Standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing almost 300 pounds, defensive nose tackle Mike Thornton knows what it takes to be tough. But even your strongest football players need someone to lean on. And for Thornton, he knew he could count on his 5-foot-2 friend Connie Connelly.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve played for three [defensive line] coaches, and my first D-line coach was the recruitment coordinator, and [Connelly] was the assistant,” Thornton said. “Through my struggles here, she was always there for me to come talk to or she always kept my head up when I was down. She helped me overcome adversity.”
From shopping for a recruit’s favorite candy to placing orders for 400 blankets to keep prospective athletes and their families warm at football games, Connelly has worked as the recruitment program coordinator for the University of Georgia’s football program since 1997. And she won’t forget the differences she has made once she retires from her position in March.
Although Connelly may not be the person actively contacting Georgia’s football prospects, she is seen as an integral part to the recruiting process because of her ability to make recruits and their families feel welcomed. She helps them find a place to stay during their time in Athens. She caters to the recruits’ favorite snacks. She makes sure their parents are comfortable with the campus environment.
“She’s the brain set for the recruitment office,” said Bryant Gantt, program coordinator II for Georgia football. “Yeah, you’ve got the head of the recruitment, but he couldn’t do anything without the work Mrs. Connie puts in.”
Some football players even regard her as the program’s motherly figure.
“She’s like a mother, so she tries to take care of you as best as she can during the recruitment process,” Thornton said. “She does everything upfront. She tries to make all of the moves that need to be made so you can be comfortable when you’re on campus for a visit. Sometimes, I feel like it’s better to have a woman’s touch on those things than it is to have a bunch of guys or a bunch of coaches that are worried about other things.”
After 18 seasons of football, Connelly remembers every single season as well as the challenges that came with them.
“I’ve enjoyed them all,” she said. “They’re all challenging. They’re all fun. It’s never ever dull. Sometimes you wish for dull, but it’s not ever dull.”
What it takes to be No. 2 in recruiting
Connelly is second-in-command when it comes to football recruiting and is one of a handful of women who work closely with potential Bulldogs.
“There are very few women who have worked in football, especially at Georgia,” Connelly said. “We’re pretty much a minority in football.”
An average day for Connelly includes organizing on-campus recruiting events as well as planning meals and lodging for prospective athletes and their families. She stays busy throughout the year, planning summer football camps and helping players send their paperwork to the necessary offices.
Most importantly, Connelly knows how to get interested high schoolers to the right coach or mentor to convince them that Georgia is the right destination.
Aside from the planning duties a recruiting program coordinator undertakes, Connelly said building strong relationships with recruits’ families is an aspect to the recruiting process she can focus on.
“Maybe the mom needs another mom to talk to,” she said. “I think females are important because you need that influence.”
And that influence can only keep up its momentum if Connelly and her staff can ensure that nothing that could negatively affect a recruit’s experience happens.
“There were so many moving parts, so if one of them doesn’t go well, then it’s going to affect everything else,” Connelly said. “We’re behind the scenes and if something does go wrong, we are there to make sure that our guests don’t know it.”
Becoming the woman behind-the-scenes
Connelly always considered the idea of becoming the football recruiting program coordinator.
“If I was going to leave my position for another position in athletics, I thought that would be something I’d be interested in,” said Connelly, who started her career at Georgia working in University Housing.
After Connelly had her two sons, she worked part-time in the Sports Information Office in 1988.
“I said, ‘You know if I could find a job that was 9:30, 10, 10:30-2, so I could be home when they got back that would be perfect,’” she said.
And when director of football operations Steve Greer asked Connelly to take the position of recruitment program coordinator, she knew her schedule would be one that ended when the work was done.
“It varies depending on what’s going on,” Connelly said. “And it could change. My husband never knows when I’ll be home. He’ll say, ‘She may be home at 5:30. She may be home at 8:30. I don’t know.’ But he cooks dinner.”
Connelly attends every home football game but rarely has time to watch all four quarters.
For the matchup against Georgia Tech, Connelly’s game day started at 6:30 a.m. in order to meet the caterers when they arrived at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
With official and unofficial recruiting visits encompassing two separate schedules, Connelly stays busy, periodically visiting both groups of about 300 people to make sure all of the events are going as planned.
“It’s a long day and it doesn’t end until the game's well over,” Connelly said.
She’s always sure to sport red and black at away games, even when she watches the Bulldogs as just a fan. Just like many ladies of the Bulldog Nation, Connelly likes to don her red dresses.
“We like to look nice at Georgia,” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of other schools that don’t dress up, but that’s just what we do.”
Connelly’s small stature, blond bob haircut and bright smile is what her close friend Ann Hunt will miss having around the office.
“There’s nobody that’s going to be like her,” said Hunt, head coach Mark Richt’s administrative associate. “She’s ever-present and someone we can always rely on to get things done.”
The Connelly that Hunt met 10 years ago is not the same woman she knows now.
“She speaks her mind more really now,” Hunt said. “She was a lot more reserved before. She’s more vocal than she used to be. I think her experience working here and her comfort with the staff helped her change.”
And her friendship doesn’t stop at the doors of Butts-Mehre.
Hunt and Connelly spend time with each other outside of work — whether it’s over lunch or a shopping day for the ladies.
The two’s friendship may have started as a relationship through work, but Hunt knows her friendship with Connelly won’t end when she retires.
