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Conners ready to be a Beaver again

Fair Game
by: GARY DINEEN, Lester Conner, assistant coach of the Indiana Pacers, spent two years in Corvallis in the early ’80s and then 13 years in the NBA. Now he could be a contender for OSU basketball’s head coaching job.

When Oregon State was interviewing for a vacant basketball coaching job that eventually was filled by Ritchie McKay eight years ago, Lester Conner was a candidate who wasn't qualified for the job.

Now, as OSU Athletic Director Bob De Carolis prepares to replace Jay John, Conner is ready.

'I love Oregon State,' says Conner, an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers. 'If everything would line up right, I would take that job. It's the only college coaching job I would take.'

Conner, 48, has security with the Pacers, having landed a four-year contract (the fourth year at the team's option) when Jim O'Brien took over the club for this season. Conner likes what he's doing and, in his 10th year as an NBA assistant, has the potential to one day be named a head coach in the league.

'I'm not out there looking for a move,' he says.

But Conner has deep-seated feelings for Oregon State and his two years there (1980 to 1982) under coach Ralph Miller. Coming out of Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., Conner passed on an opportunity to play at glitzy Nevada-Las Vegas for Miller's old-school approach.

The two butted heads occasionally. Miller's crusty style wore on all of his players, but they respected him. Conner's sensational defensive skills - hence the nickname 'the Molester' - won the old coach over early, and the results were spectacular: During Conner's two seasons, the Beavers went 52-6 and won back-to-back Pac-10 championships. He was a first-team All-American and Pac-10 MVP in leading the Beavers to an Elite Eight berth as a senior.

'I think about how my mom entrusted Ralph and his coaching staff and the people at the university to take care of me,' Conner says. 'I came to love everything about that community. I'd love a chance to give back by helping rebuild that program.'

Conner played 13 years in the NBA, learning the game under such coaches as Larry Brown and Del Harris. His decade as an NBA assistant has been spent under the likes of O'Brien and Rick Pitino. Conner is bright, personable, well-connected and prepared to bring in what he says would be a big-time staff of assistants. He sees Corvallis as a good place for him and wife Stacy to raise their 18-month-old twins, Simone and Alana.

Fellow Indiana assistant Dick Harter - who has coached with Jack Ramsay, Larry Bird, Chuck Daly and Pat Riley - was reluctant to endorse Conner eight years ago. He no longer feels that way.

'Lester is the right guy for (the OSU) job, and I know he's ready now,' says Harter, the former head coach at Oregon and assistant with the Trail Blazers. 'He'll be a great recruiter. His connections in the NBA, the West Coast, Oakland - that will all help him. You're not going to win (at Oregon State) for a couple of years. You need a guy who can go get good players.'

Conner will have two major hurdles to getting the Oregon State job. One, he has not been a head coach before. De Carolis says he would prefer to hire someone with college head-coaching experience.

'That shouldn't be a concern,' Harter says. 'Lester knows the game. He has an even hand and a good handle on what needs to be done to win. (The NBA game) is harder to coach than college. It wouldn't take long to adjust to that.'

The other problem is, Conner doesn't have a college degree. That's important to De Carolis, who worries parents of a recruit would be concerned that graduating from OSU isn't a priority in the coach's mind.

'I think you use that as a positive,' says Conner, who says he is about 20 credits shy of a degree and wouldn't be averse to working toward completion. 'You go into a household and say, 'I realize how important having a degree really is. I'm going to do all I can to see your son gets one.' '

De Carolis knows this is a critical hire. The Beavers have gone through four coaches and experienced one winning season since 1990. The Pac-10 is tough from one through nine. Another bad hire could be disastrous to the overall health of the athletic department.

A year ago, ex-players Charlie Sitton, Steve Johnson and Bill McShane met with De Carolis to urge that John be fired and replaced by Conner. De Carolis was understandably irked when the players went public with their campaign. The OSU AD says he has 'kissed and made up' with Sitton and that it won't have an impact on the way he perceives Conner as a potential coach.

