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No. 25

With Ron Cherubini
©2001-2003 Bonesville.net


Jeff Connors

Gone, but not forgotten

Love or Hate Him: Jeff Connors was an integral
part of a very special time at East Carolina

By Ron Cherubini
©2003 Bonesville.net


Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill
Media Relations

Love or hate him, Jeff Connors won’t care.

Even a mention of the former, long-time strength and conditioning coach at East Carolina University evokes any of a number of reactions all up and down the emotional spectrum.

The passion that his name conjures up in his critics, his fans, and those who say they don’t care is a testament to at least one thing about the man who dared to go to Chapel Hill: Jeff Connors loves his work and his players and it shows.

Regardless of political posture, what is undeniable is that the recipe for a decade of Pirate football success included a heavy mix of Connors, and what has followed in the wake of his separation from ECU has been a program that hasn't been as successful on the field.

That is not to say that Connors’ departure led to ECU’s football decline, but it does underscore the fact that he was a key part of a winning formula for East Carolina football.

Connors is the first to admit that he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that sometimes, it gets him trouble. He also realizes that because of this, a lot of what he would have liked to have done in the lead up to his departure did not happen.

“I wish that I would have explained my situation to some of the people who had really done a lot for me over the years,” Connors said. “Unfortunately, changes are very swift and cold. That’s the nature of the profession. There’s no time for emotional farewell parties, instead they give you a hanging party most of the time. You’ve got to have a thick skin.”

Still, in retrospect, with a few years of distance between him and his ECU tenure, Connors prefers to conjure up the positive memories of a time that he recalls as almost magical.

“My memories of ECU will never be tarnished by anonymous critics or snipers,” he said. “My family prospered there and I think that I learned a lot about myself through my coaching experiences. I really enjoyed the years when we had a bunch of coaches on staff that liked to have a good time.”

And though during the tempest that immediately followed his departure he wasn’t exactly embracing the commentary coming from Greenville, Connors today holds no ill will toward the Pirates and their fans as a collective body. In reality, Connors is still very connected not only to many of his athletes, but also to many within the school and community. They are his friends and fans.

“Fans can’t be too emotional,” he said. “In my opinion, neither can players nor coaches. I don’t have any bitterness toward people for being angry that I went to UNC. At least they care about the program enough to lash out. It takes great passion to build a program. Personally, I am fanatically passionate and emotional and I hope to be until the day I check out. If you love something halfway, the relationship will not survive. When factors arise that prevent you from giving love, you move on because you can’t live in a gray twilight with a broken heart. That’s life.”

Before he moved on, however, life was good… very good at ECU.

Jeff Connors came to ECU in 1991 as the tradition-proud football program was trying to figure out if the schedules of the mid-‘80s – aimed at ratcheting up the profile of the team and school – had done more to embarrass the program than take it to the next level. For Connors, who was wrapping up a Master’s Degree at Bucknell University, where he was the strength and conditioning coach, the schedules had obviously not done much in raising his awareness of the university that he would soon call home.

“I thought East Carolina was actually Western Carolina,” he said. “... I had been in Tennessee so I thought of Western Carolina first."

Connors was linked to the opportunity via the then-strength coach from the Philadelphia Eagles, Ronnie Jones, who had heard about the position from then-ECU assistant coach Steve Logan. Connors went through the necessary interviews and started to get hooked on the opportunity that ECU presented for a strength coach.

“I was very impressed with Henry Van Sant,” he said. “He told me he wanted an extreme disciplinarian. He also told me not to be afraid to implement a program that focused on a team ethic and accountability. Henry went on to tell me things about when he was coaching and it really got me fired up to come to ECU. The things most important to (Van Sant) were my strong point(s).”

It would be remiss to define Connors as simply a disciplinarian. It is more his focus on accountability through discipline. And it was just what the doctor ordered for an ECU program that had, indeed, grown by a trial by fire in the mid-to-late ’80s — a program that was looking for men to put the program’s experiences into context and exploit those lessons learned through that dark era in ECU football.

At ECU, Connors was presented a clean canvas on which he could place his mark not only on a rising program, but also on the industry itself – where today, he is considered one of the top strength coaches in the country and a thought leader in the field. Connors is one of just 36 worldwide strength and conditioning coaches to have earned Master Strength Coach Certification from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCA).

