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Jim Calhoun Talks Coaching, the NCAA Tournament, and Player Compensation

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Editor’s note: This story originally ran on March 19, 2014.

Jim Calhoun coached the Connecticut Huskies from 1986-2012. His teams won three national championships, reached an additional Final Four, and starred future pros Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor, Andre Drummond and Kemba Walker. Coach Calhoun was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005, and spoke to The Big Lead by phone Tuesday night about whether he’d ever return to the bench, what he looks for in NCAA Tournament contenders, and his feelings on the two-year NBA Draft rule that Adam Silver wants to introduce:

Q: Andy Katz said recently that you told him you wouldn’t completely rule out a return to coaching, but that you really seemed peaceful and healthy in retirement. What would the circumstances need to be for you to consider even entertaining that type of comeback?

CALHOUN: Honestly, I haven’t given that much thought. When I walked away from UConn after 26 years there — I loved it, and I still love it — I had been through a couple of physical things those past few years, and I felt like I was kind of letting the team down by not being there as much as I wanted to be. Obviously, our National Championship in 2011 was really special and I was around a lot, but in 2012 I had some physical problems and I think they’ve cleared by now.

So, when [Andy] posed that question, I said it would have to be an unusual circumstance and be something like what Larry Brown did. It isn’t like I have direct plans. Conversely, you never say never because I feel good, I coached for 40-something years, and I had some success.

Q: You said in a recent interview that you’ve been watching more basketball than ever. What teams do you like stylistically headed into the tournament?

I like the teams that are most diverse — let me give you personal historical examples of what I mean by that. In 2004, we had the best team in the country — we had Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone, and Hilton Armstrong. We had a great team, but we ran into all kinds of gigantic problem situations against Duke in the national semi-finals. But, we were diverse enough to change our game, come back, and then go on to defeat Georgia Tech handily in the Finals.

UConn Emeka Okafor, 2004 NCAA Finals

Teams that can do multiple things — who are able to adjust to foul trouble, injuries, tempo issues, whatever it may be — if they get caught in one of those games, they can get themselves out of it. Let’s go back real quick to 2011. After playing Kentucky in a more offensive game in the semis, we found ourselves down 22-19 at the half against Butler in the finals. We persevered through an awkward game.

This year, a team like Florida can play a multitude of different ways. They’re probably the best example. They can run you, play half-court, defend you, and they’ve got size and experience. Louisville doesn’t play in so many different ways, but they can play both fast and slow. Arizona has the athletes, plus the defense, to play both half- and full-court. I like the way Virginia plays, but I’m a little bit concerned about whether they can come back if they get down big.

Secondly, you’ve gotta look at the coaches. I know that it ultimately rests on the quality of your players, but there’s a reason that people like Billy Donovan, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, and Tom Izzo consistently do well in the tournament. The reason they do well is that they command the right attitude. The more experience you have in the tournament — and I was fortunate enough to coach 70 games in it — you adjust, and go on from there.

Q: Adrian Wojnarowski, who’s as plugged into basketball as anybody, tweeted a few months ago that it’s “inevitable” Kevin Ollie would have a chance to coach in the NBA. Is that something that should scare UConn fans?

Not at all. I don’t mean to say this to knock Adrian, but when Kevin came from the Oklahoma City Thunder to join me as an assistant, Adrian had no idea what types of conversations we had. Kevin came back because he loves this University, saw himself as a college coach, and saw himself as the kind of guy who is going to help mold kids.

AAC Basketball Tournament - Championship -Connecticut v Louisville

Right now, Kevin is learning how to be a coach, and he’s done an incredible job. I feel like a proud father. Do I expect Kevin to go to the NBA? Not at all, I don’t. That’s just me personally. He’s a guy that traveled for over a decade in the NBA, so I think he likes staying in Connecticut. He’s got a family here, he’s got a great wife, he’s got a great situation. Could he take an NBA job? Of course he could, but I think that’s a long way from coming to fruition. He’s only in his second year as a head coach, and he’s done a wonderful job.

Q: Do you see any players in this NCAA Tournament — i.e. Andrew Wiggins or Shabazz Napier — who could do what Kemba Walker did for the Huskies in your championship run and put the team on his back?

People kind of forget this a little bit, and Kemba Walker was certainly great in that streak in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, but Jeremy Lamb was also exceptional. Alex Oriakhi was a major presence on the boards. We also had a great back-up guard, who enabled us to move Kemba to the no. 2 at times — a guy named Shabazz Napier — you may have heard of him. To some degree, I certainly think that Shabazz has the potential you’re talking about this year, depending on how the guys respond to him.

Connecticut v Louisville

So, yeah, Kemba had the best run I’ve ever seen in the NCAA Tournament, but he had a lot of great players around him. Shabazz could be a candidate for that. So could Jabari Parker — I think he’s that good, but I’m not sure he gets the ball enough, and the college game is driven more by guards than big men. If Wiggins gets his fellow freshman Joel Embiid back, I think he’s got a chance. The two of them together could be a heck of a force going down the stretch.

