March Madness Coaching Kings – Jim Calhoun Reflects On Old Big East Conference

Jim Calhoun stepped down as head coach at the University of Connecticut in 2012 after 26 years at the school. During his 42 overall years as a head coach, Calhoun’s record was 866–369. He was 50–19 in the NCAA Tournament and 220-112 in the Big East.  

He returned to the sidelines in 2018 as head coach of Saint Joseph Blue Jays (D-3) and took them to the NCAA Div III Tournament in the 2019-2020 season. 

Calhoun belongs to a selective group in the coaching fraternity, along with John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.  They are the only Division I coaches to have won at least three national titles.

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, The Big East Conference once ruled the landscape. Calhoun’s UConn teams battled some of the legendary coaches of our time. 

Then football greed broke up basketball’s iconic conference and the era of dominance spurned by the success of the conference in the 80s and 90s was over. 

Back in 2014, the legendary Hall of Famer spoke with The Shadow League and reminisced about his career and the storied coaches and players that made the Big East magical.

 TSL: The Big East and the success the conference has had over the years. UConn was a big part of that success.

 Jim Calhoun: The Big East with Dave Gavitt, God rest his soul…forming the Big East had not only a great affect on Eastern basketball, just in the original eight schools and nine schools, but quite frankly had an effect on a whole lot of other folk. I was at Northeastern University when a kid named Reggie Lewis, God rest his soul, was a great player for me, the Celtics and so on.

 For all of us, it kind of gave another avenue, because once the Big East broke up the old ECAC (Eastern Athletic Conference), the other leagues were formed — Northeastern joined a league and went on to win that 5 times and go to the NCAA tournament 5 times. It didn’t seem like it originally, but it had a great impact on the C (Catholic) schools in the league, but the by-product was the Atlantic 10 — which at that time was called Eastern 8 was formed and many other leagues around the eastern part of the country that fielded teams that had the opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament.

 That all happened because of Dave Gavitt’s foresight to put together the most powerful teams in the East. It became a rebirth of basketball going back to long before my time going back to when they had games in Madison Square Garden, the Boston Garden and the Palestra in Philly. Since that time, the league won 5 National Championships. We’d only won — in this part of the country — one National Championship and that was in 1947 at Holy Cross.

 Conversely, we’ve won three alone here in New England. It’s changed life. The league itself has won six. Obviously, a number of great pros have come out of this league from Allen Iverson to Dikembe Mutombo to Alonzo Mourning…you name it. Pearl Washington, to Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. You can go up and down the line and find great players. It changed the face of basketball in the eastern part of the United States and had an incredible effect on basketball overall.

 TSL: Obviously you’ve coached a lot of great players and a lot of great teams. Did you see certain personality traits in teams from a cultural standpoint? Meaning by the way they dressed, the way they talked, etc., over the years. Is that something you noticed?

 Jim Calhoun: Remember, in the beginning, and I’m going back to ‘79 and ‘80. I didn’t come around until ‘86, so  six years after it all started, but more importantly being an eastern league, it brought that DC, that Philly, that Jersey, that New York City toughness into one league.

 It was a rarity at that time because it was an urban league. You gotta figure, we’re (Storrs, Connecticut) 30 miles from downtown Hartford, but the majority of our kids were inner city kids. There was a certain toughness about the league. A certain familiarity. We all knew each other. We all knew the places in Philly, DC, Boston and New York all over the place.

 It was a neighborhood league. I always called it that because I thought it was. It hasn’t been over the last seven or eight years but the Big East, the original Big East with Patrick and Chris Mullin and right on down the line, was a tough league.

 It was nothing for two guys to square off during a game. It was a more physical league. So certainly it had characteristics that produced a lot of great NBA players and great teams. It clearly was distinct from other leagues in the country.


TSL: When did you know UConn was becoming a force in the conference? Was it around Donyell Marshall’s time or sometime before?