Dave Hart, acting on glowing endorsements and Connors’ high-energy, high-demands, high-reward philosophies, made the hire and ECU finally had its spark plug to put in what was building into a football machine in Greenville.

At the time, there was no denying Connors’ impact on the program, particularly the players. It is an allegiance, forged in the very sweat that the strength coach demanded of them over and over again, day-in and day-out, that is most illustrated today by the fact that Connors’ staff at UNC is full of former standout Pirates: Guys like Jeff Kerr and Jerris McPhail are there not for Carolina first, but for Connors.

Born of the fundamentals

To best understand why Connors was the perfect strength coach for ECU at that juncture in time, it is easiest to take a look back in his life.

Hailing from Brownsville, PA, Connors grew up in a part of the country where towns, in many ways, are woven together less by county lines and more by prep football programs. To suffice, Brownsville is the quintessential blue-collar, coal-mining, Friday football type of town, and Connors from a very young age was given to it.

“Where I come from, football is a microcosm of life,” he said. “I grew up with my father as my high school coach (at Beth Center High School). He was very demanding and it a was tough (high school) program. They used to take us up in the mountains for three-a-days. If you wanted to come home, you couldn’t find your way home if you tried. We ate three times a day and we practiced three times a day and the only water we had was in two buckets with sponges. One guy would wipe his face with a sponge and the next guy would suck water out of it. But, you had to live with (your teammates), and battle the three times a day. When you came out of that camp, you had taken some steps (toward maturity and discipline). There was zero room for excuses.”

These ingredients have served him all his life, but particularly as a teen, they helped shape a methodology for life that has since carried him.

“When I graduated from high school, I weighed 160 pounds,” he said. “Strength and conditioning was key for me to make it in college. I was a quarterback in high school, but played cornerback in college. (I) went to Salem (W. Va.) College, and they were also an underdog program. They had a bunch of renegades from all over the country who were Division I (caliber) guys.”

There, as a 5-9, 190-pound corner, Connors distinguished himself as a competitor who refused to give up on any play. A starter the entire time he was there and team captain as a senior, Connors led the team in interceptions as both a sophomore and a junior. And, it was perhaps during his time as a player there, that Connors developed the mantra that you must finish stronger than your opponent to be a champion.

Part of the lessons-learned were from the rigid physical training that Salem Coach Larry Blackstone – who now is a coach in the Ohio prep school ranks – insisted his players go through.

“They basically beat us up ever day in the off-season,” Connors recalled. “We had a 22-station work program… dead lifts, heavy squats, and an exercise called Billy Cannons (where the athlete puts 200 pounds on his back and shuffles feet from his hips very rapidly with three-inch steps back and forth at a high rate of speed for 30 seconds). I have never used (Billy Cannons)… never understood it, but it was tough. We’d do agilities 45 minutes to an hour and the 22-station circuit every day. A number of players blew lunch every Monday. It was amazing. All of us got stronger and tougher. I had tremendous respect for my coach’s refusal to compromise accountability. It didn’t matter if the best athlete missed a lift… they were fired immediately. Everyone knew there were no second chances and I think that is why we were successful. It’s difficult to find coaches who are bold enough to lay it out like that.”

Those lessons, borne in sweat, ingrained themselves in Connors, and his post-collegiate career choice only served to further his principles. Connors headed south after graduating from Salem. He found himself looking to make a career in law enforcement, serving as a police officer in South Florida. Though he served only two years, the experience was worthy of a man who would go on to set out life principles for young men. As it was, the action… the intensity of being a flatfoot, stroked the other half of Connors’ psyche. Discipline and Intensity… the method of setting goals, driving to and through them, and attaining them the right way has been a staple in Connors’ methods and the underpinnings for his work all were built through his experiences.

“What I went through both in high school and college stuck with me,” he said. “Everything I tried to do – even when I was a police officer on the midnight shift – I enjoyed the action… the chase. It was like being in a football game, except that I was too stupid to realize they were shooting at me. Fortunately, I got out of that in a reasonable amount of time.”

And for collegiate strength training, it was a good thing he did.

Connors' move into strength training as a profession was preceded by stints as a high school football and wrestling coach at The Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, FL, followed by coaching football at the Tennessee Military Institute.

During that period, Connors had made a name for himself through power lifting, where he had climbed the ranks to become a top-5 power lifter, recognized nationally. At the same time, he pursued and completed his Masters’ in High School Administration at Bucknell University while taking on the dual role of student/ Strength and Conditioning Coach, with the aim of redirecting his career into either school administration or strength and conditioning coaching professionally.

