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U., Westminster find advantages in trading their coaching talents

April 01, 2005

Deseret Morning News
By Tim Peterson

Ex-Ute helps Griffins complete another stellar season

Most Utah basketball fans born before 1975 can remember Tommy Conner running the point for Lynn Archibald and Rick Majerus. Some of us hard-core fans even noticed when he left the Utah program to be the men's head coach at Westminster.

Six years later, both programs are benefiting greatly. The Griffins have completed another stellar season under Conner. They climbed to 12th (a school record) in this year's NAIA polls and earned an invitation to the national tournament for the fourth time in five seasons. Pretty good results for the two-time basketball state champion from Idaho.

It seems that the family bloodlines run strong in the Conners. Tommy Conner's father, Buzz Conner, coached at Boise State for 40 years.

Paying it forward? Before the start of the 2004-05 basketball season, Conner helped his own assistants climb the coaching ladder.

Daron Park spent years trying to get into coaching, initially serving as a manager with Kermit Davis at Idaho University. He got the bug to coach when they faced Louisville (led by Felton Spencer and LaBradford Smith) in the NCAA Tournament. Given a little dose of March Madness, Park decided to work toward his ultimate goal of becoming a coach.

After graduating from Montana State in 1994 with a degree in health enhancement, Park spent time as a door-to-door salesman and casino entertainment director. Persistence paid off for Park when he landed his first real coaching job as an assistant with Conner at Westminster.

Later, Park discovered that he received a superb recommendation from his old high school coach, Gary Turcott. At that point, Park understood that paying his dues as a student manager had paid off.

"It's all who you know," he says. "In this business, you'd better not burn any bridges or you might not get your chance."

After five seasons at Westminster, Park left for greener pastures and a bigger paycheck. With a recommendation from Conner, he joined Elaine Elliott's staff as an assistant at the University of Utah. Elliott says that finding a good coach is her primary focus, but also buys into recommendations from people she knows.

"It's like any job. It helps when you know the person or trust the person who recommends them," Elliott said. It would appear that Park is a nice fit for the Utes as he has played a key role in helping to develop the team. Two of the players, Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn, are this year's Mountain West Conference Co-Players of the Year.

Elliot has heard stories about Park and Conner eating lunch while watching Rick Majerus conduct Ute practices. She maintains that the influence of a good coach is key in the development of a good coach.

Elliott should know, she's been around a few good coaches herself. Over her career as a player and coach, she's learned firsthand from Majerus, Trent Johnson and Mike Montgomery. Elliot has been coaching at Utah for more than 22 years.

Former Ute walk-on Chris Jones also served as an assistant coach for Tommy Conner. Jones, who played under Majerus, is busy keeping the men's basketball operation rolling. He was hired this season as the Utes' director of basketball operations.