When Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes advanced to the semifinals of the America's Cup last month, the temptation was to celebrate. "It would have been easy to say we did way better than anyone expected and leave it at that," helmsman Ken Read said.

With one of the smallest budgets in the regatta--$10 million--and a late-starting, one-boat campaign, just making the six-boat cutoff in a fleet of 11 was an achievement. But instead of hosting a party, Conner called in his troops for a motivational talk.

"He reminded us we hadn't done anything," Read said. "He vividly put a little picture in our minds by asking, 'How about a trip to the podium?' We'd come this far, why not win the Louis Vuitton Cup," which goes to the top challenger. "For that matter, why not win the America's Cup?

"He did what a leader is supposed to do. He reminded us of the goal. And we all went, 'Hey, I hadn't thought of that.' The room got pretty quiet when everybody realized it was actually in our reach."

The results since have been impressive as Stars & Stripes led a fleet of six semifinalists by winning its first three races, including a stunning victory over regatta favorite Prada with its two-boat, 2 1/2-year, $50 million program.

How has Conner, who at 57 no longer sails aboard the race boat, managed to lift the humble, underfinanced program into strong contention for the Louis Vuitton Cup?

"He gets good people and trusts them," Read said. "I guarantee I'm the least pressured helmsman in this regatta. He gives you a job and lets you do it, and when we come in off the water he's the head cheerleader. If we win, he's firing off the cannon he keeps in the window of his office. If we lose, he's the least down of anyone."

Conner for two decades has been among the most intriguing and controversial figures in U.S. sport. He was first American to lose the Cup in 1983 after the New York Yacht Club held it for 132 years, and first to win it back four years later when he led a band of grizzled sailors to West Australia. He brought it home to San Diego, then lost it all over again in 1995 to Team New Zealand.

Along the way, Conner became the world's most famous yachtsman, cutting an unmistakable figure around the world with his prodigious girth and fierce combativeness. He has not mellowed. Last month he berated Nippon skipper Peter Gilmour for collaborating with the enemy after Gilmour spent a day practice-racing against Team New Zealand, violating a tradition of separation between Cup challengers and defenders.

"Maybe he thinks he's not going to the America's Cup and he wanted to get a photo sailing against Team New Zealand," Conner said, concisely conveying his wrath.

Conner's acid tongue and unchecked fury are legendary, which begs the question how he manages to keep so many good sailors not only around him, but deeply devoted to him.

"He has a great reputation for looking out for his people," Read said. "Everyone who sails with him says he really wants to win. Look, I had to go out and recruit crew against the other four U.S. teams. Everyone said the same thing: 'You're a one-boat team, you don't have a lot of money, you started the design program late. How are you going to win?' It was a good point. All I could tell them was, with Dennis, you're not going to leave anything on the table."

The argument evidently worked. Conner's team is certainly among the most professional here with Read, a perennial J-24 world champion, surrounded by a star-studded cast of advisers in the afterguard including Yale-educated Peter Isler, five-time Cup veteran Tom Whidden and match-racing expert Peter Holmberg.

Conner himself hates being off the boat. "I love to sail. It's my passion," he said. "But it's a team deal and I'm saddled with the responsibility of being in charge and paying the bills. We don't have a huge staff. It's still just Billy [operations chief Bill Trenkle] and Dennis. Nothing has changed."

In his new role, Conner reckons he can lead others to greatness. "One of the few good things about being old is you know things," he said. "You can relate your experiences, things younger people can benefit from."

Conner keeps a low profile, spending most of his time at the Stars & Stripes base camp working the phones seeking sponsors back home, but occasionally steps out of the office to gladhand customers at the T-shirt and trinket shop attached to the compound.

"When he goes in there, sales go up about 150 percent," laughed Read, who watched in admiration as Conner had his photo snapped with gawking New Zealand tourists, then talked them into buying watches, hats or sweatshirts.

Stars & Stripes struggled in the early going here, going 5-5 in the October round robin, but became a force in November with the arrival of Whidden, the 52-year-old president of North Sails. He had been Conner's tactician since 1980 but was planning to sit this Cup out.

"I had several offers but I thought it was time to grow up, be an adult and look after my business," he said. "Dennis was nice enough to stay after me and when the sailing started, I thought, 'I've got to go.' "

Whidden and Read agree his arrival was a calming influence, particularly on the excitable Read, who is in his first Cup as a skipper.

"We've divvied up the responsibilities in the back of the boat," Whidden said. "Kenny uses us all. Peter Holmberg has the match-racing experience and keeps a playbook with a response to every move the other guy makes. Peter keeps an eye on the long-range picture up the course--where the shifts and puffs are coming from--and I'm watching the other boat."

"There's really no tactician anymore," Read said. "It's an open conversation and I'm listening to everyone. It works because nobody is trying to be the lead person. When Tom came in, we all settled down to an easy, smooth flow of conversation.

"The funny thing is, we actually think we're getting good at it, and it's all happened in such a short time."

Stars & Stripes arrived here in September. Prada had been practicing for this Cup for 2 1/2 years. Yet when the two boats met in the second day of these semifinals, Whidden, Holmberg, Isler and Read gave Prada a sailing lesson, playing shifts and puffs so expertly that once they got the lead, Prada never had a chance to grab it back.

"When we beat Nippon the first day, then Prada, it was huge," Read said. "Everybody in the compound from the guy selling T-shirts to the driver of the [yacht] tender said, 'We're in this thing for a while.' "

When the race boat came back to the dock after the Prada race, Conner, who had been on the phone drumming up sponsors, fired his cannon, reloaded, fired again, reloaded, fired again, reloaded and fired again.

CAPTION: Dennis Conner, 57, guides Stars & Stripes from land now, but his influence is still felt as the underdog continues to surprise the field.