“Football and police work went hand-in-hand in preparing me for strength and conditioning,” Connors recalled. “I knew I wanted to be in (strength training) in some capacity, whether at the collegiate or high school level. It made no difference to me. (I decided) to go in that direction in regards to my career.”

While at Bucknell, Connors had a reputation of inspiring athletes to tap their true athletic potential and as being an innovator in an emerging field.

“I felt that having been the son of a coach and educator, I felt like my calling in life was to work with young people,” Connors said. “I was willing to take the vow of poverty.”

Fast-forward back to ECU

Connors’ style is to commit to an objective and doggedly pursue it and it was no different with the East Carolina job — though he admits that when it all materialized he was uncertain of what was potentially waiting for him at ECU and, honestly, even what ECU was about.

“Essentially I guess East Carolina had considered several people with the recommendation of the staff. My name came up and Bill Lewis called me and asked me if I would be interested in the position,” Connors said. “I thought I had been to East Carolina before, but I realized that it was Western Carolina I was thinking of. At some point, I realized it was not the same school.”

Connors quickly made calls, researched the post, and learned about the Pirates.

“I was told East Carolina had a tough program,” he said. “That the school had a great strength and conditioning program and I was told there were guys who came out of that program with great strength. After hearing that, I got interested and told Bill Lewis I was interested.”

Interestingly, after a five or six weeks, Connors had heard that someone else had been hired by ECU, but that disappointing news was soon debunked when Lewis called Connors to offer him the post.

Connors sensed it would be a good move which was confirmed by his conversations with then-Associate Athletic Director Van Sant. Moreover, Connors understood the South.

“I was real excited, I was very familiar with the South and I wanted to get back down here,” he said. “My first impression of Greenville… I was comfortable and from a small area. Western Pennsylvania is coal mining and farm area – an area where football is a dramatization of the underdog experience. It was a great parallel to come down to ECU where they were saying, ‘We take on big schools, we want to prove we are there.’ It all played into my upbringing. It was a huge deal for me and I wholly identified with the ‘chip’… no question.”

At Bucknell, Connors wore many hats, one of which was the recruiting coach for the wrestling program – an experience he credits to helping him greatly. In that position, without scholarships to dangle, Connors became adept at emotionally connecting with prospective athletes and found he had a knack for making that important bond. That bonding ability would prove an essential ingredient for success as a Pirate. The result was the signing of a great deal of state wrestling champions to that program.

“East Carolina was much different than Bucknell,” Connors assessed. “There were much better athletes, they are a Division I program with possibilities for bowl games… that kind of stuff. I wanted a chance to get out of the ‘Ivy League’ type program and get dirty.”

When he arrived in Greenville, Connors saw a little bit of good and a little bit of not so good at ECU.

“The immediate state was that there were a lot of competent athletes returning to the team but at that time there was not much structure in the strength and conditioning program,” Connors recalled. “Somehow the relationship between the strength coach and head coach had gotten worse. It wasn’t optimal. The only thing I know was that I presented my system and it seemed that Bill wanted to implement it.”

But there was a lot of work to make things happen and Connors believed the most important first step was to present the proper image to his new players.

“That first summer, it was just me,” he recounts. “I made sure I was first man there and last to leave. I wanted people to know my commitment. I mopped the weight room every night because I wanted it to look good. I took on the whole staff responsibility myself until someone was hired.”

The message of Connors’ actions was meant to show his players the level of commitment necessary to be champions.

“I wanted to let the players know they had to be responsible,” he said. “I went to find Dion Johnson and got him out of his room. David Daniels was shocked that I came to the dorm. Well, Dion was surprised to see me. They knew I was there to make a statement. He was my first MIA and I wanted to set a precedent. We went straight to the field and ran. The players took note and I think that (the discipline) is what they wanted. Every man who wants to be successful will appreciate the discipline. I looked at the guys like Robert Jones and Bernard Carter and Ernie Lewis and I thought, ‘We’re going to do a lot here.’ They were excited and I was excited to be getting things going.

“Conditioning is the foundation of my program. We are going to run and work hard every day. To me anyone can lift weights and that is something that requires time but not a whole lot of toughness. No, that comes from conditioning. We developed a team concept to attack the conditioning together.”

