‘Love You, Pops’: UCONN Coach Jim Calhoun Values His Bond With Former Players More Than Titles

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After 14 years at the helm of Northeastern basketball, Jim Calhoun left to take over as coach of the University of Connecticut basketball team in 1986. Twenty six years and 18 NCAA Tournament appearances later, he retired a three-time champion and Hall of Famer. Now, after handing the reigns of UConn basketball to Kevin Ollie, who has since won a title of his own, following the 2012 season, Calhoun sits down with Dime to discuss leadership, his favorite players and teams, how the college game has changed over his years coaching, potential NCAA rule changes and more.

(Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

DIME: In your Dove Men+Care campaign, you talk with Kevin Ollie about caring for each other and how much that’s an important part of the game. In college, there’s annual roster turnover; There are younger kids. You’re molding personalities. So, how does a coach get players to care about one another as much as they do winning?

Jim Calhoun: The reason why I joined this campaign when they asked me about it was relationships and the start of relationships. The actual real stuff is many times off the court where the situations occur. I’ll use Kevin Ollie as an example. I coached Division-I basketball 40 years. I have a lot of kids I’ve loved, including Kevin. Kevin was one of the special ones like a lot of the kids were. When Kevin came to UConn, I was his surrogate dad…This is what Dove Men+Care talks about in the campaign. They put Kevin and I together to talk about our relationship with each other. It’s kind of cool, by the way. We were just talking about that the great thing looking back 40 years as a Division-I head coach is the relationships. The wins are great. The championships are wonderful. The Big East, the lesser championships, those are all great. But the relationships I had with the kids, those are still the most important things.

When Kevin took over for you, he had no prior head coaching experience. In that sense, does understanding that concept help Kevin him ease into that job?

I think Kevin was always a leader. I think Kevin was a leader when he was young. I think Kevin understood the relationship between staff, players and that whole group of guys that he played with. To this day, those guys are like fraternity brothers. They’re brothers. They’re truly like brothers. And I think that allowed him when he came back, the culture that we had developed at UConn over the previous 26, 27 years, I don’t think there was any question Kevin was easily able to not only adopt it but understand it and apply it to his own team…I think he maintained the culture. That was the biggest thing. He maintained the brotherhood. He maintained the love for each other.

What do you think was your best team at Connecticut?

Most talented was the 2004 team. We had seven pros on that team, led by Emeka Okafor, who was graduating in three years and was the second guy in the draft. Ben Gordon, third guy in the draft, and five other guys on that team were drafted. All played in the NBA for at least five years. That was probably the most talented team. I think the tightest team was probably the ’99 team, the team that lost to Carolina as juniors and came back as a senior team. They ended up being 34-2 and beat Duke in the national championship. That was a complete basketball team, maybe not quite as talented, but it was tight. And to this day, Richard Hamilton, Kevin Freeman, Jake Voskhul, Khalid El-Amin, that whole group is incredibly tight with each other.

Going back to some of those teams in the ‘90s, I just got Caron Butler’s book. He’s now, obviously, an impressive man. But you knew him when he was in college, when I imagine he hasn’t made his full transformation yet, and I know you were a big part of that from his perspective. Bluntly, what is your best Caron Butler story?

He was an amazing guy. You read his book. His age 12, 13 things he was doing. I didn’t even know all those things. I knew he had been a guy that went to reform school. He just had to find himself. When he came to us, he had already been through, as he says, all the childhood nonsense. It was a little more than that, but childhood nonsense. So, when we got him, when he got to UConn, he fell in love with the campus. He fell in love with the peaceful environment. He fell in love with the competitive environment. I was at his wedding years ago. Caron Butler is one of the finest people I’ve ever coached. He went through so much early as a kid and truly found himself. I remember, some of his sayings were so funny. I had to address him all the time, but by the time he got to be halfway through his freshman year, he was the leader of that team. When he left UConn, he broke down and cried. He cried. I mean, tears of going on to something great, no question. He’s had a tremendous NBA career. But he truly, truly understood what family was. He had his mom and family, but the family at UConn was incredibly special to him. He hated leaving, even though it was his time.

