Dan Connor admitted it wasn’t an easy decision.
After two years, the two-time Daily Times Football Player of the Year from Strath Haven is moving on from his head coaching position at Archbishop Carroll. Connor resigned this week to become the defensive coordinator at Widener University.
“This past year I started to get the itch a little bit, to really get back into the college game and pursue that career and see where it takes me,” Connor told the Daily Times Thursday. “I had a great experience at Carroll. I really, really enjoyed my time. But in the back of my mind, it was always there, making the jump back to college especially to be a coordinator at a school like Widener. It was too good of an opportunity to turn down.”
Widener coach Mike Kelly reached out to Connor in December to notify him that the defensive coordinator position was available.
“Coach Kelly, I’ve known him since my time at coaching at West Chester (University) and I’ve had a good relationship with him,” Connor said. “Over winter break, he gave me a call and said the position just opened up and asked me if I was interested. It was somewhat out of the blue. It was nothing that I was aggressively attacking, it more or less just fell on my lap.”
Connor struggled with the idea of leaving Carroll behind. He purposely left the college ranks in 2016 to embrace the challenge of rebuilding a high school program.
“What should have been a really easy decision to take a job as coordinator … was a really tough decision that took a lot of time to think through and to make sure it was the right choice because I loved Carroll so much,” he said.
In two seasons, Connor guided the Patriots to a 4-18 record. They enjoyed a two-win improvement in 2017, posting a 3-8 mark. One of his players, Dahmir Ruffin, earned All-Delco honors as a defensive back/all-purpose standout.
Whomever is hired to replace him, Connor believes Carroll football is headed in the right direction.
“I feel good where the program is going and the foundation I was able to build over the last two years. My staff and I did a really good job of laying that groundwork,” he said. “I feel it’s in good hands right now. We have have some really good groundwork laid there to continue to have success. The president, Mr. (Francis E.) Fox, and the new athletic director … are going to hire someone who will continue building what we started.”
Connor said the best part about coaching high school football was the opportunity to help mold young men on and off the field.
“You’re really dealing with a big group of kids who want to go off to college and then to the workforce and become husbands and fathers. That’s one of my best memories, to be able to work with so many kids and build their character and teach them some life lessons through football,” he said. “That was so rewarding. Wins and losses, at the end of the day, didn’t really matter. It was all about molding young kids and help turn them into men.”
With Connor at the helm, the Patriots were one of the smallest schools competing in a vaunted Catholic League Red Division against the likes of perennial state powerhouses St. Joseph’s Prep, La Salle and Archbishop Wood.
“What I tried to preach to the kids and what I was able to do with my staff was to focus on the short-term and the process of improvement, to have smaller goals and achieving them in order to get where we needed to be,” Connor said. “We had our heads down, but we would push through and get moral victories, winning battles here or there. We knew all the grind work and all those tough games would lead to something better.
“The league, no doubt, is the best in the state and it’s tough to compete in there every week. But I think what the players have learned the last two years, to compete and to persevere, is really going to pay off these next couple of years for Carroll. I know the foundation that we laid these last two years … it’s going to pay off.”
In his high school career, Connor helped Strath Haven win four District 1 titles in the early 2000s.
After his playing days at Strath Haven under Kevin Clancy, the winningest coach in Delaware County history and a Carroll product, Connor played for Penn State from 2004-07. He was team captain, a freshman All-American, two-time NCAA First-Team All-American and, in his final season in Happy Valley, was named the Chuck Bednarik Award winner as college football’s Defensive Player of the Year. Connor remains the all-time leading tackler in Penn State history (419).
Connor was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the 2008 NFL Draft. He was a starting linebacker for the Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants before retiring in 2013. In 2014, Connor was linebackers coach and special teams assistant at West Chester University for two seasons. He coached at West Chester under Bill Zwaan, a Carroll alumnus.
While he isn’t shutting the door entirely on a return to high school football, Connor sees himself as a college coach now and in the long term.
“With this decision, I want to be a college coach.It’s something that I have interest in and I enjoy so much,” he said. “It gives me the opportunity to coach football year-round. With me, I’m such a football nut. That was tough on me to have to go through the offseason and not being able to meet with the coaching staffs and to improve. That was another reason I was looking forward to getting back into college. It’s definitely a career path and something I want to pursue that I naturally take to and I want to continue to get better and be the best coach that I can be at this level.”