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Family of Flash: Krimmel, staff all have prior ties to SFU program

Photo courtesy Saint Francis University SFU coach Rob Krimmel has familiar faces beside him on the bench, including Luke McConnell (left) and Eric Taylor (right).

LORETTO – Like most jobs, the collegiate basketball coaching landscape is a giant fraternity.

Coaching staffs across the country are fused together through long-lasting ties. Relationships forged in trust can often take precedent over the X’s and O’s.

At Saint Francis University, the coaching staff takes the notion of “family” to a new level. Head coach Rob Krimmel shares bonds with his coaching staff dating back 20-plus years to his days as a collegiate freshman at SFU.

Krimmel, in his seventh season at the helm of his alma matter, has delved deep into his past to assemble his coaching staff. All three of his full-time assistants have prior ties to the program, along with the director of basketball operations. The relationships extend well beyond the normal coach-to-coach relationship as he credits every member of his staff with shaping him into the man and coach he has become today.

“The relationships that were formed here in Loretto were ones that were carried on as we went on to different parts of our lives,” Krimmel said.

Where it all began

To understand the bond between the current staff, you must first rewind to the start of the 1996-97 Saint Francis basketball season. In the center of it all was head coach Tom McConnell, in his fourth season. A young assistant on his staff was a 26-year-old Andrew Helton, hired by McConnell two years prior. It was his first full-time job after serving as a student manager at Miami (Ohio).

Wide-eyed freshman Rob Krimmel was a shooting guard on the team, trying to adapt to life as a college athlete. His mentor was a junior forward and team captain from Cincinnati, Eric Taylor.

If the name McConnell sounds familiar, yes, he is the father of Luke McConnell, now the SFU director of basketball operations under Krimmel.

While he found success in his seven seasons as head coach, (he currently ranks tied for second in career wins at SFU), Tom McConnell’s reach went well beyond the court. Anyone who knows or has interacted with McConnell speaks glowing of the coach. He was welcoming and always eager to extend his hand to those willing and wanting to take it. One of Krimmel’s biggest takeaway from playing under McConnell for four seasons was how he made everyone feel a part of his family, something Krimmel has tried to emulate since he was hired.

In 2012, after 12 seasons as an assistant coach at Saint Francis, Krimmel was introduced as the 21st head coach of the program. His first task was to set up his coaching staff.

“When you look at building a staff and you look at putting together a group of people to help mold young men, they have to understand the institution,” Krimmel said. “I wanted to bring in people who graduated from here, and played here, and competed here, and have been student-athletes here. In my mind, there isn’t anyone better to go out and sell that experience to potential recruits than people who have lived it.”

Taylor’s impact

One of the first calls Krimmel made was to an old friend and teammate, Taylor.

As teammates, Taylor and Krimmel were extremely close and they maintained the friendship after graduation. Both complemented each other on and off the floor; Taylor the big man setting screens and grabbing boards (more than a few of Krimmel’s misses, depending on who you ask) and Krimmel feeding Taylor inside.

“Not only do I owe him for a lot of good down screens and me getting open but also that relationship and introducing my wife to me,” Krimmel said of Taylor.

And yes, the second half of that quote is true; Taylor did set up Krimmel and his now wife, Aileen.

“One night Aileen came up to me and asked me about number 33 on the team,” Taylor recalled. “Knowing Rob (he had a 4.0 GPA) as well as I did, I told her that her best chance of finding Rob was in the library. The rest was history.”

Taylor, after graduating, enjoyed a long professional career that took him across the globe to 11 different countries and came to a close in 2011. The in-between years for Taylor helped prepare him for life as a coach. Working for Activate Sports International, Taylor helped international athletes find playing careers in the United States while also helping American athletes find professional teams in Europe. But when the call came from Krimmel, he knew it was time to come back to Loretto and rejoin his close friend.

“I think it’s a blessing to be able to coach at the alma mater. I was able to come back and help revitalize the program,” Taylor said.

Shannon helps get it started

Krimmel and Taylor’s first team in Loretto featured senior guard Umar Shannon. Krimmel and Shannon had formed a relationship going back to Shannon’s recruitment. The relationship blossomed further during Shannon’s first three years. Krimmel, as assistant on the staff, rebounded for Shannon while he would warm up. The two grew close, and Shannon credits Krimmel for keeping his head right, even at the worst of times.

“I can vividly remember the year I came back from my ACL tear, my confidence was at an all-time low,” Shannon said. “Coach Krimmel was rebounding for me, and I made like 40 of 50 shots and I didn’t think it was good enough. He was the guy who was always trying to pick me up and tell me what a great player I was. I owe a lot to him for resurrecting my career as a basketball player and changing my outlook on life.”

Shannon returned the favor by pledging full confidence in Krimmel once he was named the head coach. A team captain, Shannon eased the transition by getting his teammates to buy in and invest in Krimmel.

