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VICE Sports Q&A: Former UConn Men's Basketball Coach Jim Calhoun

Jim Calhoun went to four Final Fours and won three national championships. Before Saturday's games, he held forth on what it was like to coach in the Final Four and picked his winners.
April 4, 2016, 2:33pm
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

Jim Calhoun knows his way around the Final Four. The former University of Connecticut coach took the Huskies to four Final Fours and won three national championships. In doing so, he entered an elite club with John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight, and Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to win at least three NCAA titles. Before Saturday's games, Jim Calhoun shared his thoughts on the 2016 Final Four with VICE Sports.


VICE Sports: What's it like to be here as a coach?

Jim Calhoun: It is a chaotic time of year. You start November off and everybody thinks they are going to win every game and that gets dissipated pretty quickly. Then you go through the pre-season and the conference season and then the madness begins in March, and it really is madness. I think it may be a tad more madness right now because we certainly don't have any dominant teams. So, it's been crazy.

Read More: Almost Perfect: Northa Carolina and Villanova Romp at the Final Four

You have taken teams to the Final Four four times. Can you put into words what the intensity is like and what the difference is between the regular season and getting down to that final weekend?

I look at it in stages. The first stage is to celebrate. What Jimmy Boeheim, Jay Wright, Lon Krueger, and Roy Williams have done is the let their guys know that this weekend is pretty special. You have to celebrate the idea of what you have already accomplished.

Then the careful balance is making sure that somebody else handles those 150 cousins that you never knew about who are asking for tickets.

You want to get your team to the Final Four in mid-week and celebrate and then start to slowly, surely build to a three-team tournament. By that I mean, you obviously know who your opponent is going to be on Saturday and you know that you can only face one of two teams on Monday in the championship game.


Coaches need to make sure that they hit key points with their teams. If you are North Carolina, you have to deal with press breaking because of what Syracuse did. Oklahoma has to handle some multiple pressure situations when they prepare for Villanova. Syracuse has to make sure to box out because the size of North Carolina is great. All the teams have different things that they can work on, but they need to make sure that they celebrate the accomplishment and make sure that they feel good about it.

By the time you get to Friday, you do the public practice, and then I always thought that the next 24 hours were very important for my teams to truly understand that we only have so many times in our lives to accomplish something great. No one is going to know who finishes second, third, or fourth. They only remember the national champ, so let's play the best 40 minutes that we can.

We have Oklahoma, Villanova, Syracuse, and North Carolina still chasing the dream this year. Which team do you think is playing the best basketball heading into the Final Four?

The team that is the best is North Carolina—if North Carolina makes shots. They have to make shots. That has been their Achilles heel, and they will have to deal with the Syracuse 2-3 zone. In my opinion, Carolina is the best team, personnel-wise.

The other team that is playing really well, it is a toss-up between Oklahoma and Villanova, and Syracuse has made a late surge and found ways to win. Jimmy and the Orange have shown that they can beat anybody, but I think Carolina, going in, has got to be the favorite.

Calhoun with his protege Kevin Ollie. Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Are you surprised at all by what Syracuse has accomplished or does nothing surprise you from Jim Boeheim anymore?

Nothing surprises me about Jim Boeheim. Nothing really surprises me in college basketball. You know what? The great teams where you had five or six NBA-caliber players on your roster—we had that at UConn in 2004 (Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, and Charlie Villanueva) and we had three NBA-type guards on our squad (Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, and Shabazz Napier) in 2011—that doesn't happen much anymore.


I don't think there is a great team in the Final Four, but there are some awfully good ones, led by Carolina. I love the way that Jimmy's Syracuse team came back with the pressure and the poise. Oklahoma has Buddy Hield. "Buddy Baskets" is pretty special. He is that good and Isaiah Cousins is terrific. And Villanova is a great story. No one plays harder than Villanova. Their multiple defenses make things so much more interesting.

You and Kevin Ollie are working with Dove Men + Care campaign during March Madness. Kevin, of course, is your former player, assistant coach, and now the head basketball coach at UConn. Why is that campaign special to you?

The campaign is called "Bonds of Real Strength" and it is all about the structure of teams. The strength of a team is the bonds. You have seen that in this tournament. Think about yourself as you watched the end of so many of the games and saw the incredible relationship between coach and player, players and their teammates, assistant coaches. Everybody is so united. The success of those teams is emotional as much as it is physical.

Kevin is a great guy. He interned with us at Prime Ticket, in Los Angeles, during his off-seasons when he was playing basketball at UConn. What was it like for you to retire in 2012, hand the keys over to Kevin, and see him win a national championship just two year later?

Like all fathers—or surrogate fathers, in this case—I felt elation and pride. I always thought Kevin was a special guy. He was on my staff and he played for me at UConn, so it was a special, special time. I knew that, at worst, Kevin would be awfully good (laughs) and he has been better than that. At worst, he'd be very good. He had all the components, and we had a great relationship. I think Kevin and I both understood just how important bonds are in coaching and in life. You know, basketball games are difficult. Life is more so. Someone once said to me, "I had a good deal planned until life got in the way." It does. Those are the things that you learn from sports: how to deal with everyday life situations.


What is it like for a coach in that short window between winning a Final Four game on Saturday and taking the floor for the championship game on Monday night?

For me, it was anticipation and a few nerves, but each time we got to the championship game I knew we were very good. I knew it was going to be hard, but I thought we could win it. I really believed that we had some special, intrinsic value to our team. Those 36 to 48 hours after you leave the floor on Saturday are very special and, once again, you are talking about forty minutes that no one can ever take away from you. You prepare the best that you can. You do what you can do to the best of your ability. In life, you show up prepared and react well.

What are your feelings about the UConn women's basketball team? They are shooting for their fourth straight NCAA title and Geno Auriemma's squad has been so dominant, that some people say that dominance is hurting the sport.

You shouldn't ever have to apologize for greatness. They are great. They are not good. They are great, but if you tune in and they are leading 61-12 at halftime, it can be difficult! It isn't (difficult) for me because I know the kids and they are wonderful and it is a special program. It is not their fault that they are out-working and out-playing other folks. Geno and his players should never apologize for being great.

Let me put you on the spot before we end this. We've got Oklahoma vs. Villanova on Saturday, followed by North Carolina and Syracuse. Which teams get to the championship game and which team wins the NCAA title?

I'm going to give a slight edge to Villanova in their game based on a couple of defensive stops and because they are a former Big East team. (laughs) If Carolina makes baskets, they will win their game with Syracuse and go on to win the championship.

Calhoun's predictions won out: North Carolina and Villanova face each other in the title game tonight.