By Josh Hui

Photo by Railene Hooper

After six years at the helm of the men’s basketball program, Mike Connolly is moving to coach at MacEwan staring April 1.

Connolly started his coaching career at Lethbridge University before coming to the ACAC (Alberta College Athletics Conference). After this last season with the Ooks, Connolly is now taking over the MacEwan Griffins men’s basketball program at the U Sports level.

According to Connolly, the proximity to NAIT was a big factor in accepting the job. Connolly is thankful for the opportunity to stay in a basketball community he knows well and not have to move his family at the same time.

“It’s gonna allow me to have continued success with NAIT because I’m gonna be able to send them players that we can’t get in. We’re gonna keep ties, we’re down the road, we’re gonna do stuff,” Connolly said.

Connolly enjoyed plenty of success as Ooks head coach. He leaves with a coaching record of 111-51 (a .685 winning percentage), a provincial and national championship from 2016 and the ACAC coach of the year award in 2015. For Connolly, the results themselves aren’t the most special parts of his time as an Ook.

“Some of the special moments are when we have kids giving up themselves for the team. One of the special moments we had in that national championship [year] was in the provincial final when we had two captains, two all-stars come up to [the coaches] down the stretch of the game saying ‘Coach, go with these guys in the game. Don’t worry about us.’ To me that was the most fulfilling to have a group of guys that worried about the team and the team’s success instead of their own personal success.”

Ooks players didn’t just have an impact on Connolly. Players say Connolly had a major impact on them. Samson Cleare just wrapped up his last year on the team and is one of the players closest with his former head coach.

“When you first see him, you think ‘oh man, he’s intimidating’ but he’s really nice and has that warm, welcoming spirit,” said Cleare.

Cleare says Connolly pushed him and the team hard, but they knew all along that their coach was doing it out of a desire for his players to succeed. They also built a similar relationship off the court as Cleare calls Connolly his mentor and even a father figure with most of Cleare’s family back home in the Bahamas.

Cleare was in his first year when the Ooks won their national championship. One of Cleare’s best memories of winning the championship was during the provincial final when the Ooks were down by 15 points at halftime to the defending champion, the Medicine Hat College Rattlers.

“We got in the room, it got real quiet. Coach came in and he was like ‘Okay guys. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to nationals.’ He signed his name on the board, dropped the marker and slammed the door… one fifth year player signed it then everybody followed suit. Everybody signed their name on the board and we left it there because we knew what kind of team we were. We went out in the second half and as soon as we got out there, there was a different energy. Something in us was hungry,” Cleare remembers.

Connolly is working with the Ooks to make his transition smooth.