January 29th, 2022 | Josh Adelman
This first month of 2022, Soldiers to Sidelines awards US Marine Corps Captain Connor Stalions as the January Soldier Coach of the Month for his devout devotion to his coaching craft and his players. He is currently an Offensive Analyst for the University of Michigan Football, which recently won the Big 10 Championship.
Connor Stalions grew up in Michigan as an avid University of Michigan fan. Both of his parents graduated from U of M, and each of them coached several sports in the community. Connor remembers how his parents influenced his strong desire to coach.
“I’ve grown up my entire life with a vision to coach football at Michigan. I stopped playing football junior year of high school to coach with my dad’s 8th grade football team. Then I decided to go to the Naval Academy after high school, where I student-coached with the football staff. Those experiences confirmed my passion for coaching – specifically with my Dad’s middle school team. I had always wanted to coach but getting the opportunity to coach at a young age realigned my why. Going into that experience, I wanted to coach for the X’s and O’s and the wins. Coming out of that experience, I became like an older brother to the players on that team and made some great connections with them, realigning that internal purpose for coaching.”
Coach Stalions had tremendous foresight and ambition after spending junior year of coaching 8th grade football with his dad. That season captured his soul to pursue coaching as a career. He realized one major challenge. He was too small to play football to his standard and was never going to play at an elite level.
Connor recognized that most Power 5 Coaches get their entrance into coaching, because they played in college. He searched for a way to differentiate himself from most of the coaching population and pave a different path for himself. Connor studied the career paths of every major legendary coach across several sports. Think Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Vince Lombardi, Nick Saban, Bill Belichick. Connor realized that each of them have either served in the military or had a strong connection to one of the military academies. So, he thought military service must greatly influence successful leadership. None of these coaching legends served in the US Marine Corps so Connor decided to apply to the US Naval Academy, graduate, and then become a Marine Corps officer.
His plan was in motion, but he got waitlisted to the Naval Academy while getting accepted to the University of Michigan. One day he received a phone call from the admissions office at USNA saying they are accepting him off the waitlist, but he had to accept this offer on the spot. Without hesitation, Connor accepted.
Coach Stalions was very aware of the tremendous reputation of USNA Head Football Coach Ken Niumatalolo and figured he would be a perfect mentor. Immediately upon arriving to campus, Connor volunteered as a student coach. Connor recalls two big lessons Coach Niumatalolo left him.
“The first lesson is ‘it doesn’t matter what we (as coaches) know; it matters what our players know.’ The second is ‘either that’s how you’re teaching it, or that’s what you’re allowing to happen.’ These two quotes are a great reminder that we can meet as coaches for as long as we want and scheme things up, but the importance of that is dwarfed by the way in which we communicate with our players. They’re the ones that win the games, and it’s up to us to communicate clearly with them and set the standard. If they’re not meeting that standard, it’s because either we’re not communicating clearly or we aren’t holding them accountable.”
Connor equally left an impression on the USNA coaching staff. He worked tirelessly to help and learn from everyone in the building including the recruiting coordinator Sean Magee who fortuitously became an assistant AD at Michigan.
One Saturday, Connor was on the Navy sideline facing San Jose State which they won in triple overtime. Earlier at the end of regulation, San Jose had no timeouts down one point, and Navy needed just one first down to win the game. Navy completes a pass for a first down, but the defender fell and the receiver proceeded to run for a touchdown. The Navy sideline was ecstatic, but Connor was confused and annoyed. Why didn’t the receiver just fall in bounds, let time expire for a guaranteed Navy win? The TD resulted in an 8-point differential with just over a minute left in the game and San Jose possession. The door was open for a comeback, which happened and forced three overtimes risking injury and a loss. At that moment Connor decided this will never happen again and wrote a report on every game clock situation and the best corresponding decision. He showed the report to his friend Magee, which received eye-opening approval. Coach Niumatalolo saw the report and immediately had Connor brief the entire coaching staff. This moment created a special trust and strong relationships which would lead to future opportunities at Michigan.
All through college, Connor spent summers and time off returning to Michigan to volunteer at U of M football camps and clinics. There was no vacation, just relentless pursuit of improving his coaching craft. He quickly befriended the assistant coaches and gained their trust because he was willing to do any work. Upon graduating from the Naval Academy he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego for basic training.
Connor knew he had to keep volunteering at Michigan to pursue his dream, so he had to find a way to make money to fund all of his volunteer work. He bought a house near the airport and rented all its bedrooms on AirBnB while he slept on the couch. Then he realized he could shorten his commute if he just slept in the car. So, he did and pocketed enough money to travel to every Michigan football game on his own dime to volunteer. He did this for years and finally earned a full-time entry position as an offensive analyst.
Connor’s creativity, ambition, and relentless pursuit to achieve his coaching dream is an inspiration to every Veteran aspiring to coach sports. Many of us hope to get lucky, Coach Stalions showed us how to manifest opportunity. His ability to make authentic relationships with coaches and players was the glue that pieced together his success. We are excited to see how far Coach Stalions can travel on his coaching journey. We are honored to award him the Soldiers To Sidelines Coach of the Month award for January 2022.