The talented Pirates bought into it wholesale and Connors reinforced it daily.

“I thought the guys were very receptive,” he said. “I was just so excited about coming in here. I had always been pretty confident – I went through a tough program in college – and I was confident that I could get the same thing accomplished. I thought (the Pirate players) were highly enthusiastic and responded to me and they wanted to win football games. It was a privilege for me to be there and I am really proud to have been there with that type of athlete.”

More than a Coach

Connors embedded himself into the coaching staff and the group was much more than just colleagues.

“I really enjoyed the years when we had a bunch of coaches on staff that liked to have a good time,” he said. “We celebrated some hard fought victories in the middle of the night.  “I liked to be around people and there was nothing better than skipping around Greenville after a big victory.  Dave Huxtable and I probably had some of the best times of our lives after the games in 1991.

“Football can be a roller coaster ride.  You gotta get busy living or get busy dying.  You’ve got to find ways to stay upbeat during the tough times and celebrate the hell out of the good times. I love to celebrate. I think that’s what Pirates do. I’ll be the first to admit that I had some Jesse James in me and that’s probably the reason I was a good fit at the time.  I’ve tried to teach the players to have energy and challenge them.  I’ll never forget Larry Coyer’s pre-game talk at Washington.  He said, ‘Men, you’re cowards.  You know it and I know it.’  That was a little extreme but Larry told it like it was.”

Connors employed some unique motivational tactics himself.

“I had two boxers come in and fight three rounds in the locker room before the Cincinnati game one year,” he recalled. “That was fun. I had the privilege of preparing some pre-game hype for a few years which I really enjoyed.”

Without a doubt, Connors and his Pirates connected and what resulted was truly some of the greatest football the program has produced. And, above that, a national reputation of being a team that would never be overpowered physically nor out-endured on the field.

The formula that evolved at ECU?

“Foundational, really deep,” Connors said. “(You) start out with principle-centered character that you demand all year round. You have guys in the program, guys like Larry Shannon, Jason Nichols, Marcus Crandall, MoFo (Morris Foreman), Emmanuel (McDaniel), Jerry Dillon, the Hart brothers, and Leonard Henry. These guys were very demanding of their teammates. We ran 300s every Tuesday during the summer and those guys pushed it to 10, I didn’t.

“It was a pride thing, a leadership thing. You don’t just become a Pirate, you have to pay a price. They demanded that price. That is a big reason we were successful, in my opinion. It wasn’t a magic formula. It was a daily developmental process that came from tough kids, who really cared about winning, who were demanding of their peers. It started with me and my attitude every day because I was the guy guiding the ship in the off-season. I wanted to be an extension of the leadership of that team and the head coach. Logan was not just a boss, he was my friend. We confided in each other and I felt privileged that he thought that much of my opinions. Loyalty is extremely, extremely important to me no matter where I work. That is one of the few things that we had and we took it very seriously and did at East Carolina.”

Though he left ECU, he deeply means every word of his inspired reflections on his time there. Connors is a man who lets passion carry the day.

“I was an extension of the coaching staff and I saw myself as a soldier,” he said. “I simply wanted to be a good soldier. I like the front line.”

A decade of memories defined by people

For 10 years, Connors sold out for the Pirate program and, even today — after all of the misunderstandings, the statements on both sides that many, including Connors, wish could be pulled back, and the personal attacks that followed his departure — ECU will always be part of Connors and his legacy will always be a pivotal one in terms of ECU’s growth and recognition as a football program.

“Over a period of time, I developed a very strong relationship with the boosters at ECU,” he said. “What those people did for me when I was there is tough to replace. I don’t take anything for granted. Walter Williams was a great friend and George Koonce is still a great friend to me. Joe Wallace, Ralph Vitola, Danny Bercini, Frank Ceruzzi, John McMillan, Jim Mullin, Jeff Foster… all class guys with immeasurable love for the program. There is a long line of people. Those people were such great people who really showed appreciation and stayed with us during the tough times.”

More than that, the players that saw Connors more like a father, meant everything to him.

“Bond is common to many strength coaches,” he said. “Whichever parent spends time is the one who must give the tough love. If you love them, you’ve got to give them discipline, which is something I believe very strongly in. They may not like you but somewhere down the road they appreciate you. At the same time, you want them to know they can talk to you.”

