Connor Buczek Hopes to Carry On a 'New Normal' at Cornell

Connor Buczek certainly wanted to be a Division I coach at some point in his career. He just didn’t know it would come this early and at his alma mater.

He started his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at Cornell, the school where he starred from 2012-15, then earned a promotion to assistant coach in 2017. He served under coach Peter Milliman for two seasons, assisting with goalies and on the high-powered Big Red offense.

Buczek had turned down a job offer on Wall Street from investing giant JP Morgan to coach at Cornell. He was happy with what he was doing and where he was doing it. He was certain of it.

The 2020 season had started strong, with the Big Red going 5-0 before COVID-19 contributed to the cancellation of the season. Then, the program lost a legend in athletic trainer Jim Case on March 14. 

To add to the emotion and uncertainty of this spring, Milliman told the team he was leaving to take over the Johns Hopkins program.

“The last six or seven weeks have certainly been tough,” Buczek said. “It’s been a lot of emotions, getting out to the quick start and then understanding the wide-ranging impact of this whole thing. It was difficult. Then hearing the news about Pete, it was uncertain and trying to figure out what’s next, and trying to figure out all the emotions that come with that.”

“When I got that call from Andy Noel, I was ecstatic. What an opportunity to lead a program that means so much to me and has given me so much.”

If Buczek had learned anything from his time as a player at Cornell, it was how to deal with adversity. With the departure of Milliman, he was presented with another dose of it.

Milliman’s move to Johns Hopkins was reported on April 26. Buczek and fellow assistant Jordan Stevens — both of whom were teammates at Cornell — had no idea where the chips would fall and whether they’d be able to stick around in Ithaca. 

Less than two days later, they got their answer. Through a series of Zoom calls with athletic administrators, including athletic director Andy Noel, Buczek found out he was promoted to head coach of his alma mater for the 2021 season, and Stevens moved up to associate head coach.

Within three years, Buczek went from a volunteer assistant to head coach of the Big Red. He found his dream job, and he’s only 26.

“I wasn’t sure when we heard the news of Pete, how this was going to go for us,” he said. “We had to see it. We didn’t know they felt that strongly about us. When I got that call from Andy Noel, I was ecstatic. What an opportunity to lead a program that means so much to me and has given me so much.”

Buczek becomes the fifth head coach in a little more than a decade for Cornell, a program that has seen unusual turnover since Jeff Tambroni left in 2010. Cornell is far removed from the historic 28-year tenure of Richie Moran.

However, the culture and tradition surrounding the Big Red program continue to live on through its passionate alumni base — a group to which Buczek already belonged.

“People may question, ‘Can [Buczek and Stevens] actually do the job?’” Moran said. “I’m pretty sure they’re confident in what they’re doing, and I think the administration feels the same way. The man upstairs works in funny ways. I think he has great admiration for Connor Buczek and Jordan Stevens.”

Buczek is aware of the tradition and pressure that he is entering into as the next head coach at Cornell. He and Stevens helped carry the Big Red from 2013-15. The Cincinnati native came to campus in 2012 as eager as any to play for Cornell.

However, Buczek, the high school attackman and football safety at St. Xavier (Ohio), had trouble transitioning to midfield in his freshman year. His inability to see the field in 2012 made him briefly question his decision.

“Overcoming that first feeling of adversity and those challenges helps you grow,” Buczek said. “It was the first of many I faced while I was here.”

“He didn’t sniff of the field his freshman year,” said Stevens, his Cornell teammate at the time.

Under coach Ben DeLuca, Buczek worked hard to develop his game and to fit a talented offense that featured Rob Pannell, Steve Mock and Matt Donovan. Eventually, he found his footing during his sophomore year, putting up 53 points for a Cornell team that went undefeated in Ivy League play.

He also took home gold in the 2012 U19 world championship with the U.S. national team.

“Connor was a guy that was always pushing for time, and we felt middie was the place we thought he could break in,” DeLuca said. “The adjustment to the new position was a challenge, but he did a great job working hard to figure it out. That experience, learning under some of our leaders early on, really helped him blossom his sophomore year.”

Buczek looks back at his freshman year and remembers an accident that caused his sister, Kathryn, a gymnast, to break her neck. He said that moment, and the fears that coincided with it, gave him a new perspective on the game. He started to become grateful for his opportunity, more so than ever.

Buczek finished his Cornell career a three-time All-American with 155 career points, most for a midfielder in program history. Meanwhile, he was on his way to completing an MBA program at Cornell after interning on Wall Street.

By the summer of 2015, Buczek had an offer from JP Morgan on Wall Street. He could have chosen a path like many former lacrosse players and Cornell MBA graduates before him.

Instead, he decided to go after a different interest in coaching. He accepted a volunteer assistant position at Cornell that same year. He just didn’t want o leave Ithaca.

 “The reasonable thing when you get your second Ivy league degree is to go chase the money and do the Wall Street thing or whatever in the professional world,” he said. “My folks were very supportive of it, and I took the leap of faith and it was the best decision I’ve ever made outside of going to Cornell in the first place.”

As a volunteer assistant, Buczek was responsible for running the substitution box, warming up goalies and assisting with the offensive gameplan. For two seasons, he served a minimal role but started to learn the intricacies of coaching.

Buczek and Stevens picked up valuable experience under coach Matt Kerwick and Milliman. Together, the two young assistants continue to develop a bond that would later serve them well.

“You’re in your early 20s and you’re learning what it takes to be an adult and what life is like after college and school,” Stevens said. “We were growing up together for the second time. We did the same thing in college. To go through that twice, I feel like our friendship is a strong as it can be.”

Both competitors, Buczek and Stevens had their minds set on helping each Cornell team reach its potential. Neither thought much about the next step, spending no time thinking about a future outside of Cornell.

Players saw Stevens as the more vocal coach and Buczek as someone who harnessed his intensity a little more. Regardless, each had a desire to win as if they were still suiting up the day of a game.

The chemistry that Cornell’s coaching duo has developed and their knowledge of the program could serve to help carry on the tradition that Milliman left in Ithaca. Buczek may be the youngest coach in Division I, but he’s got a wealth of experience within the program he’s leading.

He may be the head coach for just one season, but it could become full-time — such was the case for Milliman in 2018. Buczek is confident in what he can do and hopes to retain his dream job for a bit longer.

“I hope this is the new normal for Cornell lacrosse,” he said. “I certainly would be very content with that, and I feel like that’s a real possibility. Our expectation taking these jobs was not to be a filler until something else happens. Our goal is to take this and run with it.”