Steve Botkin recalls seeing legendary Sahuaro High School basketball coach Dick McConnell sweeping the gymnasium floor before a practice, rushing up to his coaching mentor and telling him that he can take over or summon a custodian.
“No, Steve,” McConnell told him, according to Botkin’s reflection. “I can handle it. This is my solitude. This is what I want to do.”
For more than his 40 years of coaching at Tombstone, Rincon and Sahuaro, McConnell swept the hearts and (coaching) minds of many who came in contact with him. He not only made the hardwood clean before some of those practices that went to 9 p.m., he purified the lives of many.
“He was as genuine as they come even though he was larger than life,” said Botkin, Sahuaro’s athletic director and highly successful girls basketball coach. “Coach McConnell always did things the right way. To this day, before my practices, I sweep the floor.
“It’s not anybody’s responsibility but mine, just like Coach would say. I tell the girls what he told me, that it helps me get my mind on what to do in practice. Sweeping that floor is something I’ll do as long as I coach.”
Pima men’s basketball coach Brian Peabody, emotional, often paused while gathering his thoughts commenting about McConnell, who passed away Tuesday in Phoenix from failing health at the age of 89.
“He was the most influential person in my life,” said Peabody, his voice trailing off.
When asked if that meant McConnell was like another father to him, Peabody said, “I didn’t have a father growing up. … He was mine.”
"He was my driver's ed teacher, my coach, my mentor, and we ended up competing against each other. I think the 40 years I knew him, I only saw him get upset one time, and rightfully so.” https://t.co/Ecg0M0sK5h via @azcentral
Also a longtime realtor in Tucson with his wife Clarine, McConnell sold a house to Peabody five different times. One time, Peabody, Botkin and another home buyer swapped their houses at the behest of McConnell.
“That was Coach,” Botkin said. “He always figured out a way.”
Peabody was a starting guard for McConnell at Sahuaro as a senior with the 1980-81 team, one of the best in Tucson history. The Cougars finished 25-2 after losing in the state semifinals. A year later, with David Haskin at the post and future NFL quarterback Rodney Peete a productive forward, Sahuaro finished 28-1 and won McConnell’s second title at the school. The championship was at the state’s highest level, a feat no other Southern Arizona school has accomplished since.
McConnell also won state titles with the Cougars in 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
Peabody coached seven years under McConnell at Sahuaro, from 1983-1990. He also coached against his mentor when he led Salpointe’s program from 1993-2003.
Stopped by Sahuaro High School on my way home. Thinking of the thousands of times Coach McConnell stepped foot in this gym and impacted people young and old for the rest of their lives. A true coaching icon. Story upcoming in https://t.co/CUU6F3Xdm1. RIP Coach. pic.twitter.com/YVB2GHwy0P
“This is the kind of person he was — I’ve never seen a coach respect an opposing coach like him,” Peabody said of McConnell. “He was legendary for inviting the opposing coach out for a beer after a game. You would always find him at Kappy’s (on North Wilmot) after a game sitting with coaches with a seat left open for the other coach. Nobody does anything like that.”
Rick Gary played for McConnell at Sahuaro and later coached with him as the Cougars’ freshman coach. His son also played for McConnell.
Their friendship remained strong since the day McConnell noticed Gary at the outdoor basketball courts at Sahuaro when McConnell was the Driver’s Ed teacher.
“He was the same man coaching with him as he was playing for him,” said Gary, now a program manager at Pima. “That really stuck out to me. What you saw with him is what you got, and I really respected that.”
McConnell was a three-sport standout at Topeka (Kan.) High School before attending Washburn University in Kansas. After playing basketball and baseball at Washburn, he tried professional baseball and lasted six years with minor league teams in the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox organizations.
He later served in the Air Force, where he had his first experience coaching basketball for two years with a team on the base.
“He coached a mixture of players in the 1950’s and didn’t think anything of it,” Gary said. “He was always color blind.”