And the Pirate players did bond with Connors… developing a well-known possessiveness of their strength coach. Case in point:

“Dealton Cotton called me one morning,” Connors retells. “He said, ‘Coach, Mom died. I keep getting up and dialing the number. I know she’s gone, but I can’t deal with it.’ We got together with him and took him to a pastor – Gene Tyson. That was indescribably rewarding. I felt good (knowing) Dealton became renewed and that he felt comfortable calling me (about something so serious).”

There were many other stories like that one during the Connors tenure.

“I don’t know the statistics,” Connors said. “But the percentage of athletes that grow up with no father is earth-shattering. And, there are a lot of single parents doing a great job but some of those kids are missing something. When they get to you as a freshman in college, you are the first thing, the first strong authority that they’ve encountered. Even in high school, sometimes they get through on talent and are allowed to have freedoms that they cannot have on the collegiate level. The molding and confrontations that go on, on a daily basis… people don’t see how many days during a year you are nose-to-nose with someone to maintain principles that help sustain your program.”

The relationships with his players have carried him, not only through their successes on the field of play, but on their successes in life, the personal victories. It has been overwhelming to Connors when he looks back on that decade in his life.

“ My last year at ECU, I sat down and wrote a 250-page book about the Pirates of the 1990s,” he said. “The main reason I did it was that I didn’t want to forget anything.  That was before I had a clue that I might be leaving.  My memories are intact.”

His players’ attachment to him, even now that he is in the enemy’s camp at Carolina, serve as a strong testament to his person.

“As a coach, you can’t play favorites,” Connors said. “When somebody has been through the program, you know… you really connected with those individuals, you really helped them and they respect you. Robert Tate, Jerris (McPhail) and Jeff Kerr… I can’t think of a more rewarding situation than to have the guys you helped improve – and they are very tough individuals who have paid the price – and see them as coaches influencing other people, that is very rewarding. I see part of myself in them. That is a real emotional deal for me.”

Tate, Kerr, and McPhail are all on Connors’ staff at UNC and cite the influence of their mentor in helping forge the men they are today.

“I am not going to take the credit for building anything at ECU,” Connors said. “The players deserve all the credit. I can’t imagine many other players in the country who worked as hard as those guys.”

And it has been a mutually rewarding experience for Connors, who has learned a bunch from his prodigies.

Being around athletes keeps you young,” he said.  “Working with adults, you have to constantly be watching your back.  The worst part of the job is having to produce results in the summer on a voluntary basis.  No other coaches are faced with this situation.  Just think about your employees in a business working on a voluntary basis.  How many do you thing could be maximizing production?  Now guess what?  You can still be fired for their lack of productivity.  You must be the guru of charismatic rapport or get yourself a magic wand.”

It was his connection on a human level with his players that created a job description unlike many in the profession.

“What happened with me was that I fell into that role of motivator,” he explained. “One summer, I was excited and talking to Junior Smith and Damon Wilson about respect and they asked Steve (Logan) if I could give some type of additional information to them during the pre-game setting. I thought Steve was very gracious in allowing me to do that and it was a lot of work trying to think of a genuine theme each week. It was difficult, but I was very proud to contribute to that because as a strength coach in-season, responsibilities are limited, so to be involved at that level was unique and I was honored to do it.”

Connors’ routine included spending Friday night putting together some sort of presentation.

“It ranged from bringing in Vietnam Veterans to Martial Arts people,” he recalled. “I always like the parallels of training for football and military training. Stuff from the Marines’ War Fighting Skills book. (Topics like) principal-centered leadership. (There was a) guy in Greenville by the name of ‘Gunny’ Born who helped me a bunch. I was intrigued by those (military) concepts. (I saw) a lot of parallels with things I believe about preparation and what was working for the most successful organization in history (Marine Corps).

“I’m not sure, but I think, that at that time we had some very strong scriptural studies going on within the team, so I tried to also (incorporate that). It was new to me because I never really pursued detailed knowledge of the New Testament. It was a learning experience for me and I thought that I learned a lot as a result of the research that we did. We incorporated biblical principles into those presentations and some excellent stories I obtained from Reverend Steven Harrison. I wasn’t the most qualified to do that, but I learned a lot about how the origin of successful principles in athletics largely was borrowed from that book. I’m not going say I’m some perfect Christian, but it helped me grow as a Christian… so, that is another thing that made that time special for me.”

