When UL equipment manager Kerry Conner went to the Northwestern State student union in 2001 looking for a job, he had no idea how dramatically his life was about to change.
“In college, you’re broke,” Conner laughed. “I just needed a job.”
The New Iberia native had been part of the band in Natchitoches, but needed a change. And a little money in his pocket.
“It said they were looking for a student manager,” Conner said. “I said, ‘Ok, sure. I’ll try it.’ ”
Next thing Conner discovered was how much of a career adjustment that one little decision had made in his life.
"At that point, I was just doing laundry," he said. "I had no idea."
Most fans are focused on the football side of college football.
Now, 18 years later, Conner is beginning a new school year replacing one of the legendary figures in his beloved profession closer to home for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
In March, Lynn Williams died suddenly, ending his relationship with UL’s athletic department that began as a student manager in 1980.
On Aug. 12, Conner was officially announced to replace Williams as UL’s Director of Equipment Operations.
When the new school year began Monday, the passing of the torch hit Conner hard.
“My office now was his office," Conner said. "I had a brief moment where I just stopped and thought, ‘Man, this is the first time in about 39 years that this man is not going to be a part of this university.’
“He’s not going to be a part of this season. He’s not going to be a part of this whole year with sports. It’s going to be a big void. For a good five to 10 minutes, I just thought about that and thought about him.”
He had similar thoughts Tuesday as well.
“Every now and then, I think, ‘Man, I really wish Lynn would come through that door again,’" Conner said. “Just to talk to him and see how his day was going and how his weekend went. Ask him how to handle a situation, or come up with a miracle in the last minute.”
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Through his years in an equipment room on a college campus — beginning with Northwestern State, then Nicholls and later Louisiana Tech — Conner learned the value of department icons like Williams.
“You just can’t replicate that,” the 39-year-old Conner said. “You can’t replicate a guy who loved this university and loved this athletic department with every fiber in his body to the point where he died for this university. He died for this athletic department, because he loved this university.
“He believed in the people, he believed in the sports, he believed in the coaches. No matter if they were here for one year or here for 25 years, he believed in you and he loved you.”
Making the transition easier was how close Conner is to the Williams family. His first equipment boss in Natchitoches — after he learned that the job was much more than just doing laundry — was Lynn’s younger brother, Lyle Williams.
“Lyle kind of showed me what it took to be an equipment manager,” Conner said.
Meeting ‘Big Lynn,' though, almost happened by accident. Conner was traveling to Lafayette in 2002 for a softball regional.
“I walked through the doors in the old equipment room in the Cox Communications building and see somebody in a chair,” Conner said. “It kind of felt like Jack and the Beanstalk for a moment. ‘Who is this big guy?’ He kind of was snoozing a little bit. I walked right past him and he woke up.
‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I told him who I was and what I was doing and he’s like ‘Oh yeah,’ and told me everything I needed to know.”
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The two would later grow closer when Conner came to work at UL as Williams’ assistant in 2014.
“I’m pretty much the adopted brother of the family, because they took me in,” Conner said. “I’ve been knowing that family for 17 years now.”
At first, though, Conner wasn’t comfortable with how close the two were about to become.
“I used to think he was just a real nosy person, because he always wanted to know how you were doing and how your family was doing,” Conner said. “At first, I was thinking, ‘Bruh, you ask too many questions.’
“But he just cared that much, and I do too. We all do here in the equipment room. He made me a better person. He made me think about doing my job differently. He made me think about being a person differently, always caring for other people.”
So while following a legendary figure is extra tough for some, Conner felt totally comfortable doing so in this case. Ironically, if Williams had not passed away, it’s possible Conner would no longer be at UL.
“Being completely honest, earlier this year around January, I had thoughts of leaving and getting out of being an equipment manager,” Conner said. “I was burnt, just mentally and physically drained after a long football season.
“I had an offer, but I decided not to do it. When Lynn passed away, it kind of let me know that God was telling me that this is where I needed to be.”
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UL associate director of sports medicine B.J. Duplantis, who has worked with the Cajuns since 2007, is convinced Conner is the perfect choice to replace Williams.
“You can never replace a Lynn Williams, kind of like coach (Tony) Robichaux," Duplantis said. "You just try to find the right fit to carry on that legacy. Kerry is cut from the same mold as Lynn — hard work, dedication, loyalty, perseverance.”
Duplantis recalled situations at Northwestern State and at UL when the plane couldn't hold all the equipment for a road trip. Without hesitation, Conner jumped in a moving van and drove to places like Montana and South Carolina to resolve the issue.
"He’s a much better equipment manager than he was a drummer," Duplantis laughed.
"Lyle taught Kerry the Lynn way, the correct way. How to treat people, how to deal with issues. It’s about helping others. It’s not just being an equipment manager. It’s treating everybody like they’re family and that’s what makes Kerry the right person to carry on that legacy."
Indeed, the uniqueness of the college equipment room was revealed to Conner over the years, and that’s a responsibility that drives him every day.
“He put me in a position to not only carry on his legacy, but the legacy of this equipment room,” Conner said. “This equipment room is a staple of the athletic department. This is a place where you can come, present your problems and hopefully have somebody solve those problems.
“It's kind of like a barber shop. This is a place where people can speak their mind and let out their frustrations and hopefully you’ll be the type of person to give them some solutions.”
And no one was better at offering advice or telling you what you needed to hear than Williams.
“He would be the type of person that wouldn’t pull any punches,” Conner said. “If you were wrong or if he felt like you needed to toughen up, he’d let you know. But before you left, you’d leave with a smile on your face. You felt better once you came in here.
“That’s what this equipment room is all about.”
He’s not the biggest guy on the team. Nor is he the fastest.
Conner said whether you needed crawfish, a new tire or a dolly for a construction project at home, ‘Big Lynn’ knew what to do.
“No matter what you asked, he would say without even looking at the phone, ‘Call this guy or call that guy,’ ” Conner said. “He knew what to do right off the top of his head. He developed that many relationships over the years.”
In other words, Conner soon learned not to be fooled by Williams’ lack of mobility due to his size.
“You’d look at him and some people would think, ‘Man, what can that man do? He can’t move,’ ” Conner exclaimed. “But I tell you what, with a phone call, he could move mountains.”
Conner knows it’ll take many more years to develop that type of a mental rolodex, but there are other facets of Williams’ tutelage he hopes to institute right away.
“It’s one thing to care just about my student managers, but you’ve got to care about these coaches, you’ve got to care about these players, you’ve got to care about the administrative assistants, you have to care about the grounds crew,” Conner said. “You have to care about everyone.”
In many ways, the job is the glue that holds the athletic department together.
Since UL coach Billy Napier arrived, he has always trumpeted the value of versatility.
“Sometimes it gets a little taxing; you’re tired,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s never about me. It was never about him. It was about making sure those people who came through this door every single day are taken care of.”
Years from now, Conner’s goal is to be compared to Williams in the most important category of all — caring.
“I hope to be the most like Lynn when it comes to caring for others, one, and also I want to be involved in the student managers’ lives,” Conner said. “He cared for those kids like they were his own kids. He looked out for them. Even in those times when they were dead wrong; he knew it, they knew it. He’d let you know, but he always had a forgiving heart.
“I hope 10 years from now, they’re saying, ‘Kerry looked out for me. He helped me when I really needed him. He was there.’ I want to be there and be available and be the person that comes through for them.”