Among other candidates De Carolis will consider, all with head-coaching success at mid-major universities:

Randy Bennett, 45, Saint Mary's, seventh season. He has coached the West Coast Conference Gaels to a 16-2 record this season, including a win over Oregon. He owns a 118-95 record at Saint Mary's but is 94-46 since 2003, including a 25-5 season and NCAA Tournament berth in 2004-05. The Gaels were 2-27 the season before he took the job. He has coached under Washington's Lorenzo Romar at St. Louis and under USC's Tim Floyd at Idaho.

Mark Fox, 39, Nevada, fourth season. He has been Western Athletic Conference coach of the year, and the Wolf Pack has won WAC titles and made the NCAA tourney in each of his first three seasons. Career record: 91-25, including 10-7 this season. Nevada was 29-5 a year ago and cracked the national top 10 for the first time in school history. Luring him might be tricky, since his wife, Cindy, is executive associate athletic director at Nevada.

Bob Thomason, 58, Pacific, 20th season. He has 336 career victories, 12 winning seasons in the last 15 years and 88 wins over the last four seasons along with three straight NCAA tourney appearances and five Big West coach of the year awards. The Tigers are 14-5 this season. He was a finalist for the OSU job when John was hired in 2002.

Stew Morrill, 55, Utah State, 11th season. Owns a 241-85 record at the WAC school, including 14-5 this season. The Aggies have made eight straight postseason appearances.

Kevin Mouton, John's chief aide who has taken over as interim coach, made a great move the first day on the job by booting knucklehead C.J. Giles from the team. But Mouton, 42, will have to blow away De Carolis with his work the rest of the season to get serious consideration as a permanent hire.

De Carolis overpaid for his last three head-coaching hires - LaVonda Wagner in women's basketball, Jim Zalesky in wrestling and Taras Liskevych in volleyball. He'll probably have to do it again this time to convince any of the aforementioned candidates to come to Corvallis.

OSU will use a headhunting firm and a five- or six-person selection committee that will include De Carolis, assistant AD Todd Stansbury and some representatives from the university and alumni base.

There are plenty of good candidates, but none would galvanize Beaver Nation as much as Conner. The 'wow' value would sell tickets and drum up interest in a woebegone program.

Then it would be up to Conner to prove he can win at the school he so dearly loves.

• Just before the Blazers embarked on their just-completed seven-game road trip, Rebecca Haarlow headed in a different direction - to Australia.

For the second year, the Blazers' rookie sideline reporter served as TV host for the Aussie Millions poker tournament in Melbourne. While the Blazers were playing in Toronto, New Jersey and Boston, Haarlow was calling the Texas Hold 'Em action and, in her spare time, enjoying the summer weather there.

'It was great,' Haarlow says. 'I have a respect for poker players at that level. You see how hard those guys work at it; they have to concentrate on every hand. The best part (of the assignment) was the features we did. We used the zoo and the river (as backdrops), and the weather was beautiful and the people friendly.

'But I missed the team and the players and the whole staff. After every game, I'd be on the computer, checking the stats and the results. I was excited to get back to the Blazer family.'

• Last week's resignation of coach Vance Walberg means that Oregon City standout Brad Tinsley says he will 'probably not' choose to play at Pepperdine.

'I'm getting my release,' the senior guard says. 'I kind of don't want to play for a new coach there. I have no clue where I'm going now.'

• Kicker Alexis Serna, offensive guard Roy Schuening and defensive end Dorian Smith are the only Oregon State players who will participate in the NFL combine at Indianapolis from Feb. 20 through Feb. 26. Among those left out are linebackers Joey LaRocque, Derrick Doggett and Alan Darlin; tailback Yvenson Bernard; and D-end Jeff Van Orsow.

LaRocque and Doggett are working under personal trainer Travelle Gaines at 360 Sports Performance in Reseda, Calif.

'We're both going to be ready for Pro Day in Corvallis,' says LaRocque, who passed up an invitation to play in the Hula Bowl because his injured hamstring wasn't 100 percent. 'I'm at full strength now and working my tail off.'

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