Coach Connor talks about the current state of high school football, Panther football and the PIAA.
Coach Jim Connor has been teaching and coaching for 37 years, most of those years in Nether Providence. He began at the old Swarthmore High School and was the head football coach there. He has made a decision to leave the Strath Haven coaching job as Defensive Coordinator (he will continue his teaching career at Strath Haven as well as coaching middle school sports) and has taken a position as the Defensive Coordinator at Cardinal O’Hara along with his son Mike. We interviewed him in his classroom at Strath Haven High School in mid-April to talk about his career, his future and his feelings about the current state of high school football in Pennsylvania.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – Coach, give us a little background on your career.
CONNOR – I was head coach at Swarthmore high school and then I was the head coach here at Strath Haven when the school changed from Nether Providence to Strath Haven High School for the first five years. At the end of the five years I decided to try my hand at college coaching and went to Penn State and then kicked around at some colleges and coached at Widener and Swarthmore College. After that experience I decided I wanted to come back and be a high school coach. Being a college coach is just a tough lifestyle with moving your families all around and my kids were coming up so I wanted to be available to them as well.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – How did you first meet Coach Clancy?
CONNOR – I was involved in getting coach Kevin Clancy hired here at Strath Haven. I was doing some college stuff and Coach Clancy was here and we just started talking about football stuff and we saw that we were on the same wave-length and he asked me to come on and coach with him. So I started coaching the ninth-grade boys when my sons were coming through and then there was an opening on the Varsity for defensive coach and he asked me to come and take that position. So I’ve been coaching Strath Haven football for 19 years.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – The team wasn’t doing particularly well when you came on board.
CONNOR – High school football in general and certainly Strath Haven football, and prior to that Swarthmore football, has always been cyclical. Right before I took the Strath Haven job Nether Providence high school was like 0 and 10 the previous two seasons. So coming into the merge they were like 0 and 20 and my first season at Strath Haven I was 3-7 and right before I came in with Kevin they were a 3-8 team as well. And then we had a great run and we had some great families and some great athletes but the fact is that the last few years we’ve been just below 500, or around 500, with those kind of records it is not a shock that it does come around. We have some good kids coming up from the Middle School though.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – High school coaching is unique since you can’t pick your talent. You have to coach what you have. So what makes a team a top contender versus a mediocre team?
CONNOR – Coaching is only part of the formula. The schedule is a factor and there’s always somebody better out there depending on who you play. Talent of course is a big part of it. Talent is really the most important because if you have great kids, and we had great kids during that Championship run, then our job as coaches is just not to mess it up.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – 1999 was your first year to make it all the way to Hershey and then you returned in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Did you realize the team’s ability right away or did it develop over the season?
CONNOR – I think each year was different, I really do. The first year that we won it we knew we had the horses and we knew that if we just talk to kids, teach them good fundamentals and played within ourselves, that we’d be fine. The following year we didn’t necessarily think we had the team because we had lost Mark (Jones) and we didn’t necessarily think that we would have a team of that caliber but it turned out that that team was as good, if not better, than the year before. The following two years, where we lost the championship game, we came into those seasons thinking that it was time to come back down to earth. I think a lot of that success was the psychology of high school kids that when they think they’re good, they are good and when the other team thinks you are good they kind of fold if things get bad for them. They start to think that all this is Strath Haven and now that we’re down by a touchdown or two they’re just going to crush us. The psychology of young kid’s minds helped us a lot in those years.
Regarding our first championship season we recognized that the guys were getting better every week and we saw early on that after playing in the Central League, after we played the Ridley’s and the Haverford’s and Conestoga, which always had a lot of talent, after playing them it really made us razor-sharp for AAA competition. We did see that if we can get through the Central League healthy that we would always have a shot in AAA because it was a more level playing field against comparable teams. I always thought it was easier to win the District Title than win the Central League. But we did see in 1999 that it was attainable that we could win in Districts and go on and win States.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – Haven has had some good teams but lately they have been fighting to just be a 500 club. What’s changed?
CONNOR – I mentioned scheduling because what’s happening now is that we have the have and have-nots which wasn’t the case before. What’s happened today is that the quad A’s and AAA’s have an accumulated effect on the program and that the schools that have a lot of kids, when they get an injury, or something happens they just plug in the next kid. When you’re in the bottom half of that numbers-wise (team roster size) you’re also in a position of weakness relative to replacements. We won the Districts a few years back but we only played 13 kids. We happened to have nobody injured. The other years we also played a small amount of kids but we had key injuries like Anthony Myers, who missed for five games. Kevin Mulholland missing his senior season was brutal. With the limited AAA roster we don’t really have a “next”.