 Jim Calhoun: Actually in 1990, we won the NIT my second year and made the NCAA Tournament my third year. In 1990 we broke through. That was with Chris Smith — who played six years in the NBA. Tate George was our point guard on that team. That was our breakout year.

 We beat Georgetown and Syracuse in the regular season. We tied with Syracuse in the regular season. Reggie Williams and those guys just finished up playing. Though Georgetown did have a good team. They were big with Dikembe (Mutombo) and Alonzo (Mourning). There were great teams at that time. Great players at Syracuse. Great players all over the place. We won back-to-back games over Georgetown and Syracuse not only in the regular season, but the post-season and lost to a Christian Laettner shot in the final 8.

 That was the turn of the corner. The next year, we picked up a young freshman, you’re right, in Donyell Marshall. The next year, Kevin Ollie came in. Donny Marshall came in and went on to play in the NBA. The following year, Ray Allen came in.  We started to get a line of some awfully good players.  

 TSL: How does a shot like the one Tate Gorge hit affect the program?

 Jim Calhoun: Well, it does because now we are in the national spotlight. With the shot against Clemson and the shot against Duke, those were an incredible 48 hours. People were riveted on the first shot by Tate George on a pass from Scottie Burrell — who became a 10 or 11 year NBA player. When pros throw to a pro you probably have a good play. That’s what I used to tell people.

 The bottom line is the dramatics of that. The dramatic effect of those two games over 48 hours, with Laettner beating us with no time on the clock, and Duke went to the Final Four instead of us. So yeah, I still have people ask me questions about that game — and both games. Happened in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Those are the type of things that add national recognition to the team.

 TSL: Talk about the strength of the Big East and the respect that the coaches had for one another.

Jim Calhoun: We all have great respect for each other. You usually come from leagues where you fight to become number one. You don’t have to be number one in the Big East to have success in the NCAA Tournament.

 Two years ago, we won the National Championship and were eighth in the Big East. We beat Kentucky and Michigan State and some other good teams during league play. We were tied for 8th but only two games out of second.

 The point being, with Kemba Walker we won a National Championship and I think we all realized the goal is to get seven, eight or nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. That was the goal of the people.

Top recruiting. Great respect for the guys that keep winning. When I came in, I coached against John (Thompson). I was John’s roommate [during training camp] when he was drafted by the Celtics. John was backing up Bill Russell at the time. Russell was player-coach. John and I were established.

I knew PJ Carlesimo very well at Seton Hall. I certainly knew Louie Carnesecca at St. Johns. Rollie Massimino was a high school coach in Massachusetts (Lexington High School) when I was a high school coach (Westport and Dedham).

So you go back to some of the great names in the Big East. It was a tightness. An incredible rivalry. You might have a fight with a guy and say a few words to him that aren’t for public consumption and then two days later you go off and say what a great coach he is. John and others are still lifetime friends of mine.

I think it’s the respect we have for one another. The proximity to each other. Jimmy was the farthest away. Everything was based out of New York or an hour plane ride maximum from any place.

That proximity makes a great deal of difference. People in Ohio don’t really have close proximity to someone in Iowa. It was just different the way our league was set up. You got on Route 95 and you could drive from DC to Pittsburgh but none of us were that far away.

TSL: That ’96 Georgetown vs. Connecticut Big East Championship. Many thought Georgetown was going to win, but you pulled it out. What do you recollect from that game?

Jim Calhoun: We had some terrific players on the floor that day.  Eight kids from that game went on to play in the NBA. It’s a whole lot different than basketball of today. I don’t necessarily mind. I like what’s on our team this year and some of those things but eight kids in the pros?

 It was a terrific basketball game. We ran a decoy for Ray (Allen) and a kid turned away and Ray had to shoot the ball. There still were eight seconds. Jerome Williams rebounded an Iverson shot. We bodied up on him. He missed and Ray Allen sprinted up the middle of the court. Jumping up and down and we won the game. It was a great, great basketball game.

