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Legendary Coach Finishes Strong

A journey that began in fourth grade when she watched basketball games on a black-and-white television in Beloit, Wis., is closing. Connie Tilley (Athletics) will retire as women’s basketball coach after 42 seasons with the Green Knights.

“I wanted to coach basketball ever since I was little,” says Tilley. “In fifth or sixth grade, my dad put up a hoop in the driveway … I was intrigued by the game. Even today, I love to watch basketball – high-school, college, women’s, men’s. I love watching the pros, which makes most of my friends ask, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

Tilley has had a front-row seat to guide hundreds of players. The well-being of the young women was always her top priority, she says. “I’ve been so fortunate to have really good student-athletes,” says Tilley. “My approach was, I’m not going to be their mother, but I wanted to make sure they did the right things to be successful in life. Basketball is a really good part of it, the teamwork and leadership.

“There were times when a parent died or a grandparent died and I’m proud of how the team came together in those moments,” she adds. “That’s what I will remember and what I will cherish. I think about the kids and what they became after their time here at St. Norbert.”

Susan Schramka ’03, part of a Sweet 16 team her senior season, says: “The most important thing I learned from Coach that I’ve carried into my life after St. Norbert is to let people be themselves. Coach had a unique way of letting us all be individuals and be ourselves on and off the court.”

Tilley says: “You can’t stifle them. I want them to feel comfortable on the court with who they are even if they are a little bit wacky. There is a time when you can just laugh and a time to say, ‘Let’s focus; let’s get some intensity going.’ ”

Tilley decided on retirement in September. When the news began to leak, she asked to speak to the team before an official announcement in January. “This was my dream, and it was my dream come true,” she says in reflection. “I’m so grateful and honored to be associated with this institution for all these years.”

Slam dunk
Tilley is among the most decorated Division III women’s basketball coaches in history. She is sixth all-time in wins. Tilley led St. Norbert to 18 conference championships, 14 NCAA Division III tournament appearances, a Final Four in 1985 and the Sweet 16 on four occasions. She is Wisconsin’s all-time winningest collegiate women’s basketball coach. The SNC basketball court was named for Tilley during the 2008-09 season. That remains her most humbling honor, she says.

Strong to the finish
The Green Knight coach had an opportunity at the Division I level following the 1984-85 Final Four season. She made three trips to Pittsburgh to discuss the job at Duquesne University, but decided to remain at St. Norbert.

“This is where I wanted to be. I basically started the program here. That was a big reason for staying,” she says. “I wanted to finish what I started. I never had another thought about leaving again.”

March 17, 2019