Part of our injury situation is the concussion syndrome that has been occurring. It’s like a pendulum and right now the pendulum is swinging way out to reactionary beliefs and that concussions are tied to football and moms don’t want their boys playing football. The pendulum will come back to a more moderate position because there’s lots of data out there that concussions occur in many sports and in fact last year our girl’s soccer team had more concussions than our football team. There’s a lot of data that says if football is played correctly then the risks for injury are similar to any other sport.
So I think with all these considerations we are losing kids. There are a few things here in the Nether Providence community that have always been a problem. One is the lack of youth football program. In the few years that we had the Wallingford Huskies we did see some really good kids come out of that program. We also saw a few kids from the Rose Tree Colts which borders our community. Most of the programs we play against have large feeder programs for football. Here, we’ve always had a big feeder program for soccer and very little of anything for football. So there’s not only a lack of training for young football players but the better athletes participate in soccer programs which tends to push them to play soccer rather than football. This is not a new problem for us but is certainly is one of the reasons we’re seeing less and less boys play football.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – The community’s strong soccer program and lack of a feeder program have been issues for years and yet Haven, in the late 90’s and early 2000 was quite the dynasty. What else has changed?
CONNOR – We’ve always been able to pull together a fairly presentable first-team that could compete. But year in and year out the AAA teams, other than Springfield which had a good run these last couple of years, the AAA’s in the last five years have essentially not been competitive. In fact in the last four years or so they’ve hardly won a game against a Quad A team.
Private schools are having their impact as well. Good athletes are coming up through our middle school system and then are being given scholarships at private or parochial schools and taking them out of our system. So the combination of concussions, lack of a feeder program, private schools and the fact that we’re one of the smaller schools in the Central League has all contributed to a reduction in athletes. We have not been able to have a freshman football team for the last two years due to lack of participation. A few of the schools like Upper Darby and Haverford can endure some of these pressures because of their much larger student population.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – So you see an issue with private and parochial schools from a competitive standpoint? What’s the solution?
CONNOR – I’m an advocate for a school with borders such as the traditional public school play against each other and schools without borders, such as private schools, to play against each other similar to the New Jersey model. It obvious to everyone that the playing field is no longer level and that fact should be admitted and addressed. That, however, is a political situation and it probably is not going change in the near future so we just have to do the best we can.
Most of the state leagues have recognized this problem and set themselves up, where possible, to make up leagues or links of teams in similar classifications. Schools play more sports than football but the problem that I have, and the reason I advocate for a change, is the potential for injuries when playing a school that either has substantially larger players and/or can substitute at will and have fresh players on the field. The Central League, as an example, should create a AAA and a Quad A division and while the two different classifications can play during the season a championship is created for each group.
Even the whole County could split it as AAA and Quad A but the only reason I would advocate anything like that is because in football when you lose and when you play a substantially superior team you’re kids literally are carried off the field on crutches and stretchers. You know football is different than if you lose in a tennis game and you’re shutout. In tennis the only thing that is affected is the score. In football you lose athletes. If you take a bad beating in football and your starting roster goes from 12 to 8 you’re now completely noncompetitive and stand a chance of even more injuries in additional games.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – We have seen some very big and powerful AAA teams in the past like Hopewell in 2002 and the current Archbishop Wood team. Playing AAA teams doesn’t guarantee the size of the team or the talent.
CONNOR – There’s always the potential that you could play a AAA team that is oversized. But those teams work on a cyclical nature and that you may come across these teams occasionally but that’s much different than facing off against teams which regularly are larger and deeper and stronger every single week. It’s true that our last opponent in state championships in 2002 was Hopewell. They were a very large and fast AAA team. However they appeared at the championships in Hershey one time and have not been active contenders since.
When you start seeing the same teams in the championship games and winning the championships and the same family of schools like the Philadelphia Catholic League winning year after year after year particularly in football and basketball then you have a problem that needs to be addressed.
Our game against Imhotep Charter a few years ago is a good example of my concerns. It was a mismatch and we took a beating, not only on the score board but we lost four or five kids due to injury.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – So your comment to those who are concerned about Haven’s last couple of years?
CONNOR – Strath Haven, given an AAA schedule will do well against comparable competition. To be honest everyone says Strath Haven football has gone down but when you look at the male athletes within the building we’ve done reasonably well considering the schools we have to play in the Central league.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – With the expected cyclical nature of high school sports how do you explain a football program like Ridley where their idea of a bad season is 7-3?
