After graduating from Shippensburg University in 2018, Clay Conner had a good job as an operations manager at Penske Logistics.
Nonetheless, he left it to pursue a career as a basketball coach.
Considering his background, that move was understandable.
Conner grew up with a coach in the household, his father Rick, who is in his 19th season as Linganore High School’s head football coach. Conner excelled as a point guard, typically the closest thing to a coach on the court, both at Oakdale High School and Shippensburg University. And he didn’t just play basketball, he totally immersed himself in the sport.
So, after persistently pursuing a position in a field he couldn’t resist, Conner is now a graduate assistant for Virginia Commonwealth University’s men’s basketball team. Just as importantly for someone who envisions running his own basketball program someday, Conner is also enrolled in VCU’s prestigious Center for Sport Leadership, which prepares students for sports-related leadership careers.
Conner’s coaches, be it former Oakdale coach Terry Connolly, Shippensburg head coach Chris Fite or Shippensburg assistant Dave Miller, saw signs of a future coach when Conner played for them.
“He comes from a coaching family, and you could see, he certainly has the ability to coach,” said Miller, whose longtime career included lengthy tenures as head coach at Walkersville High School and Frederick Community College. “He left a very good paying job to take the job at VCU. But that was in his blood, and he’s doing well.”
Conner had no complaints about working at Penske. He just felt a pull toward coaching. Not only because of his father but because, while competing in sports, he saw the impact other county coaches had on kids.
“A really good experience, learned a ton of things,” Conner said of Penske. “But I had always known that I wanted to get into coaching, and I stayed persistent with reaching out to the staff here at VCU among a couple of other places. And I was fortunate enough to have something come through.”
After Conner graduated, Miller gave him contact information for VCU assistant coach J.D. Byers, a former Westminster High School standout who Miller had recruited years earlier. Networking often provides a crucial link between programs with coaching vacancies and strong candidates, especially at the collegiate and pro levels.
“So over the last two years, I probably texted [Byers] after every game, just saying, ‘Hey, good game Coach, or tough one,’” Conner said. “Just trying to stay in the forefront of his mind. Probably towards the middle of their last season, he told me there might be a spot available for this upcoming year.”
Conner visited the school, liked the staff and gladly accepted when offered a position as a graduate assistant. He’s one of five GAs at VCU, and his entry into coaching only reaffirms the impression he made on Connolly at Oakdale.
Connolly called Conner one of the hardest workers he ever coached, and he pointed out how point guards are essentially quarterbacks on the court.
“That really held true with Clay because he knew what everyone else was supposed to be doing,” Connolly said. “And that’s uncommon in high school athletics no matter what sport you’re playing.”
Conner had no trouble meeting the demands of his job.
“The point guard that used to play for me carried a lot of burden, I asked a lot of them,” Connolly said. “And he was able to not only do everything I asked but exceed all my expectations.”
Conner kept that trait at Shippensburg. His senior season, he averaged 8.4 points and 4.6 assists as the starting point guard. Of course, those stats only scratch the surface of what he brought to the team, and not just during games. Fite recalled how hard Conner pushed in preseason workouts, whether on the track or in the weight room, as well as in daily practices.
“He was so competitive, he really didn’t want to lose anything that we did, whether it was a timed mile or shooting drill or anything like that,” Fite said.
And like others, he saw a potential when looking at Conner.
“I think that that’s what made him such a great player and leader, is just he really thought the game like a coach on the floor almost,” he said. “His work ethic, his approach, the way he communicated with his teammates, he was kind of a coach’s dream as far as what you look for in a point guard and a leader and a floor general.”
And as Fite pointed out, Conner had a good teacher in his father, Rick.
“Growing up, there was no one really in the world I wanted to be more like than my dad,” Clay said. “At a young age, I got to see how much passion he had for coaching the amount of young kids he was able to help, and I loved everything about it and everything that came along with it.”
Hanging around his father’s workplace, the football field, Conner got to know some of the finest athletes to come out of Frederick County over the past couple of decades.
“Not everybody gets to grow up around [Urbana football players] Billy Gaines and Zach Mills and Chris O’Connor and then all those Linganore guys, [Zach] Zwinak and Rob Havenstein and my brother [Ricky],” Conner said. “I got to experience some pretty cool things as a kid, being around sports and my dad was a coach and I had always known that I loved sports and loved what coaching embodied.”
Better yet, he got to know other influential county coaches, such as the late Ben Wright — who helmed powerful Thomas Johnson football teams and was Ricky Conner’s godfather — Connolly and Linganore boys basketball head coach and football assistant O’Connor.
“That really motivated me to get into coaching,” Clay Conner said. “And if I end up being half as good of a coach as any of those guys, I’ll turn myself into a pretty damn good coach.”
Clay Conner played for his father’s Linganore program for two seasons. But after transferring to Oakdale as a junior, he focused solely on basketball. Playing for Connolly and alongside Bucknell-bound star Zach Thomas, Conner helped the Bears reach the 2014 Class 2A state championship his senior year.
Now, he’ll be focused on doing his part to help prepare VCU, an Atlantic 10 team helmed by fourth-year coach Mike Rhoades, for the upcoming season. Two seasons removed from reaching the NCAA tournament for the eighth time in nine years, the Rams are coming off an 18-13 season.
“We get to learn how to be coaches from an unbelievable staff down here,” Conner said. “The staff down here has a great track record, and they really let us in, we get to be a part of meetings, we get to be at practice every day, we get to do film stuff, we get to help scouting.”
Also, at the Center for Sport Leadership (CSL), he’s had the opportunity to glean more insight, including from NBA assistants, that could help him as a coach.
The CSL is a master’s program that provides students with a year of work experience in the sporting community. The program aims to create leaders for the sports industry by helping students learn the business of sports, preparing them to make decisions in that industry and giving them connections to industry figures and CSL alumni.
Conner said the program is world renowned. For one of his projects, a coach insight profile, Conner got to sit down with Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Dave Bliss.
“How cool was that for me just to be able to pick an NBA assistant coach’s brain for half an hour to an hour?” Conner said. “And then touching on it again, Kaleb Canales, one of the assistant coaches for the Knicks, was a guest speaker at one of my classes [via Zoom].”
Conner and the Rams are set to open the 2020-21 season on the road against Tennessee on Nov. 27. It also will host Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 5.
Of course, like any other college program in the country this year, VCU’s schedule could be radically altered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Conner said VCU players have done a good job following protocols put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. Still, Rams coaches keep abreast of any potential changes, whether caused by COVID-19 issues in Richmond or in their opponents’ communities.
No matter how jumbled this season is, Conner is gaining experience that will help attain his long-term goal.
“It’s a two-year GA program down here, and then the next step is just trying to find a job on somebody’s staff, wherever it is around the country,” he said. “And then trying to figure out a way to be a head coach at whatever level it is. ... The ultimate goal is running my own program and using a lot of the stuff I’m learning now.”