"Big Four" Highlights


Catholic Coaches on the Court

Hall of Famers have led

By James Breig

March Madness – the very name stirs the souls of basketball fans and even attracts the interest of office mates who fill out the “brackets” with little knowledge of the teams. This annual feast of NCAA Division I games starts with 68 colleges, who are whittled down day by day to the Final Four tournament and the crowning of the best college basketball team in the country.

Lou Carnsecca

St. John’s University players lift up coach Lou Carnesecca after winning the 1983 Big East Championship over Boston College. (Photo: AP/G. Paul Burnett)

As the 2011 version unfolds, a look back at some Catholic highlights seems like a slam-dunk idea, and a good place to begin is with the coaches. That roster of courtside masters might start with Lou Carnesecca, who collected a bunch of roundball titles. In every season he coached at his alma mater, St. John’s University in New York City, Carnesecca led his team to post-season play, amassing an amazing overall record of 526-200.

Carnesecca, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, is known not only for his coaching prowess at the school founded by the Vincentian Fathers, but also for his devotion to his Catholic faith. A daily communicant, he has said, “I never pray for victory, but only that no one gets hurt.”

When he won his 500th game, the coach was asked what his secret was. Deflecting praise from himself and practicing the virtue of humility, he replied, “No formula, good players. Good players, or else I would have been gone a long time ago.”

McGuire’s Winning Ways

Al McGuire

Al McGuire shows some of his emotional style in this 1974 photo when he was coach of Marquette University. (Photo: AP)

Al McGuire, a graduate of St. John’s, was another Catholic who coached at a Catholic school. He’s also in the Hall of Fame, where his biography notes: “McGuire is one of a select few coaches to win both the NIT and NCAA tournament. At Marquette, McGuire compiled a 295-80 record (404-144 overall) and had 11 postseason appearances in 13 seasons. In his last game as Marquette coach, McGuire won the NCAA Championship over North Carolina.”

He went on to become a famous basketball announcer and commentator.

Among his quirks, such as off-the-wall statements, McGuire was noted for collecting toy soldiers, a habit he attributed to a misspent youth when he used to shoplift the toys. In Al McGuire: The Colorful Warrior by Roger Jaynes, the coach explained whimsically why he was willing to shell out big money for small toys: “God is punishing me now because I stole once when I was a kid.”

Current Coaches

One of the most prominent – and difficult to pronounce – names among active coaches is Mike Krzyzewski, who has led the Duke team since 1980. In that span, he has won four NCAA championships and been in the Final Four 11 times.

Although he heads a basketball team nicknamed the Blue Devils, Krzyzewski is close to God. In a 2006 interview with St. Anthony Messenger magazine, he said, “I was really fortunate to have parents and an extended family that believed in God and were able to impart that belief to me and the other youngsters in my family. And they did that through Catholic education.”

Because he attended Catholic grade and high schools, continued the man known as Coach K, “by the time I went to [West Point], I was strong in my beliefs and I’ve maintained that throughout my life because I had such a good foundation. … I’ve never questioned my belief in God because it’s shown to me every day, almost every second of the day, why there is God.”

Any accounting of contemporary Catholic college coaches has to include Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut. His feats while pacing alongside the playing surface can be researched easily. Not so easily categorized is his commitment to his faith.

Ask him his greatest achievements, and he won’t start naming wins. Instead, as he told the Catholic Transcript, the newspaper of the Hartford Diocese, in 2010, “I think faith is what gets us through…difficult times,” such as his recent occurrences of skin and prostate cancer. “I had no idea what the results were going to be. But I had great faith…that I would be able to watch my grandchildren grow up. If you don’t have faith when the tough times come, you won’t have a core, a foundation to lean on.”

An outward expression of his and his wife’s faith is the array of charitable events they champion to battle juvenile diabetes, heart disease, autism, hunger, poverty and cancer. They have helped raise millions of dollars in such causes. By doing so, Calhoun puts his success in service of others.

“Many times,” he told The Transcript, “I’m the voice [for those] who cannot speak. I’m the person for those who cannot be seen. That’s who I am.”

Valvano’s Legacy of Faith

Jim Valvano astounded the sports world in 1983 when he coached North Carolina State University to the NCAA championship by beating the University of Houston team that had won 26 straight games. But Valvano’s Catholic faith is what was most important to him at the end. Ten years after that victory, he died of cancer.

His wife noted, “He was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school, and at the end he went to church regularly. I think he was in a good place with God.”

“Jimmy V’s” legacy includes more than his upset win against Houston. Prime among them is a speech he gave shortly before his death. “Time is very precious to me,” he began. “I don’t know how much I have left, and I have some things that I would like to say.”

He paid tribute to another Catholic coach, but one who excelled in football: Vince Lombardi. Valvano called him “my idol.” Valvano told the audience about what he considered to be Lombardi’s greatest locker room speech: “Gentlemen, we will be successful this year, if you can focus on three things, and three things only: Your family, your religion and the Green Bay Packers.”

As Valvano mentioned his efforts to raise money to fight cancer, heading a foundation with the motto “Don’t ever give up.” Then he added: “That's what I’m going to try to do every minute that I have left. I will thank God for the day and the moment I have. [Cancer] cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”

Final Note

A Catholic coach might be the last man standing when March Madness ends this year, but the chances of a Catholic college winning seem to be slim. The last time a Catholic squad celebrated an NCAA victory was 1985, when Villanova, the underdog, bested another Catholic school, Georgetown University.

James Breig is a veteran Catholic journalist.