College Football

Still in the Game: Connolly finds right path to coaching career

Ball State outside linebackers coach Cory Connolly, center, waits on a play to be run during a practice last fall. Connolly, a former all-conference defensive end at Quincy University, is carving his own niche as a college coach. | Photo courtesy Ball State Athletics
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 8, 2020 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 8, 2020 4:35 pm

 

This is the next story in the "Still in the Game" series, which chronicles former area high school and college athletes who have pursued a professional career that keeps them involved with athletics.

  

MUNCIE, Ind. -- It's funny how plans change.

Recruited to play defensive end at Quincy University following a standout prep football career at Waubonsie Valley in the Chicago suburbs, Cory Connolly had every intention of getting a bachelor's degree in secondary education in order to become a history teacher and a high school coach.

Then he took his first history class at QU.

"I realized I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life," Connolly said.

He shifted his major to psychology with every intention of coaching high school football.

"So the second semester, I realized that's not what I wanted to do," Connolly said.

Coaching, however, remained the ultimate goal.

So Connolly sat down with the QU staff and asked what it took to become a college coach. It started with getting a degree and then working your way up the ladder. So he changed his major to sports management, and everything else fell right into place.

"After my freshman year of college, I was anticipating being a college football coach," Connolly said.

He's making a life of it now.

Connolly is entering his third season as the outside linebackers coach at Ball State. He joined the Cardinals' staff in 2015 as a defensive graduate assistant following one season as a grad assistant at Carthage College and has found the profession to be as rewarding -- maybe moreso -- as he hoped.

"It's the relationships with the guys," Connolly said. "I look back at my time as a player and how influential the coaches I played for were, not only in making me a better football player, but giving me skills and habits that are making me successful in life outside of football.

"Being able to be the same kind of mentor for those guys I coach now is the best thing about it. I look forward every day to going to the facility and chatting those guys up and coaching them hard and having them over for dinners and getting to know them and their families."

It's the same kind of family atmosphere he experienced in Quincy.

A four-year starter at defensive end, Connolly earned a second-team All-Mid-States Football Association selection as a sophomore and a second-team All-Great Lakes Valley Conference pick as a junior when he helped the Hawks transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II.

He finished his career with 129 tackles, 26.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and four blocked kicks. And he hope to stick around after graduating in December 2013 and become a defensive graduate assistant on the Hawks' staff.

Former QU coach Tom Pajic didn't let it happen. He told Connolly it wasn't the best decision because of his relationship with the players. It would have been a tough transition from teammate to coach in less than a few months.

"It was probably the best decision for me in the long run," Connolly said. "At the time, I was pretty upset about it. Looking back on it, I would have told myself the same thing."

It's put him in a great position to chase the dream of being a head coach.

Ball State went 5-7 last season and 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference. It marked the most victories since 2013 when the Cardinals won 10 games and went to the GoDaddy Bowl, and it's the upward trajectory the Ball State administration wanted when it hired Mike Neu as head coach in 2016.

"I was extremely fortunate to get the position I did back in 2015 and stay on a staff that has been working so hard, " Connolly said. "It's been an awesome experience."

It's enhanced how passionate he is about the game.

"I do believe football is the best game to teach you about life," Connolly said. "There are all sorts of things you learn as a player in college about accountability, time management, discipline, perseverance. I do believe it's the best teacher of life. It's fun to win, too."

To do those things in a place you feel comfortable makes it even better.

Connolly met his soon-to-be wife Sydney -- they are getting married Saturday -- when both were graduate students at Ball State, and it's their home for the foreseeable future.

"It's a small town similar to Quincy," Connolly said. "Having grown up in the suburbs, I've found I have an appreciation for this kind of lifestyle and I really have no intention to go back to any type of city if I can so choose so."

And he won't be changing his mind about his future any time soon, not after his third college major and career plan turned out to be the perfect charm.