On Saturdays, he would deliver the presentations, complete with guests and props, if necessary. And the result was not only visible on the field, but in the demeanor the players showed coming onto the field, on the sidelines, and after the game.

It was a unique role for a unique program that was uniquely successful in a world dominated by bigger budget programs.

End of an era

For Connors, there were a lot of reasons to stay in Greenville, not the least of which was the program and the players.

“With regard to East Carolina, one of the huge strengths is the fan base and the support for football,” he said. “I think any coach who is smart, would do everything possible to build up that fan base and recognize those folks from Eastern NC. When I came back from the Peach Bowl and saw the streets lined from Kinston to Greenville… that was incredible to me.

The atmosphere after the upset of Miami in Raleigh was euphoric… no way you could not see and appreciate the support for football.”

Yet, there was a pull for Connors in the form of career opportunity – a carrot he had seen dangled many times before.

“I interviewed with Butch Davis for the Miami job the year before I came (to UNC),” he said of one such opportunity during his ECU tenure. “I thought I was passing up a great opportunity because I was very impressed with Butch Davis and what he was working for and (I) felt privileged to be interviewed. I thought he might be going to the NFL and would be a good ticket if that were what I wanted to do.

“Sounds glamorous to be in the NFL and wear an NFL coaching uniform, but the reality of it with strength and conditioning coaches, I feel like you are within an uncomfortable situation sometimes because you are trying to motivate million dollar athletes to train and they have to be paid to train. You need to have a head coach that is truly dedicated to strength and conditioning. I had been a police officer in South Florida and my wife was from there and it is not an easy place to live. I felt good about our program and no dissatisfaction with the (their) program but I stayed (at ECU) because of my strong feelings toward East Carolina.”

Greenville was home

As much as the ECU community is identified with a large hunk of his professional achievement, Connors is clearly cognizant of the lasting impact that Greenville – the home to his family – will forever have on his life.

“(If you) stay anywhere for 10 years, you’re going to develop relationships,” Connors said.

He is a family man and in a profession that oftentimes keeps dad or mom away from home for long days and nights and weekends on the road. Because of those demands, Connors especially appreciated how the community embraced his family.

“My wife (Michele) is very strong, independent and very tolerant,” he explained. “I really admire her success in real estate. In conjunction with having to raise our children to the large part on her own and her understanding toward the coaching profession… I give her 95 percent of the credit when it comes to the strength and character of my children. I really think that.”

For both his teen-aged son Beau and his daughter Kaitlin, to hear talk of Greenville is not the conjuring up of a fan-base that took sides for and against their father. Instead, it is a memory of a wonderful childhood in family-friendly town.

For Beau it is memories like “…being around the players and experiencing bowl games…” and for Kaitilin, it is days spent swimming.

“Kaitlin loves to swim and I think that the ‘Big Guy’ (Matt) Maloney got her interested in that.”

ECU and Greenville are at best, great fibers in the development of Connors, his career, and his family, and at worst, undeniable remnants of a past that was not so bad.

“Greenville… ahhhhh… it’s my home, man,” Connors said, exhaling. “I don’t know how to put it. It’s the only place my kids ever knew since they were babies. You move away from your hometown, it is still your hometown. I don’t expect to have anyone patting me on the back in Greenville, but it will always be my hometown, even though I grew up in another state, because I found out so much about myself during that time I was there. I want that program to be successful because I put a whole lot of myself into it. I don’t care who is coaching there.”

Moving on to Chapel Hill

Really, despite the buzz around campus of a rumored falling out with Coach Logan, difficulties with then-athletic director Mike Hamrick and rebuffs for a teaching position, the decision to head to UNC came in the form of opportunity.

“You know, I’ve been through this before,” Connors said of explaining his decision. “The  educational opportunities for my children, the (career) opportunities for my wife, and (my personal opportunity)… I felt as though it would be an excellent career move because (UNC) was the (flagship) school in North Carolina. The resources (at UNC presented) an opportunity to further my career. I really felt like I had a great interview and was excited about what John Bunting could produce.

“I think in this profession, realistically, we are only stewards of whatever program we are working for. The institution will go on much longer than (us). We do what we can when we are at an institution and hope to be remembered”

And, Connors felt he needn’t explain his decision. After all, he was leaving behind a strength and conditioning program that was a model for schools around the nation. He had delivered top service to ECU.