I don’t know if Doug McDermott can take his team all the way, but the only reason I say that is because I don’t know if his surrounding cast is quite good enough. However, he can go off for 40 a night — he’s a terrific, terrific player — I really love him.

Q: Changing the subject a little bit, how do you feel about the two-year rule that it sure seems Adam Silver is gunning to implement?

I think it’s a great idea. I think it’ll be good for basketball on both sides. I think the NBA would improve, and that it would make a big, big difference for the total quality of play in college basketball. I think three years would be great, but that two years is 100% better than one.

NBA All Star Press Conferences

Q: In terms of compensating superstar players — say LeBron James or Kevin Durant were mandated to stay for two years — how would you feel about a system where they are permitted to benefit from their likenesses, but aren’t necessarily paid beyond their scholarships by the universities? For example, say they were allowed to sign endorsement deals, make appearances, and/or sign autographs. Could you see that system being feasible?

I hope not. You’re 100% right about the idea of it, because if you’re a special talent it should be easy in America — the land of opportunity — to be able to take advantage of it. You and I both agree on that, but say I’m Lebron James [in college], and I could make $100,000 a year in endorsements, and that’s great. What about if I can make $10,000 through a local booster? Where do you draw the line?

Q: If I had my druthers, I would say that these players would be allowed to accept basically any money as long as they paid taxes on it, and as long as there’s some sort of legitimate professional oversight so it’s not just, like, a booster handing them $10,000 in cash. 

Locally, let’s say I own a car dealership, and I want one of these kids to appear there. He may not be a big-time pro prospect, but he’s a big name in my community. Why couldn’t I give him 20 grand to do an ad for me?

Q: Well, I would be in favor of that…

With about 350 schools, and the thousands of kids who are playing Division 1 basketball, where’s the cut-off point? I have no problem with people being able to use their stardom, but I don’t know if these two years [of lost earnings] are really going to make a big difference in the lives of superstar talents like LeBron James.

James shouts

Q: I can kind of see both sides [of the Silver rule]. I actually do think you can say that the quality of play in the NBA has risen in conjunction with the one-year rule. Obviously, some players like LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire were ready for it right away, but a lot of them weren’t, and it was forcing teams to speculate a lot more on these draft picks who were hugely unfinished products. There were a bunch of them that petered out like, say, Kwame Brown. The tide of quality in the league play might rise even more with the two-year rule, and you see what players like Wiggins, Embiid, and Parker are doing for the exposure and star-power of the college game, and that’ll only increase with two years. I think I disagree with Billy Donovan, who said that this is a bad thing for the college game to force an extra year.

I like Billy Donovan a lot, and really respect him, but I disagree too. I think two years of college — the experience, the osmosis of being around a program which in return is going to require discipline and accountability to show up on time and follow the rules is valuable. You have to be around educated people, you have to get an education itself — I think that quality of the culture, and the quality of the basketball itself, would improve.

[Regarding money], I always used to say that the professional league had the name on the back of the jersey, and the colleges have the names on the front of the jersey. I just think that I don’t want to become a minor league franchise. I’m not coaching, but when I speak for college athletics, I do not want to become a minor league franchise. I know what you’re saying when you say those kids should be given more, but they’ve been given a lot already. If they’re truly worthy, in the sense that they play, they’re disciplined, and all those other things, I don’t worry about any of those guys going broke. They’re going to make an incredible life salary.

I do think we should be able to do more for the kids who have difficult situations at home … but I think it’s best to try to keep the college game as amateur as possible. Now, it’s not entirely amateur — the scholarships, the travel, the exposure, and everything else are very valuable for these kids — but I’m one of those guys who thinks the two-year rule is great.

Q: Switching gears, were you disappointed with the overall quality of play in the Big East Tournament after decades of classic games and rivalries were eroded by conference realignment?

[It's not necessarily conference realignment so much as the evolution of the college game in general.] Just think if Anthony Davis was now a junior. Andre Drummond would be a junior for us right now, and he’s leading the NBA in offensive rebounding. You take those 30-50-60 guys, and put them in college, there would be some really powerful teams.

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors

So, I think the product we’re putting out is very good and competitive, but the skill level is also not quite what it’s been. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad – it’s just a fact of life. With the two-year rule essentially doubling the amount of great players who stay, I think the product will be better the next year, the year after, and so on. So, I’m encouraged by the future. That’s the best way to put it. I am disappointed the basketball’s not quite as good right now — the quality from a fan standpoint is still wonderful, but the kind of players can’t compare to what it once was.

I just watched the 30 for 30 documentary on the Big East, and saw Pearl Washington, Patrick Ewing, Walter Berry, and Chris Mullin. Those guys were staying 3+ years. In my tenure, I had nearly 20 players leave early, but [most of them had developed more than most in this day and age].

Georgetown University Hoyas Men's Basketball

Emeka Okafor left after his junior season, but he was the national player of the year. The longer they stay, the better it is for the sport. I think this proposed new rule in the NBA will help tip it that way.

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