Magical. Ray vs. Iverson. It was pretty special. We had the fortune of playing a lot of special games in the Big East. That certainly will be missed. The first 25 – 30 years of this league have been incredibly special because I think it’s changed the face of basketball on the entire east coast but certainly nationally as well.

 Many kinds now find no problem traveling. We’ve had eight California kids. We’ve had kids from all over the place. We recruited outside of the area when I first got here because you couldn’t beat out the established programs in the east, so we went out of the east.

  TSL: How’d you find Rip Hamilton?

Jim Calhoun: We got him because I recruited Donyell Marshall from Reading (PA) and he was in Coatesville — which is only 3 or 4 towns away. He was a skinny kid that could score. We jumped on him early and were fortunate to get him away from the Philly schools, the Jersey school in Rutgers, St. Johns. We got him and he became a terrific player for us.

Ray Allen coming from South Carolina from an Air Force base where his dad was stationed. Emeka Okafor from Houston, TX. Kevin Ollie from Los Angeles. Brian Fair, who was one of our great shooters, was from Arizona. We went all over the place and that’s how we built the program.

 TSL: Did you see the coach in Kevin Ollie early? Covered him when he was here with the Sixers. Always thought he had the temperament to be a coach. Talk about the evolution from player to coach.

Jim Calhoun: Point guards usually can see all nine guys on the court and maybe the three referees at the same time. Kevin could always do that and so he got a good feel for the game. He had a great character and was one of the best kids I ever coached. He wasn’t drafted. Played with 10 different teams and was able to have a 13-year career because of his character, love for the game and work ethic.

Add in feel for the game and that should describe a helluva coach. That is what Kevin has become. We’ve already won 17 this year and if he’s not the Coach of the Year in the Big East I’ll be very surprised. When it’s all said and done, that would be a helluva way to jump off your career.

I never thought of him being a coach per say, it just became natural as he winded down his career. He thought of going back and I offered him the job at UConn. He wanted to do it and I knew he would be terrific at it.

TSL: What do you see as your legacy as a basketball coach?

Jim Calhoun: I’m a basketball guy. You don’t look at what people say, but what you feel and what you think. When I went to Northeastern, I was 28 years old. I was lucky to get the job and we went to the NCAA Tournament in five of my last six years. Coached a couple of pros. Perry Moss and Reggie Lewis was the greatest player we ever had. We were 75 – 14 against Rhode Island, Canisius, Holy Cross, Niagara, etc. We built the program. Northeastern was a better hockey school than basketball school but we kind of turned that around a little bit.

When I got here to Connecticut, we had four-straight losing seasons. I’m a guy from Boston. I knew all the coaches, watched all the games, and tried to put together some elements to compete in the Big East. I came here and didn’t have a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t have anything on my shoulder. I’d coached 14 years as a Division I head coach. I came here at 41. I’d already been to five NCAA Tournaments. Had a feel of what you could do in this league.

 It was the most televised league in the country with an incredible commissioner in Dave Gavitt. What you must do is assess what you can do at the place you are at. I thought we could take the Big East — which was dominated by Patrick, Georgetown and John, by Villanova, by Syracuse.

We just had to get the good players. We really went out and recruited kids from all over the country. Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld from Israel. Even Hasheem Thabeet. We went out and got good players. All who wanted to play in the Big East but weren’t being recruited by the Big East.

 We ended up getting those kids and were fortunate to win 18 Championships in 26 years. That’s great pride. We have a big family of players. All of our assistant coaches are UConn guys. My special assistant was George Blaney who has been my friend for 45 years and is a Holy Cross guy.

 We really have stayed close to home, to who we are, to what we are. The kids have helped to build this program to where it’s really very special. Its a brand name. Everyone knows who Kemba Walker is. Cliff Robinson was my first great player that I inherited when I got here, lasted 19 years in the league.

 We had a plan and we stayed with it. We developed a style that was attractive to a lot of people. Running and passing, the way we play. Rebounding and blocking shots –we’ve led the nation nine straight years in that and having everybody stick to the program. This is a great place to coach college basketball.

