Tom McConnell grew up in a large family, and he raised a large family.
The oldest of eight children and a father of six, McConnell became part of a larger extended family Tuesday morning when he was introduced as the 10th women’s basketball coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Now McConnell plans to call on the values he learned while growing up and then raising his family to build a basketball program at IUP.
“I want to build a family atmosphere,” McConnell said. “My family is very important to me, and my wife is an IUP grad. We’re going to create a family atmosphere, something to be proud of, and we’re going to really pull together. I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting to know everybody and getting to work.”
About a dozen members of McConnell’s family and several of his friends as well as IUP administrators, coaches and athletes were in attendance at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex when he was introduced as the head coach.
“It’s overwhelming right now to see my family and friends here and living in a great community and working at a great school with a rich basketball tradition,” McConnell said. “It’s really a blessing.”
McConnell, 53, is a 23-year veteran of the coaching ranks that includes stints on men’s and women’s staffs at the Division I level at St. Francis, Wake Forest, Marquette, Colorado, Dayton and Old Dominion. He spent the last two years at Old Dominion as a women’s assistant. McConnell views making the move to IUP as a perfect fit and the place he wants to be his last stop of a long career.
“We talked at length about this as a family,” McConnell said. “I’m in awe right now that I’m here and that it worked out the way it did because it couldn’t be better for me. My wife is from Butler, I’m from Pittsburgh, and we raised kids in Altoona for 15 years. And to be do it at place that has had the success and tradition that IUP does, for me it’s a dream come true. This is home for us. … It had to be a special place with special people, and one of the things when I came here on my visit, obviously I was impressed with the facilities, but there was a real connection with the people here.
“The other thing that is special about this, for me coaching is not a job, it’s a calling, a vocation, and I don’t take that lightly, to be able to put that whistle around my neck. I want to win championships, but I want to use this as a platform to impact the lives of the players I coach. It’s a tremendous honor and a privilege … and as I told the committee, let’s meet again in 15 or 18 years and decide if what we’re doing is moving in the right direction.”
Basketball always has played a big role in his family. He is one of six siblings that went to college on a basketball scholarship, and his sister, Suzie McConnell-Serio, was an All-American at Penn State, a two-time U.S. Olympian and a former WNBA head coach who was recently hired as the head coach at Pitt. Another sister, Kathy McConnell-Miller, is an associate head coach at Pitt.
“If you’re attaching monikers to families that coach basketball,” Dr. Frank Condino, IUP’s director of athletics, said, “you’d have to say the McConnells are the first family of coaching basketball at IUP and western Pa. He has strong ties to IUP –— his wife is a graduate and his son is a graduate — so he’s very familiar with the background. Five members of his family were at IUP. I’d like to say welcome back home to all of the McConnells here at IUP.”
McConnell succeeds Jeff Dow, whose contract was not renewed after last season despite a 108-40 record in five seasons.
“We’re trying to move on from that and start fresh, and I think we definitely have a good coach to do that,” Lindsay Stamp, a forward who will be a junior next year, said. “He seems like a really nice guy, and I really liked his emphasis on family. I’m just excited about the future. I only have two more years, and I want to make them the best they can be.”
“I was excited for next season as it was, and now I’m just that much more excited,” Leslie Stapleton, an Indiana native who sat out her sophomore season with a broken ankle, said. “It seems like we found a great coach. I like what his vision is for our team, and I’m just really excited. I’m just really looking forward to next season, and I think it’s going to be great.”
McConnell outlined four things he believes lead to a successful program, and he addressed the members of the team in attendance — approximately half of last year’s squad — as he spoke.
“One is athletic achievement,” he said. “We want to create an environment where we’re competing for PSAC and national championships on a consistent basis. I think we can do that. We have the facilities, the commitment, the academic pursuits young people are looking for. And we want to create a style of play that’s fun for the players to play: get up and down floor, play 94 feet, shoot the 3, share the ball. One of the things you’ll hear me say a lot is that we want to lead the country in high fives and floor burns. That’s going to be our identity. … That means we want to be the most enthusiastic and passionate team out there and take charges, get loose balls, get the 50-50 balls. Those are two things that you can control: attitude and effort. The rest of the stuff, the winning, will follow if you do those two things.
“The next thing is to have academic excellence. We want to recruit young ladies that are serious about getting a good education and want to make a difference in the classroom. … We want to have true student athletes.
“We want to make sure that we have community service, that we’re giving, that the community knows who you are and that you’re making a difference. We want you to learn to be truly happy and that true success is defined by giving yourself away.”
“The last thing is that we want to develop leaders, not only in the classroom but on the court. We want to develop leaders, and we want to develop character. … I don’t want you to just leave here with a championship and a degree, we want that experience to be meaningful and prepare you as you go about making a difference wherever it is you go.”
IUP loses only one player, Sarah Pastorek, one of the program’s all-time leading scorers and rebounders, from a team that finished 23-9.
“I know that we have a good young basketball team that is very skilled and fundamentally sound and plays hard,” McConnell said, “and I know the PSAC is one of the premier conferences in the country, and in order to win championships and compete on the national level, we need to attract the type of player we have now.
“I wish it was September and we were back in school and getting ready to go. I’m excited about the team that stands before me today and the opportunity to coach them. There are two words I want you to be able say at the end of your four years. I want you to be able to say this experience has been meaningful and the most rewarding experience of your life. It’s all about relationships, about getting close, about coming to work every day and going after a goal and having to strive together to be the best you can be and winning championships. And I want that to be rewarding, and usually that involves overcoming obstacles and challenges, and we’ll do that together.”