Connor Turning West Chester into “Linebacker U”
Dan Connor spent six seasons playing linebacker in the National Football League. In 2011, he fully recovered from a broken hip to rank third on the Carolina Panthers in tackles.
Some would view his resume of six seasons and over 25 starts in the NFL as the pinnacle of a football life.
But for Connor, those seasons were just prep school for what he truly was meant to do: coach.
Connor’s dad coached in the college ranks for several years and both of Connor’s older brothers are high school coaches. It is small wonder Dan thought about transitioning to coaching even while he was still playing.
“Going through this whole year, it re-affirmed how much I want to do this,” said Connor, who just successfully completed his first year as West Chester’s linebackers coach. “I loved watching tape and watching film. I had dedicated so much time and work into football and I just couldn’t picture myself outside of it.
“You’re never positive how it will shake out or if you get worn out but I think this is definitely something I was meant to do. Maybe even more so than playing, I think I was meant to coach.”
That is quite a statement considering that Connor may have been the best prep player in Delaware County history. He starred at Strath Haven High School where he led the Panthers to two state title games, winning one. He was named the top linebacker in the country by Parade magazine and earned first team All-American honors from USA Today. The 6’2”, 240 pounder with outstanding instincts recorded 18 sacks and 16 interceptions in his Strath Haven career. He also rushed for over 1,800 yards and scored 28 touchdowns as a senior.
“Syracuse was interested in me as a fullback because then coach Paul Pasqualoni used his fullbacks a little more in the offense. I don’t know if that was a recruiting ploy to get me to go there or if they had plans for me. I think I just entertained that for my own ego as a 17-year old,” Connor smiled. “But I knew linebacker was my future.”
It would be his future as a player…and as a teacher. West Chester- just 17 miles west of Strath Haven- had an outstanding 2014, winning 11 games and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Golden Rams’ 94 tackles for loss ranked among the nation’s best. They also held their PSAC opponents to an average of less than 17 points per game.
Connor revealed some of the key points that he has tried to convey to his charges. “Using your hands is really important. A lot of times, you get guys who want to put a shoulder in there and try to play that way but that is not really effective,” Connor explained. “A good shuffle, a low pad level square to the line of scrimmage, and using your hands are three of the key fundamentals that I’ll work into individual periods every single day during the season. I think with those three things, you can really build a good foundation for the player.”
Few things were more satisfying for Connor than when the light bulb came on for his players. “It was good to see when players were applying your drills to a game or to an individual scrimmage or to live action,” he stated. “When you see that, that was really rewarding. For some reason, that was surprising because you don’t expect guys to be able to do it so quickly.
“They put it together. They understood the drill and what I was trying to get across. It makes you feel good. They get excited and you get excited for them.”
West Chester linebackers would be wise to listen to Connor. After graduating from Strath Haven, he started for four years at Penn State- the school known as “Linebacker U”.
“I think we understood (the PSU tradition) coming in. We knew what we were getting into and we knew what was expected but when you’re there, you’re just trying to handle your day to day,” Connor admitted. “I felt like if we had too much of an understanding of the tradition we had there and the guys who played before, it might have put pressure on you that you didn’t need. They did a good job keeping you level headed and focusing on what is next.”
Connor became one of the 18 Nittany Lion linebackers to be named a first-team All-American. He actually earned that honor twice, in both his junior and senior seasons.
In Connor’s last game at Beaver Stadium, a Senior Day 26-19 win over Purdue, he broke teammate Paul Posluszny’s all-time tackles record. In a school that has produced such names as Posluszny, Arrington, Ham, Buttle and Conlan, it is Connor who stands atop all of them in number of take downs.
“There are so many different memories,” Connor reminisced. “We won some bowl games. Even my freshman year where we struggled. Our record was bad but our defense was so good. There were some real good memories then, of holding teams to three points and six points.
“In the game I broke the tackle record, my brothers, my family and friends were up there. That was a pretty special moment that I look back on now, appreciate and wish I could go back and enjoy the moment. That was one of the most special days I’ve had in my life.”
Some more special days would follow. Connor won the Senior Bowl North MVP in his final college football game. The Carolina Panthers selected Connor in the third round of the 2008 Draft. The six years in the NFL, playing under a variety of good head and position coaches, taught Connor “more than he could handle” on the intricacies of playing linebacker.
“I had to write it all out just so I could remember at the end of the season,” he admitted. “Fortunately, I kept good notes. Football-wise, (the NFL) gave me an unbelievable amount of knowledge on defensive schemes and technique that has helped me a ton.
“Having a bunch of different coaches, you see every type of style. You see the yellers, the guys who are players’ coaches, the guys who are quiet, old guys, young guys,” he continued. “I was able to take what is natural for me, what works for the players, what gets the most out of them, and what gets the least out of them. That is why for the past two or three years of my career I had an eye out a little bit more for coaching techniques. I think that has helped me a lot in making the transition.”
A torn ACL prematurely ended Connor’s rookie campaign. But he came back in 2009 to play meaningful football for Carolina, so much so that the team voted him its recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, an act that holds special meaning for Connor.
“It was nice to have teammates- and I was a younger player too- who appreciate the long road back, coming back to play at a high level and being able to start. That was pretty special,” Connor said. “There was a whole banquet where we got to go to Baltimore and work with some inner city kids. That was a great experience.”
Unfortunately, injuries would be a way of life for Connor the player. There were knee surgeries, the broken hip and neck burners. Connor had six surgeries during his playing career. But the experience of playing hurt has reaped enormous benefits for Connor the coach.
“I was able to see and understand how people play with injuries that have to get operated on at the end of the season. That has given me that understanding of how to deal with a player emotionally when they go through something devastating like that,” Connor explained. “They lose their season or they are playing through a lot of pain. It’s tough. They are away from the team and guys who play football are with teams their whole lives so when they are isolated it is hard on them emotionally. It kind of gets overlooked by some coaches but it weighed heavy on me. I know it is hard on these guys.”
That empathy builds relationships with players. Connor’s expertise of not only Xs and Os but also psychology makes it likely that he is in for a long and successful coaching career. “The NFL is grown men with families and there is turnover every single year. There aren’t that many relationships. It’s all business and all football, and that is what I like about college,” Connor noted. “It’s all about relationships.
“You’re with the guys for four or five years. You see them as 18-year old kids, nervous and scared and coming to college for the first time and then you see them as seniors- where they are 21-22 years old. They’re grown men. They’ve been through the ringer. They know the ins and outs of football. It’s cool to see the transformation and it is cool to be a part of that.”
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