TSL: Coach how would you defend these three players: Allen Iverson, Chris Mullin and Walter Berry?

Jim Calhoun: With Allen, to never let him get in the full court, which is where he likes to be. I used to call him Cat Burglar. He would steal anything and it would be gone before you knew it. He was a great dribbler.

 He was one of the great football players I’ve ever seen. I saw him play one time in Virginia. I was going to recruit him. We tried to get involved his junior year. He was Michael Vick and then some. He’s a great, quick athlete. Stronger than you probably think he was.

 Incredible competitor. You had to make him a jump shooter. You couldn’t let him penetrate. Had to squeeze gaps against him and force him baseline to get help. You could never let him get a full good go and never let him penetrate because he could do magic.

Chris Mullin, the exact opposite. I love Chris. You had to make Chris into a driver and make him put the ball on the deck and take advantage that he wasn’t a super athlete. He was a super shooter and a super player. Incredible guy. Great.

 I would pressure him to put the ball on the deck and you’d have a chance against him. Both of those guys. You are rolling the dice against great players.

 Walter Berry was pretty good in college. The size. He was ambidextrous. Nice length. Couldn’t let him touch the ball within eight feet. If he did, you put a double on him right away.

 I don’t like doubling bigs unless they’re great ones and he was. Walter didn’t have the strength and power of Patrick. I loved Patrick. Berry was a version of Hall of Fame Boston Celtic, Kevin McHale. He could find 1,600 ways of scoring. Everything was different. His moves. His hesitations. The shoulder. He was special so we would try to ride him out of the post, catch the ball and make him put it on the deck. If he got the ball low, we doubled him. We worked hard on our defensive sequences, but three tough guys to stop obviously.

 TSL: What is college basketball going to miss the most out of the Big East and its rivalries?

For millions and millions of people, we played our games. We played Syracuse to a sold out crowd of 16,000. We played our games in urban areas. Hartford has almost half a million people. So many people get involved with the Syracuse games. The St. John’s game, the Connecticut game. Some of these are 50 and 60-year-old rivalries.

For us, between Jim Boeheim and I, we played each other 58 times. We won 29 and they won 29. You can’t replace that. Incredible and they always were something.

It’s a sadness in my mind that they’re breaking up the Big East. There may be something that forms that resembles the Big East in different ways. I still think that may happen. Something is gonna happen with the major schools are going to be all together. College basketball will miss what I call the urban battles. The route 95 line between the media capital in New York City, Philly, Washington, Boston.

There will be a void in college basketball. Clearly and very definitively, the Louie’s, the John’s..etcetera. Everyone was on a first-name basis because the coaches were so identifiable.

We just don’t have enough good players as we used to. Teams just aren’t as good. In 2004, we were bringing Charlie Villanueva off the bench. Charlie Villanueva is a 14 point per game scorer in the NBA. Emeka Okafor was starting. Josh Boone was starting. Hilton Armstrong (12 in the draft)…my point we don’t have that depth.

We have college players who go on to have decent careers but we had a lot of them come out of the Big East. Ray Allen is the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. Iverson. Patrick, Chris. All of that will be tough to replace.

The Players Association could replace that by making a three-year rule. One and done definitely has to be eliminated because it’s not good for the game. Either side.

There is a sense of sadness that this is all going down. The six-overtime with Syracuse, the Syracuse vs. Georgetown rivalry. St. John’s.

Special, special stuff that you cannot create. You can’t just throw two teams together and say it’s a great rivalry. It just doesn’t work that way. Sadness, but great pride in what this league has done.

Jim Calhoun’s Head Coaching record:

NCAA National Titles: 1999, 2004, 2011

Final Four: 1999, 2004, 2009, 2011

NIT Title: 1988

Big East Tournament titles: 1990, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2011

Big East regular season titles: 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006

America East Tournament titles: 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986

Massachusetts State Championship: 1972

Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame: 2005

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