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Houston • He'd wanted to be a head coach all his life. But in 1997, Tommy Connor realized his professional ambitions didn't outweigh his desire to be a good dad.
It was almost 18 years ago when Connor, then a young assistant who was on the "fast track" to bigger things, walked into Rick Majerus' office and quit. He didn't have a concrete plan of what he'd do next, he said, but he did have a 1-year-old son, Jake Connor, who needed his father to be around more.
"Kids change your perspective on things," Connor said. "I didn't see Jake much in his first year. I knew at the time I couldn't meet the demands of that job again."
On Friday, when the Utes take on Duke in the Sweet 16, the Connors will take a moment to celebrate something else: Jake's 19th birthday.
It's a luxury the Connors have now, since Tommy is again a Utes assistant and Jake is playing as a preferred walk-on. It's an arrangement that "has been everything I was hoping it would be and more," Tommy said.
Jake feels the same way.
"For the last four years, my dad has been wanting this," he said. "Maybe the very beginning for about a week it was tough, but I think we have a great relationship: Coach on the court. Dad off. Nothing's really changed."
Connor ended up resurrecting a dormant program at Westminster College, which allowed him to stay close to home and raise his three children. After coaching the Griffins to a .698 winning mark over 12 years, Connor rejoined the Utes under coach Larry Krystkowiak and got the chance to recruit his own son.
Jake, a standout at Highland, had his options. Tommy's successor at Westminster, Adam Hiatt, would've loved to put the 6-foot-2 guard in purple. But once Krystkowiak offered Jake a walk-on spot on the roster, it was hard for Jake to say no.
"I realized how good of a season we were going to have, and it's paying off now," Jake said. "And I've made great relationships with people Kenneth, Austin, Jakob, Chris and I think the decision was made mostly to be close to my family."
The Utes also played in the Sweet 16 in 1997, Tommy's last season in the Majerus era. Seeing the story come full circle in poetic, if unexpected way, gives him some pause to reflect on the path he chose.
"I've lived a blessed life," he said. "I wouldn't change it. I have never regretted it. I ended up with a job that fit me perfectly and got to see my kids grow up. The timing coming back to Utah was perfect. It's been a great ride and I'm happy to have Jake along with us."
Utes excited by venue
The basketball setup for NRG Stadium is in many ways an eyesore: a cavernous space with black curtains hanging on either end of the court, giving an awkward sense of intimacy.
But try telling the Utes that.
"It's just an amazing feeling," Brandon Taylor said. "I don't think any of our teammates have been a part of anything like this, and even in shootaround and seeing how big this arena is, and it just doesn't seem real."
The bright lights in the rafters and the unusual spacing behind the hoop provoked some speculation among media (Jim Nantz among them) that it could be difficult shooting conditions. But Krystkowiak said he hasn't bothered addressing it with his team he doesn't see it as a factor, especially since Duke is dealing with the same conditions.
"At the end of the day, you know the old cliche that it's still 10 feet off the ground and 18 inches in diameter, or whatever it is, can or cannot be a part of story line," Krystkowiak said. "That's not going to be an excuse for us and probably going to be something that we don't speak a whole lot about."
Holmoe in Houston
He knows as much about Utah and Gonzaga as anyone on the NCAA men's basketball committee, and for once he doesn't have a rooting interest this weekend.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe is in Houston for the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games as a site coordinator in his role on the committee. The job requires clear eyes and objectivity, so the Cougar athletic director won't be cheering one way or the other when the Utes take on Duke, and the Zags take on UCLA.
He did, however, offer some analysis of Friday's Utah game: "I've seen enough of the Utes to know they have a great chance to advance," Holmoe said.
Maybe not the line BYU fans hoped to hear.
Kurt Kragthorpe contributed to this story.