One man has anchored the sideline at Corner High School for the last 30 years. Hundreds of young men are all the better for it.
Words and Images by Al Blanton
There in the morning and in the quiet, He was revealing.
Billy Conner lifted a black pot from the coffee maker and poured a cup. He was suntanned from days at the beach, days of reflection and faith and family.
He took his cup and walked barefooted down the beachwalk and onto the sand. The sun rearing its massive head in the distance, the gentle lapping of the waves as they encountered the edge of earth.
Billy walked for a long while and thought about his life. The places he’d been. The people who’d come into his life for a brief while and those who remained. He reflected on his community, the faces of the young boys he’d mentored, the collective years that offered a montage of memories. Then he pictured his new life, the lucid scenes, the daily chores and the gut-level excitement he’d feel from a new place, from new friends, a new start.
There in the solace of the morning, it was just Billy and the Lord. And he walked.
Billy’s wife, Tiffany, had slept in that morning and was later awakened by her husband, who smelled of sand and tide as he crawled onto the edge of the bed. As they were engaging in small talk, the conversation turned to the decision Billy had to make—to stay or to leave.
“We’re not going there, are we?” Tiffany said.
“Nope,” Billy replied.
“I knew you didn’t have a peace about it,” Tiffany said confidently. “God had already spoken to me that we are not supposed to go, but you are the one that had to figure it out.”
In 30 years of teaching and coaching, there have been a handful of crucibles such as that a-ha moment at the beach, but in every instance, Billy has chosen to remain a Corner man. And, because of this, only one person has been the basketball coach for the black-and-gold Yellow Jackets since 1990. His name is Billy Conner.
Coach Conner is so woven into the very fabric of this tiny hamlet squatting at the intersection of Walker, Blount, and Jefferson Counties that he’s become synonymous with it. Corner is a pastoral, sleepy community chocked-full of salt-of-the-earth individuals who prefer the slowness of country life over the hustle and bustle of the big city. Sure, many of its residents commute into larger cities to work in hospitals and factories, but every evening they retreat back to the land of slow rolling hills and aged pines where they are content. Conner has found contentment, too.
The story of Billy Conner begins about eight miles down the road, where he was a two-sport athlete at Dora High School. Excelling in basketball and baseball, Conner played for coaches Mickey Beaty and Sam Dansby before snagging a scholarship to Wallace State Community College in Hanceville. As a testament to his overall athletic ability, Billy played baseball and basketball at Wallace and after two seasons transferred to the University of Montevallo, where he elected to finish out his college career in baseball. At UM, Billy labored and excelled under the tutelage of the great coach, Bob Reisner—“one of the best baseball coaches in the state of Alabama,” Conner says.
Then Billy pivoted and worked for a phone company called North Supply for five years after graduating college. He finally decided he wanted to be a teacher and a coach and fortuitously landed a student teaching job just eight miles away from his hometown.
Back then, the principal at Corner High was a man by the name of Charles Burkett, a strict ex-military man who ran a tight ship. As Conner recalls those early days at Corner, he laughs at an exchange he had with Burkett one morning. “I came in one morning with a little scruff,” Conner recalls. “I walked by his office and he said ‘Come in here, boy.’ I went in there, he looked at me. He opens his desk drawer and handed me a big razor. He said ‘Get down there in your office and get that off your face. You can’t have facial hair here.’”
But although Burkett was tough, he also gave Conner the opportunity to become a head coach. First, the head baseball coach left that first spring to take another job, and then in the fall the head basketball coach left. Conner went from student teaching and helping with athletics to two head coaching jobs in as many semesters. “I was at the right situation at right time,” Conner says. “I’ve never been an assistant. I missed that opportunity to be an assistant and working with people you can learn from.”
Conner soon received a rude introduction to high school basketball in his first game, played at Tarrant. “We had about six or eight points at halftime,” Conner remembers, ‘and we hadn’t had the ball too many times across half court and we got our brains beat out.”
Although it was a tough pill to swallow, something snapped inside of Conner. He knew his team was scared and he hadn’t done a good job getting them prepared. This can’t happen again, he thought to himself.
So Conner worked hard to learn the intricacies of coaching basketball to 16, 17, and 18-year-old kids at a country school nestled in the dense Jefferson County forest. Those first years were chopped up into individual seasons, but as winning would eventually come and Conner began to put his handprint on Corner basketball, he began to build something much broader in scope. He was building a program.
Conner remained the head baseball coach and head basketball coach for about 9 seasons, but the wear and tear of coaching both sports was getting to be too much. Eventually he started focusing exclusively on basketball. “I had always been in love with basketball, but I kind of fell in love with coaching the game,” he said. “When we started seeing success and the excitement in the community, that’s when I fell in love with it. Corner has always been a basketball community, from the state championships in the early days. There’s not a whole lot to do but everybody comes out to the games.”
