Stony Brook men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell has friends in high places.
Last Saturday, it was retired Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who watched from above the court as his former player guided the Seawolves to an 80-74 victory over Vermont in the America East championship game to earn the program’s first Division I bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Calhoun, who won three NCAA titles with the Huskies, has been a father figure and mentor to Pikiell, who was a freshman on Calhoun’s first team at UConn in the 1986-87 season.
“I was probably more nervous than the national championship game for me. Does that give you an idea?’’ Calhoun, 73, said Monday. “I know the feeling. It’s still all the same trying to accomplish something. Last year [against Albany], when that ball slipped and went out to the foul line and threw it in, it was hard because he’s one of my favorite guys I’ve coached in 40 years.’’
Connecticut wasn’t a basketball powerhouse and Calhoun didn’t have national name recognition when Pikiell entered the school. During the two years that he served as captain, the Huskies won their first Big East championship and reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. Pikiell was an assistant under Calhoun for the 1991-92 season.
Calhoun said of Pikiell, “We only had six scholarship players his first year. He dislocated his shoulder any number of times. He was never quite the shooter afterward, but he was an incredibly special guy. He’s everything you want in a son, and I’ve got two great sons. He’s everything you want in a player and a person.’’
Before beating Vermont, Stony Brook had lost in the conference championship game in four of the previous five years, and Calhoun was there for Pikiell through those trying times. “When Steve needs me, I’ve always felt it’s my responsibility,’’ he said. “Nobody needs you when you’re collecting trophies. When it doesn’t work out so well, that’s the time.’’
Calhoun was concerned when Stony Brook took the floor against Vermont. “I turned to my son early in the game and I said, ‘They’re tight as a drum playing at home. It’s really hard in that one-game season, it’s incredibly difficult. My son claims — I don’t know if it’s true — he might have some bruises in his ribs where I elbowed him.
“I talked to Steve a couple of nights before the game, I talked to him day of game, just small stuff. And then during the game, to go down 15 points. I didn’t know. I hoped. But then obviously they turned it around. The big kid [Jameel Warney, who had 43 points] was fabulous. The guard [Carson Puriefoy III, who had 23] was wonderful. The fans really stayed with them.
“He came up and met me halfway. We embraced. It was very special to me. It was very emotional. I was so happy and proud of him. When that game was over, I didn’t look at anybody else but Steve. I could see the look on his face. It was pretty special. It was one of elation and also relief.
“I’ve been there. I know exactly what he’s feeling. No question, it’s a big thing to get off your back. He wasn’t disappointed in anybody [in past years when the team lost in the title game], but he was disappointed in himself. I’m sure he wanted to do this for Stony Brook. He wanted to do this for his kids.’’
What does Calhoun expect when Stony Brook meets first- round opponent Kentucky? “Tough draw,’’ he said. “Is Kentucky better? Yeah, but it doesn’t mean anything in the sense of you telling the kids you got two hours to do something. They’ve got an opportunity. Their reward for this season already is special.’’
Over time, Pikiell — who is 119-47 (.717) the past five seasons — has consulted Calhoun about other prospective coaching jobs. “He might still be [at Stony Brook] because he loves it there,’’ Calhoun said. “Clearly, he’s had a few opportunities before. He’s called me about them, but now I would think there will be more opportunities. As a coach and a person, he checks all the boxes.’’