Last summer, Rock Falls native KJ Conklin took the chance of a lifetime. Less than a year later, he has memories that will last a lifetime.
The 2012 Rock Falls High School graduate spent last season on the University of Texas basketball staff, and went on the ride of his life. The Longhorns went 29-9, won the Big 12 Tournament title and made a run to the Elite Eight, and Conklin enjoyed every minute of it.
“You really can’t put into words what last season meant. Especially going through my first one, it’s hard to describe it; it was just incredibly special, because you know you’re a part of something bigger than yourself,” Conklin said. “It had been a long time since Texas had done that, and for us to make it to the Elite Eight for the first time in 15 years made it all more special.”
Conklin was recently named the Director of Player Development for the Longhorns, adding a title to go with the job he has loved from the minute he started.
Conklin played basketball at Rock Falls for coaches Mike Winters and Scott Olson. He knew he wanted to be a coach from an early age; he coached middle schoolers while he was still at RFHS and joined the Illinois State men’s basketball team as a student assistant as soon as he stepped foot on campus in Normal.
He served on the ISU staff for four years, helping with day-to-day operations, as well as working the Redbirds’ summer camps. He returned to the Sauk Valley in 2017-18 as part of Ryan Vasquez’s coaching staff at Sterling; the Golden Warriors had a 15-game winning streak and advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to Metamora that season.
“I knew I wanted to coach right away, so as soon as I put playing behind me, I went right to the coaching side of things,” Conklin said. “It really started my senior year of high school, training a couple of players and coaching at the middle school.
“The experience at ISU was great, and working with Ryan at Sterling was incredible. He empowered me and allowed me to do a lot as part of his coaching staff.”
After one year with the Golden Warriors, Conklin went to Louisiana Tech and served as a graduate assistant for coach Eric Konkol, who is now at Tulsa. Conklin called that job “really special, a place with a good culture and good teams,” before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down at the end of his second season there.
Conklin spent a year coaching at Olney Central Community College in Illinois, then coached at Independence Community College in Kansas for the 2021-22 season.
Then, he got the phone call that would change his life.
“Texas called me and said to pack up my car like I was moving there, but they can’t promise me anything,” Conklin said. “I had other job offers, and had some doubts; I made a lot of phone calls to friends and family and talked to my inner circle, but the opportunity to come down to Austin and work for a really good staff, with a team that I knew had a great chance of being good, was too much to pass up.
“My doubts about taking the risk changed when I got here. It was just kind of their test to see if I wanted it enough, and I loved it. You can feel the culture and energy around this program everyday, and it was a tight-knit group that felt like family.”
Conklin spent the season doing whatever he needed to do to help the Longhorns be successful. He was rewarded with his new title, and will continue to take on the same tasks as he did last season.
“My job is to do everything I can to help our guys grow on and off the court,” Conklin said. “On the court stuff is a lot of it, but aside from that it’s helping the players stay organized in life, make good decisions, and just be someone they can trust and rely on to help them with anything.
“Now I’ve got essentially the same role with a different title. It’s a step up, and obviously I’m in a good spot in one of the best athletic departments in the country, in a great city with good people. I feel very fortunate.”
Conklin said his past experiences have helped him in his new role with the Longhorns, but he also believes that being young and closer to the players’ age is a big help with his duties. He says his personality plays a part in him being successful in his role.
“Being close in age and having the recent experience as a college kid helps them relate to me, sure,” Conklin said. “I think it all translates to helping me do my job the best that I can. I also have a genuine curiosity for our guys and their lives, where they come from, and can get to know them and help them make the most of their experience and development while they’re in school.”
Being at a pair of local programs in Sterling and Rock Falls that take the same approach to the game as the Longhorns has been beneficial for Conklin during his time in Austin. It’s all about the process, not the necessarily the end result.
Texas head coach Rodney Terry joined the Texas staff as an assistant in 2021-22 before being named interim head coach in December of last year. After guiding the Longhorns to their first Elite Eight trip since 2008, he was named head coach this past March. Conklin said the culture Terry has helped build at Texas was crucial to the stellar 2022-23 season.
“Coach talks about the process a lot, stacking great days together, taking care of what we can today and continuing to build the culture with good habits on and off the court,” Conklin said. “It’s all about relationships; you win with people in this business, and the most important thing is providing a good culture and camaraderie and an environment where they can be their best.
“The bond and relationships I made last season, that we all made as a team, helped us be successful. We all put in the work together from Day 1, always having a united front to accomplish the goals we had. When you can share that success with people you really love and care about, that’s made it a special time for me this past year.”
One of the closest bonds Conklin developed was with guard Sir’Jabari Rice, the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer last season. Rice signed a two-way contract with the San Antonio Spurs as a free agent after the NBA Draft last month.
“We’re very close, definitely one of the strongest relationships and bonds I built with a player in my first year here,” Conklin said. “I really helped him with the pre-draft process, putting in a lot of work on the court to improve his basketball skills.
“But there were also a lot of other guys who I created really strong relationships with, and we made a lot of special memories.”
Conklin believes the biggest intangible that had Texas playing its best basketball in the postseason was the relationships the group had built throughout the regular season.
‘We just had a great group last year, and the bond we had was one of the things that separated us from other teams at the end of the year,” Conklin said. “Everybody wants to win their conference tournament and make it to the Final Four, but for us the biggest thing that we all felt deep down was not wanting the season to end because we didn’t want our time around each other to end. We enjoyed it so much, loved the memories we were making and the swag we were playing with, and we just wanted to repeat it every day and never have it stop.”
The role he plays on the Longhorns’ staff is exactly what Conklin expected when he got into coaching as a teenager. Being a part of a team and doing his part to help the team be successful is what it’s all about.
“Throughout my journey and experience as a coach, you learn that there’s a lot of things you have to do that you don’t see on TV. There’s a lot of background, behind-the-scenes stuff day in and day out if you want to win on the court,” Conklin said. “But the reason I got into coaching aligns with what I do now, helping the players and the people around me, using basketball as a tool to build great relationships and give back to the sport I love.”
Conklin is attacking his job with the same zest everyday, even in the offseason. He currently is helping Texas players with offseason workouts, and after having such a successful run in his first year with the program, he wants to keep working hard to repeat it.
As for the future, he said he’s not sure where his current path will take him, but he knows that taking the chance to come to Texas last summer will have a big impact on where he ends up down the road.
“I’m grateful to be here, and I’m fully invested in this job. My main focus is this group and what we’re doing right now, and I just want to be elite at what I do day in and day out,” Conklin said. “The future is uncertain, but I love the player-development side of coaching, and I want to do a great job in that area and see where that takes me. It could be at this level, it could be at the NBA level, it just depends on the situation and fit. I just want to be somewhere where I can be invested in the guys on and off the floor all the time.”