To construct a philosophy, Conner borrowed largely from the paragons of basketball coaching in Alabama, patching together procedures, policies, and a system of doing things. He listened to and learned from great basketball minds like Billy Grant at Pleasant Grove and George Hatchett at Vestavia. But perhaps the greatest influence on Conner’s coaching philosophy was Birmingham-Southern’s Duane Reboul. “He’s a class act, great guy, Xs and Os as smart as anybody I’ve ever talked with,” Conner said.
Connerism 101 teaches sound defense, thinking, and that the “whys” of basketball are more important than the “whats.” And while many coaches teach their players to go stand in spots, Conner goes a step further. He wants his players to understand why they are going there. He wants them to “read and react,” to be fluid, to just play. But most importantly, he wants them to use their brains. As a result, no matter their final G.P.A. in the classroom, Corner basketball players always graduate with a high basketball I.Q.
But it has always been about the people. Players, from Dan Allums and Jeff Hollis to Michael Rice and Nick Wiley, from Chris Trawick and Shane and Jason Perkins to Blake Anderson and Justin Harden, to many, many others, will remember plays called “230,” “231,” and “Flex.” They’ll remember the secondary break and Conner’s staunch commitment to defense. But the thing that will make the greatest impact on them, the thing they’ll remember most about being a part of the Corner program and take with them on their myriad voyages of life, is the relationships they built with their teammates and coaches, and the opportunity to be a part of something meaningful. Come inside for just a moment while Conner reveals the essence of his program: “It’s a family atmosphere with us. First thing is, we try to keep God the most important thing. Next thing is my family and then all the kids that play for me, has played for me or is going to play for me, they are the rest of our family. My family is part of their family. The kids come to my house and cook out and we do things; they are welcome any time of the day or night. We try to keep things God-based and family oriented. I got a text from a kid this morning that I’d gotten onto yesterday at camp. He texted me this morning and said, ‘‘preciate everything you do for me coach, ‘preciate you caring about me,’ and the last thing he says is ‘I love you.’ I tell all of ‘em I love ‘em. You don’t know where kids come from. I try to get to know a lot about the kids who play basketball for me. What kind of family situation they have, what kind of interests they have, what kind of problems they have, or whatever. So, when I say that they are my sons, they are an extension of my family.”
Because of the winning culture Conner built, the milestones arrived rapidly. He won his 300thgame in 2004, his 450thin 2012, and his 500thin 2015. On several occasions, he won coaching awards displayed in plaques that now adorn his office. As any coach would admit, the accolades are nice, but Conner knows it would all mean nothing if he didn’t make a positive impact on the young men whom the Lord entrusted to his care. And because he pored into their lives, hundreds of former players descended on Corner gym to commemorate his 500thvictory and celebrate with their former coach. Indeed, it was a special night, something Conner will never forget. “To see those kids that I coached in 1990, ‘95, and 2005, to see kids who flew in from Texas, Florida, and Tennessee or maybe even just drove two hours to get here. That meant more to me than any trophy or accolade that you can ever get,” Conner said. “Just to have kids that you coached, maybe 20 years ago, that called you or came to that event and say, ‘Thanks coach. Thanks.’
Conner turns 57 this year and says he “feels good.” He doesn’t know how many years he has left or when he will eventually walk away from the game he loves. After all, there’s no need to. “I still enjoy what I do,” he says. “In the 29 years I’ve been here, not one day have I ever regretted getting up and going to work. Not one day. I may have had a bad game the night before, not get a lot of sleep, but when I woke up, I was ready to go back to work the next day. There’s no better job in the state of Alabama from 8 to 3.”
Geography can wound us, or it can be our means of deliverance. Billy Conner is proud to be a Corner man, proud that his life took an unexpected turn eight miles from the place of his birth. He’s proud he’s had the opportunity to invest in the lives of young men, who will march on from Corner proudly to make doctors, teachers, and engineers.
Inside of Billy’s office are vestiges of a coaching life. Signed basketballs encased in glass, plaques handed to him at banquets, newspaper clippings and various handmade items from adorers, players, and fans. But the most important item to him is sitting over near a wall. It’s a wooden bench, signed in black marker by dozens of people from the Corner community, given to him the night he celebrated his 500thby people who appreciate Billy Conner more than anyone else. On it is a note from his daughter, Sydney, who, as a child, sat on the bench or in her father’s lap as he coached games, who only missed one game in her entire life—“she stood me up one night for a Hanna Montana concert,” Conner says—and who loved the players as brothers.
I love you so much! Sydney writes. I am so thankful that I get to share my wonderful DAD with so many! You are the best!–Syd.
Why did Billy Conner stay?
“I fell in love with the community,” Conner says. “I fell in love with the people here.”
Then Conner looks up at those vestiges, and as he scans them, one by one, the breathtaking moments of a basketball life come rushing back, the faces of unformed boys who donned the black-and-gold flash in his mind, and he is overwhelmed with love.
Then he nods, and with a heart overflowing with gratitude, says, “This is my community.” 78