After coaching at the high school level in Kansas for two years, McConnell moved to Arizona in 1959 to coach at Tombstone. He became acquainted with Tucson after serving briefly at the Davis-Monthan while with the Air Force.
After one year at Tombstone, he moved to Tucson and coached for eight years at Rincon as the freshman and junior varsity coach before he became Sahuaro’s first boys basketball coach when the school opened in 1968.
Only two years into his tenure with the Cougars — one that would last 39 years — McConnell won his first state title. He coached through the 2006-07 season, finishing with 774 career victories, the most in the state’s history at the time.
“For about five years, when he coached the boys and I coached the girls, we shared the gym for practice,” Botkin said. “I remember him pulling up a chair to midcourt and staying late to watch our practice sometimes past 9. I asked him what he was doing. He would stay at school for 14 hours many times.
“He told me he felt at home in the gym and that he wanted to stay.”
Botkin, Gary and Peabody are all part of McConnell’s lengthy, successful coaching tree that also includes son Rick McConnell, who has more than 600 career victories in 36 years as Mesa Dobson’s coach.
Others who coached under Dick McConnell include Buddy Doolen (Mesa Westwood), Jim Flannery (Salpointe), Jim Ferguson (Santa Rita), Gary Lewis (Catalina Foothills and Tucson), and Jim Scott (Sahuaro girls coach).
“He was the biggest influence in my life,” Rick McConnell told the Arizona Republic of his father. “We have spent so much time together, as my coach and father. He had such an impact on my two boys, Matt and Mickey (now a pro player in France), as well as all those others who played for him, from Tombstone, Rincon and Sahuaro.”
Peabody added that Dick McConnell is the “best coach of any sport” in the city’s history, “going beyond the wins to how he impacted the lives of many and developed so many quality coaches.” Peabody said the only coaches who could challenge Dick McConnell for that honor are the late Hal Eustice (formerly Sahuaro’s baseball coach) and Amphi football coaching legend Vern Friedli.
Dick McConnell. who moved to Phoenix recently with Clarine to be close to Rick and his family, was visited in recent months by Gary, Peabody and Botkin in addition to the coach’s legion of former players and coaches.
Peabody mentioned Dick McConnell remained sharp with his memory. Botkin noted that he was congratulated by McConnell for his team’s recent success this season, ending with a spot in the state semifinals. Gary said he was honored to watch a North Carolina game on television with him.
One of Dick McConnell’s childhood friends in Topeka was legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
“He still had a sharp mind about basketball,” Gary said of Dick McConnell. “It was nice to be able to talk basketball with him one last time.”
Steve Botkin, Sahuaro athletic director and girls basketball coach
“For about five years, when (Dick McConnell) coached the boys and I coached the girls, we shared the gym for practice. I remember him pulling up a chair to midcourt and staying late to watch our practice sometimes past 9. I asked him what he was doing. He would stay at school for 14 hours many times. He told me he felt at home in the gym and that he wanted to stay.”
Botkin’s vivid memories of Dick McConnell includes joining him on those numerous Monday nights at Kappy’s eating the special of the night, spaghetti, McConnell’s favorite. Aside from Sahuaro’s gym, Kappy’s was a place McConnell could always be found.
While eating there one evening at the outset of Botkin’s coaching career, Botkin asked McConnell for advice on how to run his team’s motion offense.
“I’ll never forget it. He grabbed 10 salt and pepper shakers and showed me how to run the offense, moving the shakers around and around,” Botkin said. “I run that offense to this very day.”
At his retirement ceremony at Sahuaro in 2007, Dick McConnell was surrounded by numerous staffers, players and coaches. After all the congratulations and well-wishes, McConnell was presented a trophy symbolizing the school’s gratitude for his 39 years of service.
The trophy was in the form of a broom.
“That about says it all,” Botkin said. “He was a one of a kind.”
Funeral services for Dick McConnell are pending. Rick McConnell was in France with his wife watching their son Mickey play when news broke of Dick McConnell passing.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.