“She’s going to always be my friend,” Hunt said. We’re going to continue to go shopping together and have lunch together. It may be a work friendship, but she’s family — even if it’s work family.”
The details matter
Connelly doesn’t just coordinate the general plans of these recruiting events. She focuses on the details.
Because to Connelly, that is what makes Georgia’s recruiting program different from others.
“Mrs. Connie gets recruiting in the sense of, ‘You don’t just offer someone a scholarship and just make them pick,’” said Jenna Jackson, who works in recruiting operations. “That’s just not how it works.”
When football prospects come to campus for visits — both official and unofficial — students through the Gameday Host program escort them around campus and share a student perspective. The Georgia Girls and Guys who work with the programs are volunteers; they show up in their coordinated uniforms hours before the games start to make sure recruits’ experiences stay positive.
“It’s a thankless job, but it’s an important job,” Jackson said. “I always tell people Todd Gurley had a host. All of these people you see here had a host, and a lot of them played a role in the decision they made.”
Even though Connelly hopes for the best when planning these events, she always comes up with a backup plan. And cold games are no exception.
“Auburn was very cold,” Connelly said. “We know some of the guys are not going to come prepared for cold. Not Georgia — it’s a 7 o’clock game, so we went and bought blankets. So we didn’t decide to do it until Monday. So I’m getting online, Amazon, places like that, and they can’t fulfill a big order like that. I ended up buying 400. I went to Academy and they said, ‘OK well, we’re going to try.’ They sent a special truck. Amazon, we got handwarmers.”
And to add the personalized touches to the recruits’ experiences, Connelly buys the high schoolers’ favorite snacks and candies.
“I’ll go to Kroger or Sam’s or wherever I can get their snacks,” Connelly said. “We try to make their visits as enjoyable as possible. So I may have to go out and buy Snickers bars or Lemonheads. I said, ‘OK, I’ve seen Lemonheads before in stores everywhere I go. This was on Black Friday, so I said, ‘I am not going to Wal-mart,’ so I went to Kroger and got most of everything, but they didn’t have Lemonheads, so I said, ‘Let me go to Walgreens.’ You want candy, go to Walgreens. They have a wide assortment of candy.”
Lemonheads and Snickers bars are small treats that football prospects can enjoy, but these extra thoughts of catering make recruits feel as if Georgia could be home.
“What we at Georgia recruit strongly off of is that we’re a family atmosphere,” Jackson said. “We don’t act as a business. That’s important to get across to the mothers. You cannot overlook the comfort aspect.”
Spreading her influence
Connelly has also caught the attention of other recruiting programs, said Gantt, who started working with Connelly 17 years ago.
“Other programs were calling Mrs. Connie asking her about how she runs the program, how she does it so well, how she’s able to maintain a good, positive attitude in a man’s world,” he said. “One time, I was in there while she was on the phone and she just said, ‘You know, I just stay focused. I just go into it 100 percent doing my part so we can succeed as a team both on and off of the field.”
Ben Brandenburg, the recruiting operations coordinator, has known Connelly for four years. During that time, Brandenburg has admired Connelly’s ability to handle sensitive situations with professionalism and grace.
“She has no problem telling somebody they’re wrong,” he said. “She stands her ground, but at the same time, that’s more powerful than raising your voice.”
Having your voice heard, Jackson said, is not an easy feat when you’re the only woman among a group of men. Connelly is not one to compromise who she is for anyone or anything.
“We deal with some of the biggest people — literally — in the country,” she said. “And for her to stand 5-foot-2 and be able to look someone 6-foot-4 in the eye and tell them exactly what she knows to be right, I think that’s something many people don’t have the courage to be able to do.”
This behavior is not out of character for Connelly.
“She is constant,” Jackson said. “She remains the same. She is super sweet, but she is not a pushover. That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from her — you can be ladylike, you can be feminine, but you can still be tough.”
And without Connelly’s guidance throughout the years, Jackson knows she wouldn’t be where she is now.
“Without Mrs. Connie,” she said, “there’s no Jenna.”
A job for more than one person
Thornton will never forget how Connelly supported him throughout his recruiting process at Georgia.
“Once I got on campus, she took me under her wing like her own kid,” Thornton said. “I always felt the love from her. I would say that’s one of the reasons why I came here.”
And it will be players like Thornton, Brandenburg said, who will come back after playing for the Bulldogs to visit Connelly.
“You want to be a person that people want to come back and see like Mrs. Connie,” he said.
But to do the job Connelly has worked for almost two decades will take more than one person.
“One person coming in that’s fresh and new to try to do all of that, learn all of that earlier on and do all of the stuff she’s been doing, I don’t think they would adequately be able to do that,” Gantt said. “Not saying they wouldn’t be able to. It just may take them a year or two.”
Jackson has been preparing for Connelly’s retirement for months. Even with months of close shadowing, there is still much Connelly can do without even thinking about it — something that can be hard to teach others. But Jackson is confident Connelly will only be a phone call away.
“I have no doubts that if I called her and I don’t know what to do about this, she would answer my call,” she said.
Connelly may be preparing for retirement, but she will still be busy. Her role as a grandmother of five is one she will never give up.
Although the thought of leaving Georgia football is scary, Connelly said she looks forward to being a Bulldog fan, watching the games and reflecting on the work she contributed to the program.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of stuff that I never thought I would have been able to do, but I did,” Connelly said. “I’m glad I did.”