CONNOR – I think really Ridley has a real good football community and their families stay in the community and support the program. These kids look forward, almost from the time they can see that green ‘R’, to play ball for Ridley High School. There is no magic to their program. They play in a league (Central League) where they are one of the larger schools (population wise). If they were in Neshaminy’s league which is all Pennsbury and Quad A schools they would have a tough time competing and being successful. Ridley’s success has been being a large Quad A school and a big football school that plays a lot of weaker and smaller football programs. So they’re able to rack up a lot of wins and I don’t blame them for that. They’re playing in the league they’re in. But if they had to compete regularly in something like those Suburban One Leagues I think they would have a very tough time. Right now, in the Central League, Strath Haven can go out every week and lose their game. The competition for Haven is that strong.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – Where do you see Haven football for the next few years?
CONNOR – Today, with the dominant private schools controlling the state games I don’t think it is possible for us to win a state championship but I do think it’s still possible for us to compete for a District Championship and win them. I think if you turn the clock back, even just five years, winning a state championship was doable. If you look at the roster for Archbishop Wood when we played them and saw that they were a pretty young team with lots of sophomores and juniors we could see the writing on the wall. But right now the momentum and the way the rules are set up it just gives the game to the private schools. But as I said before, in any given year you could have a great public school that just has the right combination of kids and they dominate and take the championship. But I’m concerned that as things progress that the schools that are going out and getting the athletes are the ones that are going to succeed and win championships.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – So has any of this had any bearing on your decision to leave Strath Haven as a football coach?
CONNOR – Strath Haven’s football record of the last few years had nothing to do with my decision to join Cardinal O’Hara. For me it had a lot to do with how much longer I was going to coach and I’ve got 37 years of coaching football and I figured I just want to do a few more years with my son. Mike had quit his job at Plymouth Whitemarsh coaching football. He has two little guys at home and was very concerned about the time commitment. We knew O’Hara was looking for a defensive coordinator and Mike and I thought we could propose splitting the job so we could both reduce the commitment, work together and I, due to my age, could back off a little bit of my work schedule. I explored seeing if I could get Mike in at Strath Haven but our staff has great longevity here and there was really no place to put Mike. So this position opened up at O’Hara and we just took a shot in the dark but it ended up coming to fruition.
So I’ll end up finishing up over at Cardinal O’Hara and that works for me in a couple of ways. In addition to working with Mike, I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to teach either, but I’m only 59 years old so I don’t want to just sit around and watch TV. I figured if it works out well with the Catholic schools I could think of part-time job there as an assistant athletic director or some other soft landing type of job for retirement.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – What was it like to tell Coach Kevin Clancy you were leaving?
CONNOR – The hardest thing I ever had to do was to leave Haven. Kevin Clancy and I are like brothers. I have so much respect for him and for what he does and he such a great guy but I just thought that lowering my work load, sharing the responsibility with my son and spending more time at home with my grandchildren, that this was the best move to make. But nothing is ever in stone and I’ve talked to Kevin and if things don’t work out the way we expect we’ll see what we do.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – It must have been a good feeling to see how pleased O’Hara was to have you join their staff.
CONNOR – I was surprised by the reaction over at Cardinal O’Hara. I was really selling Mike but for whatever reason they thought they really needed to have a mature presence. They’ve had some very difficult periods for the football team including the 1-9 record last year. The whole staff is in their 30s and I’m, well, I’m old enough to be everybody’s father. I think they wanted an older, stable guy who’d been around a bit and just to bring some stability there. I see it as a nice challenge to take a 1-9 team and see if I can help to bring them back to some success.
HAVENFOOTBALL.NET – Want to share your best memories of being at Strath Haven?
The best parts of my career so far in working with Strath Haven is being able to work with Kevin Clancy and being able to coach my kids. The wins were great but having the chance to work with Kevin and coach my sons has been the best experience of my life. Those two things are my biggest and best memories…………. as well as the field goal in the state championship game. That was pretty big too! After being here so many years I am truly a black and silver guy, I bleed that. I’m the guy who started the program here so many years ago and I’ve always had an allegiance to the school. I’m going to do everything I can to help these guys. We do clinics together and we bring in some Strath Haven guys. The whole County program for football is really a very tightknit group of guys and we’re all pretty cooperative with each other. It’s really like a brotherhood, particularly on the defensive side. But no matter where I go and what I’m doing I’ve always been and will always be a Panther guy!