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What were some of those funny sayings?

“We’re not chicken dinners. We’re winners.” I told him one time, you know, enough of those things. He said that to the press after his first game. The chicken dinners part we don’t really need. We are winners, and that’s fine, but we can prove that on the basketball court. He was an incredible guy. He’d keep you laughing. He still to this day, every Father’s Day, I get a call: “Caron Butler here, coach. Love you, Pops.” That’s it. I get that every Father’s Day for the past 12 years.

And that goes back to what we were talking about before, right? Fostering that familial environment.

You want the kids to feel that after UConn, I’m gonna be there. Kevin’s gonna be there for them. We’re gonna be there for them. And the university is gonna be there for them. And all of us in our lives hear, you can’t go home again. Oh, I want them to come home.

So, we’ll eliminate UConn from the picture. Who is your non-UConn pick to win the Tournament.

I love Michigan State. They’re a good team. They’ve got Denzel Valentine, a cast of very good players and they’re a very tight, tight team. I like Virginia. I worry about their scoring droughts, but boy, they can hold anybody. They’ve got a deep team. Kansas has looked hottest the most over the past three weeks. They’ve won 12 straight games. They’re a tremendous basketball team. Carolina might be the most talented team in the country. They’re talented. Roy’s done a great job, and they’re dangerous to win the whole thing. I think Maryland is a very good basketball team. They’re composed. Trimble is a terrific guard. I’m not a believer of when people say, 30 teams could win it. I like West Virginia a ton. But nobody in recent times since 1964 has pressed their way, maybe Arkansas a little bit back in the ‘90s, but no one’s pressed their way to a national championship. I’m not sure that they can do it. I hope Hugs [WVU coach Bob Huggins] does. I like him a ton. They’re a tough team to play. But I’m just not sure you can do it.

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Do you not count any of those Rick Pitino teams as ones that pressed their way to a title?

You look at the Kentucky team and even the Louisville team, they did press, but it wasn’t all about press. They could do other things, the match-up zone. Back in the day, I think Rick was a fully pressing guy, like Bobby Huggins is now. But I don’t consider them a full pressing team. The ’64 2-2-1 press by John Wooden, the biggest guy was 6-foot-6; they pressed their way to a championship. I think Bobby has a chance to do that because they press better than anyone else in the country. But the Pitino team, that’s a good question. I don’t think his Kentucky team did it. Seven pros on that team. Louisville, somewhat, somewhat, but I don’t think that was the only thing they could do. You understand? I think that’s a part of it. But Bobby’s going pressure the whole game. 40 minutes. Nolan Richardson did that, kind of, but it’s a hard thing to do. Remember, there are some tremendous, tremendous players, pros, on [Richardson’s] Arkansas team.

Speaking of all those coaches, especially of late, we’ve seen a bunch of coaches of late who have been involved in scandal or committed violations at their schools. And these are great, Hall of Fame-level coaches, who people respect: Pitino, Jim Boeheim, even Connecticut has had some dust-ups. So, I’m wondering, from your perspective, is it possible for a great program to reach its peak without pushing that line far enough to worry about committing violations?

It’s in some ways, I don’t want to say violate, but there are [tons of] rules. Something’s gonna happen. Now, I’m not talking about the Pitino situation. Louisville may be separate. But we talk about that. Larry Brown was an academic situation. I’m not condoning anything. Larry Brown is in charge of academics at SMU. What I’m saying to you, because of the complexity of all the rules and regulations, you’re gonna have violations. The scrutiny on each program is incredible. I’m not talking about just coaches. I’m talking about institutions. Some of the major universities have ten compliance officers. Ten! So, plenty of people were out there looking to make sure these kinds of things don’t happen. But things do happen, and I’m not condoning anything at Connecticut or any other place. I’m only saying to you, stuff does happen. The ones that are systemic are the ones that don’t really bother me. Beyond that, things happen in life. Everybody gets a speeding ticket. Honestly, I’m not minimizing anything. I’m only telling you how I feel.

