the Celtics: Just the wonderful, sincere human being that he is and has always been.
The McConnell Family: Parents and eight basketball-loving children
Enjoy your retirement, Tom!