In the initial meeting with his new team, Krimmel recalls stumbling over his words and struggling to relay his message to the team. Shannon stood up and told the first-year head coach, essentially, “We got you, coach.”

Although it didn’t happen overnight, Krimmel started to see the program turn the corner toward the end of his second and beginning of his third seasons. The talent in Loretto improved as did the number of wins as SFU upped its win total from five to 10 to 16.

Shannon took notice and was ecstatic to come back when an opportunity presented itself at the start of the 2016-17 season.

“All of these little things started to add up, and it just made sense to come back here and finish what coach and I started laying the groundwork for when I was a senior,” Shannon said. “It was just perfect timing.”

Helton makes return

Since Krimmel took over as head coach, the program has seen renovations to its locker room and arena (installation of a video board) as well as the additions of a team nutritionist and team psychologist.

Coach Helton returned to Loretto at the start of the 2015-16 season as associate head coach and is impressed with the turnaround the program has made since his first stint.

After leaving Saint Francis in 1999, Helton bounced around the country, taking on various coaching gigs. First was Miami (Fla.), working as the director of operations, followed by roles as the associate head coach at Texas A&M Corpus Christi and an assistant coach at South Alabama, where he experienced big-time success including two trips to the NCAA Tournament.

He received his first collegiate head coaching job at Division II Eastern New Mexico University at the start of the 2009-10 season, leading the Greyhounds to unprecedented success. ENMU reached the Lone Star Conference Tournament all five years, but Helton walked away from the job after year five.

“I left for personal reasons,” Helton said. “My mom was really ill, and I just needed a break.”

Three months removed from coaching, Helton received a call from Krimmel and knew he wanted to return to Loretto to coach under his former player.

“I thought the program was going in a good direction,” Helton recalled. “I was determined that if I was going to move my family, it was going to be to a place where we could settle down and lay our roots.”

Little Luke grows up

To complete the family picture, one must return to Krimmel and Taylor’s playing days again to find 7-year-old Luke McConnell.

McConnell, the coach’s son, was one of six siblings who followed dad to work. He was also a yearly participant in Saint Francis summer camps, where Krimmel, Taylor and Helton worked.

“When we would work summer camps, Luke was the kid running around camp, raiding the snack bar and acting like he owned the place,” a smiling Krimmel said.

“The one thing I remember about Luke was that Luke loved to hang from my arm and see how long he could hang. He was a mighty mite,” Taylor added.

From camps to practices to bus rides, Luke was a part of the program from the onset. During those bus rides, the players knew that if Luke and his siblings were on the bus, Disney was on the screen.

“Back in the day, we’d watch VHS tapes on the bus, and if Luke or his siblings were on the bus, we knew we were in for kid-friendly films,” Krimmel laughed.

As Luke grew up, he developed into a budding star on the gridiron at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School. The thought of coming back to his childhood school never crossed his mind until the Red Flash recruited him to play football.

“My dad got out of coaching so I never put much thought into going to school at Saint Francis,” McConnell said. “When they recruited me, it brought back a lot of memories of my childhood and I knew it was where I was supposed to be.”

Once his playing career was done, McConnell, in his own words, was like a lot of college graduates, unsure of his future plans.

“I knew I wanted to coach, so I decided to stay in athletics as a graduate assistant. I thought I’d be a football coach.”

That route led him to the Saint Francis Athletics Department. His work ethic impressed those around the department. Krimmel took notice and offered him the Director of Basketball Operations position when it became available after the 2012-13 season.

Building continuity

Expectations are as high as ever as Saint Francis prepares for conference play in 2018-19. The Red Flash reached the NEC Championship for the first time since 1990-91 in 2016-17 and followed it up with 18 wins last season, its most since the 1990-91 season. Krimmel credits the close-knit bonds of his staff for creating a family-oriented culture of love and respect, something he learned two decades ago from Tom McConnell.

From the 2012-13 to 2015-16 seasons, Krimmel’s staff experienced at least one coaching change after every season. The current staff is going on year three together, and Krimmel alludes to this continuity and the continuity of his players as the main reason why they are in position to compete for conference titles.

“Eric and Andy have done a great job developing our post players, Eric for the last seven seasons, and Andy for the last three,” Krimmel said.

“And Umar has the ability to not only develop our perimeter guys, but also make a connection during the recruiting process that allows us to bring in some all-conference talent. I am only as good as my staff, and I truly believe between Coach Taylor, Coach Helton, Coach Shannon, Coach McConnell and our two GA’s, Jacob Kolonis and Brett Barron, we have as good of a staff as anyone in the country.”

The family picture is now complete, and it appears that the group is here to stay. All have come back for a second stint in Loretto for various reasons, but all have major reasons for staying put for good.

And it all started with those bus rides 20 years ago.

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