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For sure. Sometimes you see these violations, and there are certain NCAA rules I don’t agree with. I’m sure everyone has ones he or she doesn’t agree necessarily with. And if that’s the case, if you do have to put up with the speeding tickets, is the system broken? Does it need to be changed or at least altered?

It’s going through an adjustment period. I think now, there’s a lot more freedom. There’s a lot more opportunities for players to make money working. We’re in a process in many, many ways of updating an antiquated system. That’s the best way I can possibly say it. Is it pure? No. Is it full? No. But if you go to those situations at North Carolina, Louisville, etc., those situations would be bad, in my opinion, any circumstance…That’s not antiquated. Those should be addressed. That’s the only reason I’m saying to you, I’m not picking on anybody. I’m merely saying, every situation is different.

Do you think student-athletes should be compensated for their work? Do you think the NCAA ever gets to that point?

I don’t believe that they should. I think that if you go, for example, to great institutions, get $50,000, $60,000 a year in room and board and fees…I just think that’s fine. I do think, though, that you got to allow kids to make money on their name. I do believe that there are so many other things that we could set up, insurance policies, so many other things based on the money that the university makes.

In terms of some of the other changes — the on-court stuff — I’m wondering your opinion, as well. Have you noticed any changes in the game with the shot clock going from 35 seconds to 30 for this season?

I think it’s a positive in the right way. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think you’ve got guys going crazy on too many pick-and-rolls, but that’s a personal thing. I think the ball’s got to be moved and passed and some of those things. So, I think it’s a positive. I’m not so sure about how we’re adapting to the rule change. But the great thing about this is that we are trying to work on college basketball. And I do think the game seems to be at a better pace. I think that’s good. I think we’ve finally recognized a lot of the problems over the last ten years and are heading in the right direction. Is it where we all wanted to be yet? No. But recognizing the problem is the biggest thing we have to do and now we’re trying to make our game into the kind of game it has always been.

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Are there any more changes you think they could make to the college game to improve it?

I’d like to see a little wider lane. I’d like to see a little wider lane only because I’d like to see the three-point go back. I don’t think every kid has to come down on a fast break, one-on-three, and chuck up a three. There’s too much of that going on. I think one of the ways to get that out is to make sure that we move the line back a little bit, widen the lane a little bit. I’d rather see the driving game. All of us thinking about when Michael [Jordan] was driving, all the great players going to the rim and dunking. You don’t have it anywhere near as much. And that’s because defenses have improved. People concentrate so much more on the weak-side defense, as well as the primary defense on the ball. But once again, I think we can tweak the game to get it back to where we were. Yes, I’m a traditionalist where you have a kid for four years and that kind of stuff. You had incredible teams. Now, we have very good teams. We just need experience. The rules will help.

You’ve kind of alluded to the fact that the NBA’s style has a trickle-down effect to college hoops. You talked about more pick-and-roll, which is obviously an NBA thing, more concentration on weak-side defense, which is a very Thibodeau-ian thing which a lot of NBA teams have adopted. Do you see college basketball taking on a more extreme version of the NBA’s style?

Oh sure. It always has. Think about this. Kids always want to be like their heroes. So, I watch and I see kids try to do what Steph does. You can’t. You’re not there yet, and you probably never will be. I love watching teams really pass the basketball. And once again, they play small ball. College teams are playing more small ball. It used to be the 4s have a little more size. Today, 6-foot-7 can really do some things, much like the NBA is heading towards. So, I don’t think there’s any question that we all pick our heroes. When I was a kid, it was watching Bill Russell block shots or watching John Havlicek…Regardless, the kids want to be like those great, great players they see on TV…I love watching Steph Curry. He’s pretty special. I love watching small ball. I like watching other kinds of basketball. But I don’t want us all to get some cookie-cutter basketball where everything comes down to be a pick-and-roll. That’s basically my point.