Last of the three-sport coaches? Profile: For a decade, Howard's Craig O'Connell has led three teams a year and now takes over the Lions' boys basketball team.

December 05, 1997|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Changes.

Most people make them if they have to. Some welcome them -- at any age.

Howard basketball coach Craig O'Connell is one of the latter.

He learned about change big-time as a 21-year-old. In 1968, he led UMBC in scoring and assists. In 1969, he was drafted and on Thanksgiving Day flew to Vietnam, where he spent a year in a M.A.S.H. unit as a medic, or doctor's assistant.

"The television show ['M.A.S.H.', set in the Korean War] was very much like the place I was, except there were no female nurses," O'Connell said. "I saw a lot of the results of that war."

Afterward, he finished his college degree and settled into a regimen of teaching and coaching. He came to Howard High in 1985 and has been coaching three sports for the past 10 years.

You name it, the 49-year-old Mount St. Joseph and UMBC graduate has coached it. Baseball, field hockey, wrestling, volleyball, tennis and girls basketball teams -- all have benefited from his thoughtful tutelage.

In girls basketball, he was especially successful, winning one Class 3A state title, three regional titles and compiling a 131-90 record. Three of his players went on to Division I college careers: Kristi Greer (Niagara), Mona Jackson, a junior at Norfolk State, and Chanelle Carter, a freshman at Delaware State.

But when the boys basketball job opened up for this season, after Kevin Broadus resigned, O'Connell found himself ready for another change.

Now he's calling the shots for a boys program that hasn't won a county championship since 1975 despite what most opposing coaches have considered, year after year, an enviable talent pool.

"I think a lot about how many coaches before me have tried to turn things around," O'Connell said. "I have great respect for Kevin Broadus and know how frustrated he got. But you never know until you try something. My most difficult job will be to teach discipline and patience. And that may take a while. The biggest difference between the girls and boys is that the boys have a tendency to want to free-lance."

But as far as O'Connell is concerned, so far, so good.

"I always thought, based on my experience with girls and from watching the boys, that girls listened better. But I'm finding out that the guys are listening, too," O'Connell said.

He's been busy watching tapes of last year's games to get an idea of what opponents are likely to do.

"I'm the type of coach who likes to think my team's prepared for the other team's tendencies on offense and defense."

He also likes to think he's the type of coach who responds well during the critical final two minutes, when so many high school basketball games are decided.

Unlike some coaches who prefer a flexible, turnstile-type of starting lineup, O'Connell will settle on five starters who will play most of the time. "I don't want to win or lose by committee."

Although he's part of the rare breed that still coaches three sports, he doesn't think that unusual, explaining: "I've always done it, so for me that's the norm," he said.

This year, he's also Howard's varsity volleyball and tennis coach, in addition to boys basketball coach.

"I like them all in their season, but basketball is what I'm best at," he said. "I'd like to see men's volleyball, because that would become the most popular high-school sport."

Sports are an integral part of his family. He has five children, ranging from a college freshman to a fourth-grader. All are active in sports.

The college freshman, Mike, who's at Villanova, played basketball at Loyola High. Courtney is a junior at Seton-Keough and plays soccer and lacrosse. Eighth-grader Kerry, sixth-grader Kelly and fourth-grader Patrick all play soccer, basketball and lacrosse. And all three are basketball point guards (dad's old position) for St. Agnes' CYO. He coaches the youngest girls on separate Amateur Athletic Union teams during three practices a week and during weekend tournaments from January to June.

And his wife, the former Kathy Murray, a 1974 Keough graduate, doesn't let anyone forget that she was a pretty good high school basketball player, too.

Does he miss much in his children's lives by coaching so many sports?

"It's frustrating sometimes to miss activities, but coaching my daughters' teams helps make up for some of that," O'Connell hTC said. "Do they mind? They've gotten kind of used to me coaching three sports."

So trimming his extensive coaching life is one change O'Connell is not quite ready to make.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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