“The average time (at a program), I don’t know,” he pondered. “Ten years, I thought, was a significant contribution. I passed up the Miami job and never regretted it. The big reason was loyalty to Steve Logan and that program. No matter what the emotional commitment is, no matter how much you believe in a cause – and, it certainly was a cause – you always (in the end) do what is best for your family, and stability was an issue.”

It’s hard to fault a man bettering his stature in life. And to hear Connors recall it, reveals a little something about beloved coaches all over the country.

“I don’t know if I’m just naïve or non-informed on what you could say to that whole issue between the two schools,” he said. “I’m trying (to understand it). I was disappointed with the reaction and also flattered because I had no idea that I was significant to people. I was working, doing the best I could do. I was not running for office.”

He was just making a career decision.

“The attractive thing about coming to North Carolina was the fact that program was down and needed a shakeup and I was confident I could get it done,” he said. “I had done all I could do (at ECU) and the (UNC) challenge was attractive to me. To have an opportunity to build a high-visibility program was an attractive challenge.

One note of interest: UNC and ECU won the Peach Bowl in Connors' first year at each institution. ECU was 7-15 the subsequent two years and its been 3-14 so far at Carolina.

"So it is like de ja vu for me," he said. "I’ve been through this before. I guess God wants to see if I still have it in me. Rebuilding process. Very challenging during that time period at East Carolina and it is the same way here."

A challenge he is still working to turn around, which underscores the focus that is surely to hover around Saturday’s clash between a Pirate team that does not thinly resemble those from Connors days and a UNC team that looks anything but stronger than the teams that preceded Connors’ arrival to Chapel Hill.

Yet, the game goes on

So it is, that come Saturday, Connors will be back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the first time since his departure. He will be in the Blue, not the Purple, and as a professional, he will not be torn on his allegiance during the game. There will be a chip of ego on his shoulder… he does not like to lose and, particularly, he wants to be successful in facing his past.

“It would be small minded of me to roll into that game with vengeance toward a few outspokens on a message board,” he said. “I will be coming there to win a game. Anybody who has been through so many emotional ups and downs like I have been at ECU, would be fooling themselves to say that they would be coming in without a lump in their throat. I know my hair will be on fire, but all I can really do is spectate.”

Yet there is still a true kinship with his former program and there are ECU milestones he hopes to some day call his own.

“My goal at East Carolina, which may sound lofty and conceited, and I hope it doesn’t,” he said. “I wanted to be the first strength coach to make it to the Hall of Fame. I thought I would be (at ECU) a long, long time. Things change, obviously, and you’ve got to reset your goals. I just hope that people can say that I did a good job while I was there and that we accomplished some things that were unique and that the fans got some joy out of the ’90s. I know I had a great time while I was there.

“I don’t feel any negatives toward ECU at all. I was somewhat naïve toward the depth of the stress toward UNC. I was just naïve toward the depth of the negative feelings toward UNC… I really didn’t realize it ran that deep.”

Love or hate him… there is no denying that when Connors was at ECU, whether by fact or folly, he was a big piece of a magical combination in Pirate football history. And… each day since his departure, maybe not so openly, Pirate fans and perhaps Connors himself have come to understand how fortunate everyone was during those wonderful years of progress and victory.

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JEFF CONNORS BIO BOX
Name:

Jeff Connors

(Photo: ECU Media Relations)
 

Age:

47
.

Sport:

Strength and Conditioning Coach
.

Years at ECU:

1991-2001
.

Hometown:

Brownsville, PA
.

Currently Resides:

Chapel Hill, NC
.

Occupation:

Assistant Athletic Director
Strength & Conditioning, University of North Carolina

 

Degree(s):
  • BA, Salem College (WVa)
  • Teaching Certification, Waynesburg College
  • MS, Bucknell University
  • Palm Beach County (FL) Police Academy
    .

Marital Status:

Married - Michele



Connors and family in the midst of his stint as a Pirate (1997).
Left to right: Connors, wife Michele, son Beau and daughter Kaitlin.

(Photo: ECU Media Relations)
 

Children:
  • Beau, now 14

  • Kaitlin, now 12

Quotable: 

“East Carolina SHOULD have an opportunity to be in the ACC. I wish we had an opportunity to be considered at the height of our success. After the Peach Bowl or the Liberty Bowl, or the GalleryFurniture Bowl, ECU should have had the chance.”
.

 

View the Pirate Time Machine Archives...

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02/23/2007 02:10:53 PM

 

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