Earlier this week I had the honor of interviewing UConn basketball great Scott Burrell. He's currently an assistant coach at Quinnipiac, where he works under former longtime UConn assistant Tom Moore.
After starring in football, basketball and baseball at Hamden High, Burrell committed to play basketball at UConn despite being drafted in the first round by the Seattle Mariners (one pick after Chuck Knoblauch and three picks after Mo Vaughn) in the 1989 Draft. He was part of the trailblazing Huskies teams which paved the way for multiple championship runs in the coming years.
The 6-foot-7 Burrell played a significant role on the 1989-'90 team led by Jim Calhoun which is credited with putting the school on the map. They opened Gampel Pavilion that year, winning in style against the nations 15th ranked team. They won the school's first Big East regular season and tournament championships. They even earned an Elite Eight berth in the NCAA Tournament against Clemson in miraculous fashion- with Burrell heaving a 90-foot pass across the court to Tate George who hit a turnaround jumper to win the game 71-70 with one second left.
It is known in UConn lore simply as "The Shot."
Burrell ended his collegiate career as the first player in NCAA history to accumulate 1500 points, 750 rebounds, 300 steals and 250 assists. He was drafted 20th overall in the NBA Draft and enjoyed an eight-year career in which he won an NBA Championship as a member of the 1998 Chicago Bulls. Burrell also holds the distinction of being the only athlete to be a first round pick in two major American sports leagues (NBA and MLB).
After his playing career, he came back to Hamden to accept the job at Quinnipiac. He spends plenty of time with his family, enjoys golfing, food, friends and being involved in the community. He was kind enough to spend some time with me to answer a few questions about his athletic career and more.
The UConn Blog: You were on the sidelines for Quinnipiac when they played UConn in the 2012 Paradise Jam, and it was actually a really close game (UConn won 89-83 in Double Overtime). What was it like to be on the opposing side against your alma mater?
Scott Burrell: When you're a competitor you play to win and so that's what we were working towards. It was really a very close game and we had our chances to win, it was too bad we fell short in the end. It was definitely different to see Coach Calhoun on the opposing bench- like I wanted to root for both teams? At the end of the day I was at work though.
TUCB: I hear you're an avid fan of the school's hockey team?
SB: Yeah, absolutely! Our offices are in the same building, and our arenas are connected. I go to as many games as I can. We see each other in the hallways all the time, so there's a lot of respect between the coaches of the two programs.
I think it is important to support other teams, Quinnipiac Hockey has done very well for itself by making it to the Finals of the Frozen Four last year. I find myself being very proud of what they've accomplished.
TUCB: Where do you see the schools basketball program in the next 5-10 years?
SB: That is a very good question, the school is very much on the rise. First of all, the administration here is excellent. We have beautiful world class facilities and everything we need to become successful in the long run. We recently joined the MAAC and the goal is to win the conference championship and make the NCAA Tournament. We're a very good team with a lot of talent and a bright future.
TUCB: You were part of the 1990 UConn team that won the school's first Big East Regular Season and Tournament Championship. How do you think Jim Calhoun brought a relatively unknown program to national prominence?
SB: He recruited hardnosed players, and his goal was to keep the best players in Connecticut at home. He built the program with guys he believed in and saw potential in. But the main thing is that Coach Calhoun was able to find tough guys who understood the meaning of hard work, that's how he was able to build and maintain a successful program.
TUCB: You played in the first game at Gampel Pavilion, a 72-58 win against the #15 St. Johns team coached by the legendary Lou Carneseca. What was that like?
SB: It was awesome. Back in those days St. Johns was a top-20 team. You knew it was going to be a dogfight when you played against Coach Carneseca. Before Gampel we were playing in front of about 4,000 per night in the Old Fieldhouse. Every day on campus on our way to practice we'd see the new arena (Gampel) being built, it was motivation to work extra hard and bring it on that first night in front of over 8,000 wild fans.
TUCB: What was your experience being teammates with current UConn Head Coach Kevin Ollie? Did you know or think he would become a coach?
SB: Yeah, like I said, Coach Calhoun brought in tough players who had the drive to succeed. Kevin was definitely one of those guys, coming all the way from California to join the UConn family. I think all of us kind of caught the coaching bug. We had the opportunity to learn under a Hall of Famer and all of us have felt the desire to pass that knowledge on to the younger generation.
TUCB: At one point you were planning to play football and baseball at Miami, and instead chose to play basketball at UConn. What made you decide to stick with basketball?
SB: As a young person, basketball is just more active and I loved the everyday competition. As a pitcher, we have 4-5 days off between starts, it was brutal mentally to sit around and wait for your next start. I knew Coach Calhoun was trying to build something here at UConn and I wanted to be a part of it.
TUCB: Even though you were drafted by the MLB after your senior year in high school and again after your freshman year at UConn?
SB: Yeah, like I said, when I was not pitching I was not very active. It was hard for me to not be active and not compete everyday at a young age. I had a lot of energy and wanted to be on the field or court every day. I knew we were on the cusp of something special at UConn and basketball was going very well for me. Playing in the Big East and competing against some of the best players in the country was amazing, so it was easy to make the decision and stick with it.
TUCB: Do you keep in touch with the former UConn assistant who recruited you, Howie Dickerman?
