EUGENE, Ore. — Coaching college basketball was never the dream job for Will Conroy, who worked tirelessly in pursuit of a long NBA playing career.
Growing up in Seattle during the Sonics heydays in the ’90s, a school-aged Conroy idolized star point guard Gary Payton and patterned his game after the “The Glove,” a defensive menace who played with unbridled passion.
“I just knew I was going to make my money playing ball,” Conroy said. “I poured everything I had into making that happen.”
But somewhere along a globe-trotting journey that included stops at Garfield High, the University of Washington, four NBA teams, three NBA G League teams and six overseas squads, Conroy discovered his future in basketball wasn’t on the court and instead was on the sideline.
“I told Coach Ro (Lorenzo Romar) when I was done at UW, I wanted to come back and coach with him,” Conroy said. “And he was like, play as long as you can because you can never go back and play. I would come home when I was 23-24 and train all the pros. They would let me work them out and train them. That’s when I kind of started to get the coaching bug.
“Guys would call and ask me to work them out. And these were dudes who were All-Stars while I’m still chasing my dream. Then when I was 31, I got cut by the Minnesota Timberwolves. I went overseas for a few more years and my last trip was Germany. I called Coach Ro and said: ‘I’m done. I don’t love being over here.’ Coach Ro said come back and finish school, and that’s how I got into coaching.”
That was 2015.
Fast forward seven years and a 39-year-old Conroy stepped on the Gill Coliseum floor Thursday night as UW’s acting head coach, in place of Mike Hopkins, who entered COVID-19 protocols four hours before tipoff.
“I got a bundle of calls,” Conroy said. “Everyone said to have fun. Our athletic director (Jen Cohen) FaceTimed me and said, ‘How about that, getting tossed into the fire just before the game.’ … We laughed about some things, and I really appreciated talking to her.”
Still, the best advice came from Hopkins.
“Coach Hop has done an unbelievable job of preparing me all season long,” Conroy said. “This virus is going around and it’s inevitable that everybody is going to catch it at some point, especially (in sports). So with that being said, all season long I’m running practice and doing different things at practice.
“He told me, ‘One of these days you’re going to be running the game.’ … Before the game, he told me to coach with my gut. We have our machine. We know what we do. But he said: ‘As far as the rotation, whatever you feel, just do it. Just coach with your gut.’”
For the first time, Conroy delivered the pregame speech and didn’t depart too much from Hopkins’ familiar script.
“I did change a couple of words,” he admitted. “I put a couple of things that I stand by, which is play hard, play smart and have fun. But generally, the same stuff.”
In the first half, Conroy was mostly subdued while sitting and watching intently and rarely engaging with game officials.
UW trailed 38-36 at halftime.
“No big speeches or anything like that at halftime, but I wanted to make sure we stayed together,” Conroy said. “We did change some things defensively. … We got a little more aggressive.”
So did Conroy, who became much more animated while pacing the sidelines holding a white towel and barking instructions that echoed in a mostly silent Gill Coliseum.
“That’s Coach Conroy,” a smiling senior point guard Terrell Brown Jr. said. “That’s just who he is. He’s fiery and passionate. He understands the game. And he keeps us together. He always makes sure we’re together after timeouts and stuff like that just huddling together. Making sure we’re poised.
“But the best thing he does? He cares about us deeply. I’ve known him it seems like my whole life. He’s always been there. He’s always been somebody I can lean on, rely on, laugh and cry with, just all of that. That’s just who he is. When you have somebody like that as your coach, it’s easy to play hard for him.”
The Huskies outscored the Beavers 46-34 in the second half and secured an 82-72 victory for their third straight win.
Following a locker-room celebration, Conroy, who was soaked, talked about the difference between his duties as an assistant and head coach.
“The hardest thing is minutes distribution,” he said, laughing. “I helped bring in a lot of these kids so they’re looking at me like, ‘Now you’re the head coach and you have no excuse not playing me now.’
“I’m like Coach Hop sent me a game plan, and I’m going by it.”
Conroy rotated using 10 players and smartly relied heavily on Brown, who finished with a game-high 27 points, six rebounds and five assists in 34 minutes.
The stakes increase significantly 7 p.m. Sunday when Washington (9-7, 4-2 Pac-12) faces Oregon (11-6, 4-2), which has seemingly recovered from a wobbly 6-6 start and has won its past five games, including recent road wins against then-No. 3 UCLA and then-No. 5 USC.
It was the first time a Pac-12 team swept a conference road trip against two top-10 ranked teams.
Oregon’s game Thursday against Washington State was postponed due to COVID-19 issues with the Cougars.
The Huskies will look to snap a five-game losing streak against the Ducks with Conroy expected to serve again as acting head coach.
Shortly after his first win — technically Hopkins gets the victory in the record books — Conroy was thinking about the next game.
“I’m already thinking about Sunday,” he said. “I’m serious. I’m so goal-driven, that’s how it is. These games keep coming, and I just try to stay in the moment and get these guys ready for what’s coming next.”
Still, when pushed a little, Conroy admitted Thursday night ranks high among a litany of accomplishments in a storied Husky career that includes holding UW’s all-time assist record, winning the 2005 Pac-10 Tournament and advancing to the 2005 NCAA tournament Sweet 16 as the No. 1 seed.
“I remember my goal was to make it to the NBA and when I scored my first NBA basket, I scored it left-handed and I almost melted,” he said. “I’ll always be able to show my son that. But this is up there.”