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Our Rich History: ‘Gentleman’ Jim Connor, a legend at Thomas More College

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 21 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021.

Coach Jim Connor of Thomas More College (Thomas More University archives

To friends, family, and his players, he was simply known as “Coach.” However, James Robert Connor (1922—1996) was much more than that. When he died on March 23, 1996, he had been a devoted husband to his wife Mary Agnes Meinken since 1951, a dedicated father to their seven children, and a proud grandfather of their eight grandchildren. As noted in an earlier 1990 Kentucky Post editorial, “everyone calls him ‘Coach,’ even members of his own family.” The editor added that, “it’s a title Jim Connor treasures after spending 42 years yelling out instructions in musty gyms and hitting infield practice on dusty baseball fields. Those were the classrooms where Coach did his finest teaching. His high school and college teams won more than 500 basketball games and 800 baseball games.” (Kentucky Post, April 27, 1990, p. 4K).

A close look at Coach Connor’s career and his influence shows, without question, that he was one of the most respected coaches in Northern Kentucky for decades. It was said by many that Coach Jim Connor taught all of his players about the important balance between “competitiveness and sportsmanship.” In that same article, noted above, the former pro basketball player and National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Famer Dave Cowens said of him, that “he helped us as people, not just as athletes” (p. 4k). That statement was echoed by many of Coach Connor’s former players on many occasions.

Coach Im Connor and Thomas More College President Charles Bensman (Thomas More University Archives)

On July 14, 1978, Thomas More College sent out a press release announcing the appointment of revered high school coach, Jim Connor, as the new Athletic Director for Thomas More College. To that 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. As a 1950 graduate of Thomas More College (then Villa Madonna College), he was excited about his return. Record-wise, the files in the TMU Archives show 127 basketball wins and 149 baseball wins at Thomas More, raising his career total to 558 wins. In 1980-81, he was honored as the NAIA District 32 Coach of the Year when his team set a school record of 21 wins, a record beaten the very next year when they won 23 games. In 1983, when he recorded his 500th career victory as a basketball coach, he was made a member of the Bellarmine College Sports Hall of Fame and the Northern Kentucky Athletic Directors’ Hall of Fame. It was also recognized regionally that he had served as a local scout for the Chicago Cubs, and that two of his former players had careers in the National Basketball Association (Dave Cowens and Larry Staverman) and one played professional baseball with the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees (Dave Justice) (TMU Archives – Coach Jim Connor file).

What is not well known is that accomplishing what Connor did was not easy. In the Jim Connor years, the men’s basketball team at Thomas More College practiced in an elementary school gym at St. Benedict’s Parish in Covington, Kentucky, and played games at Covington Catholic High School and other gyms in the area. Women’s basketball and the intramural program were run at St. Pius X Seminary, with some game sessions at Villa Madonna Academy and St. Thomas Parish in Campbell County. The volleyball team practiced at Villa Madonna Academy, and the Men’s Tennis team practiced and had games at the Northern Kentucky Racquetball Club. The Men’s baseball and Women’s softball teams practiced and played at a number of the local parks, where space could be found (August 22, 1986, letter from Coach Jim Connor to new President, Dr. Charles Bensman, with details about the state of the athletic program at TMC in 1986, TMU Archives).

Dave Cowens, NBA player and Newport Central Catholic alum. (Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library)

Rather than complain, Coach Connor instead praised his loyal players, coaches, and the Booster organization that worked so hard to support all of the athletic programs. In his words: “they are here for all students, not only 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 Thomas More College current or former basketball players. Over the years, with the help of the Boosters, Coach Connor was the driving force behind the building of the Convocation and Athletic Center, which had been a long-time 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 at a ceremony that paid tribute to his outstanding career. In the words of The Kentucky Post editorial, “It was fitting for the college to name its new convocation and athletic center in [Coach Connor’s] honor…his coaching standards complemented the academic philosophy at Thomas More” (April 27, 1990, p. 4K).

Years later, a Thomas More College History major named Brad Moore wrote a local history paper (his senior project) on Coach Jim Connor. After interviewing many players and former players, he concluded:

Connor Convocation Center Dedication Plaque to Coach Jim Connor. (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives.)

“Dedication, Sacrifice, Honesty, Fairness, Gentleman. These are just some of the words used to describe Jim Connor, a man who helped shape the lives of so many young men in his illustrious 42 years of coaching. Anyone who played for him considered Jim Connor to be more than just a coach. To many, he was a father figure whom they would put next to their own father. He did not want to just teach his players how to play basketball and baseball but also wanted to teach his players to be good citizens and to lead a good Christian life as well. Jim Connor was not concerned about wins and losses, how many professional athletes were on his resumé, or even about having the best facilities. He loved getting the opportunity to coach and be athletic director of small schools because he reveled in the challenge of bringing each program he was affiliated with to new heights. Not only did he have the ability to mold the lives of young men into successful leaders, but 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 view summarized well what was said by decades of athletes fortunate enough to have been coached by, or even just known by, “Gentleman” Jim Connor.

Dr. Raymond G.  Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

1983 Thomas More College Baseball Team. (Thomas More University Archives)

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