SB: Absolutely. He's actually the head coach at Central Connecticut right now and so we used to see each other every year because we were in the same conference. Since we've moved to the MAAC, I still see him on the recruiting trail and at UConn events. I love Coach D, he's a great guy.
TUCB: When did you know you wanted to get into coaching?
SB: A lot of the Calhoun players caught the coaching bug. My father was a coach for 30+ years and it's a way of thinking that I understand very well. I always knew I wanted to stay in sports after basketball, I think it is a natural progression after playing. Being able to come back home and coach in your hometown makes it even more special.
TUCB: What is the greatest part about being an Assistant Coach at Quinnipiac and how the season looks for the rest of the year.
SB: Being able to pass on what I know and what I've learned from experiences, coaches and life lessons, and then see our guys achieve and compete is rewarding. My father has taught me to listen and learn, listen and watch those around you who have achieved, it is a continuous part of growing as a person and player. Our guys have a lot of respect for the coaches and our program, we are working towards a successful year.
Credit: Quinnipiac Athletics
TUCB: You grew up in Connecticut, played at Hamden High. After a brilliant career at UConn and a lengthy professional career, how great is it to be back in Hamden?
SB: It's incredible. I get to see my parents every day and like I said the administration here is excellent. Quinnipiac is an up and coming school that continues to get stronger every year.
TUCB: Tate George's shot is probably the most famous play in UConn history, it certainly put the school on the map. I personally think the 90 foot pass is just as impressive as the shot. Do you ever think it should be called "The Pass"?
SB: Yeah I call it "The Pass" (laughs). But in all honesty I'm just happy to be part of that historic play and be responsible for such a big win for the program. It was definitely a special moment for me.
TUCB: How do you feel about the conference re-alignment wrecking the Big East as we know it?
SB: Well, it's tragic. We had so many rivalries established, it is tough to let those go.
TUCB: Which Big East rival did you most enjoy playing against? The least?
SB: I promise you they all were great, with every team you played you had something to prove. The Big East was very deep back then, of course you had Syracuse, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and St. Johns who've always been good, and smaller schools like Providence coming off a Final Four in 1987 and Seton Hall making the Finals in 1989, The Big East was one of the toughest conferences every year. Every game was a hard fought battle no matter who we played.
TUCB: Which coach was the biggest character?
SB: They were all business back then. John Thompson, Rollie Massimino, Lou Carneseca, Jim Boeheim, all very serious guys. There are a lot more characters in college basketball now than there were back then.
TUCB: I hear you're an avid golfer. Are there any former teammates from UConn or the NBA who you play with a lot?
SB: Yeah, I play with Ray Allen, Donnie Marshall, KO (Kevin Ollie) in the summer, we try and play as much as we can. We play in a lot of celebrity and charity events together and it is great to spend time with friends on the golf course. I like to support charities as much as possible and be a part of different events. It's great to give back to your community and meet great people while doing it. I must admit, recruiting has hurt my golf game a little bit (laughs).
Credit: The REACH Foundation
TUCB: What are your favorite golf courses in Connecticut?
SB: One of my favorite courses in Connecticut is TPC River Highlands, I play there a lot over the summer, and it is a challenging track. I enjoy playing in the Pro-Am during the PGA Tour stop, it is a great experience. Gillette Ridge is a great course too, we have great courses in Connecticut, I consider us lucky.
TUCB: If you could play any golf course in the world where would it be?
SB: I've been very lucky to play at many of the best courses in America, but I'd love to go to Europe and play some of the courses where they have played some of the British Open's and Ryder Cup matches. I know they are challenging courses and it would be great to experience them first hand.
TUCB: I've also heard you're a pretty big foodie, what are some of your favorite spots in the New Haven area?
SB: Well if you know New Haven you know that they do pizza right. I'm a Modern Pizza guy myself, I go there a lot. Ixtapa for Mexican Food is one of my favorite spots. There are so many good sushi places I typically go for Sushi Palace. There are so many good spots to eat in the Hamden, New Haven area, it is hard to list them all.
TUCB: What was it like to be Michael Jordan's teammate and a member of the 1998 Chicago Bulls World Champion Team? Where do you keep your ring?
SB: Playing with Michael Jordan was both the most incredible and most difficult experience. To try and match his level of dedication and preparation was tough, but it made us all better players and a greater team. It was a great experience for me, I take a lot of that ethic into coaching. My ring is in a safe place, I'll wear it for special events, games or when I go recruiting.
TUCB: You made sure to come back to UConn to get your degree. What does it take to instill the importance of getting a degree to the student-athletes who you now coach?
SB: It's really important. Of course anyone playing in college wants to play professionally, but every kid that we bring in we make sure they understand the importance and value of getting your degree. We have a great academic advisor who is able to guide these kids along the right path. As a coach, I feel like it is my responsibility to make sure my guys stay on track as well, they are at a transitional point in their lives, and they will take their degree and work ethic into the real world before they know it.
It was clear from speaking with him that Scott is an intelligent, witty and very friendly person. It was great to hear his perspective on such a range of topics and I'm very excited to see where his coaching career takes him. We'll actually have a chance to follow up with Scott again in the off-season for a second conversation, we hope you enjoyed Part One!
Be sure to follow Scott on Twitter! @sburrell24