Our favorite Christmas miracle: CHD sits down with former UC Riverside coach John Masi

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the Maui Invitational, one of the best-known preseason tourneys that is hosted by Chaminade in Lahaina every November.  What you may not know is that Chaminade used to host a Christmas Classic in Honolulu every December, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most famous Christmas upsets ever.  Coach John Masi brought his D-2 UC Riverside Highlanders to the islands to face the Iowa Hawkeyes, and his team made a D-2 record 21 shots from behind the arc in a 110-92 shocker over a D-1 team that was ranked fourth in the nation at the time.  Jon Teitel got to sit down recently with Coach Masi to chat about the importance that game played in his wonderful life. 


You played basketball at UC Riverside, how good of a player were you back in the day, and how did you get into coaching? I played a couple of years at UCR and started for a team that finished third in the country. I was a good college player but nothing great. I played for Bill Mulligan at Riverside CC.  After I played a couple of years against the Harlem Globetrotters I ended up becoming a JV coach at UCR, I just kind of fell into it after majoring in business. I lost every game to the Globetrotters as a member of the New York Nationals.  We played overseas and even got to practice against Meadowlark Lemon for a couple of weeks.

You went 23-5 in your first year as head coach of the Islanders, how were you able to come in and be so successful so quickly? I was very fortunate because we had recruited a bunch of good junior college players the year before who I inherited. After we started off 10-0 and beat Cal on the road I got promoted from interim to head coach.

In December 1988 your team made a D-2 record 21 three points shots in a 110-92 upset of 4th-ranked Iowa in the championship game of the Chaminade Christmas Classic.  Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot your team put up seemed to go in because they were “in the zone”? That was obviously the highlight of the year, if not the decade! Tom Davis had three future first-round picks on that team and they were bigger than us so our strategy was to shoot early before they could set up their defense. It just got contagious: we had seven or eight guys make a shot from behind the arc. It was probably the biggest win in our school history at that point.

You finished that season by going 30-4 with three overtime losses and a fourth loss by a single point.  How close did you come to going undefeated? We finished third in the nation but probably should have won the national tourney. It seemed like the two or three times we were in close games we just could not pull them out. Normally good teams win the close games but it just did not happen for us.

In the 1995 D-2 tourney title game you took a 28-6 lead before Southern Indiana came all the way back in the second to win.  Where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? It was devastating, but not to the point you would think. We started the year with 14 players but at one point we were down to seven guys. That team came out of nowhere to win 16 games in a row despite not even having a point guard.  When the bus driver came to pick us up for the tourney he asked where the rest of our team was! We expected to win after building an 18-point halftime lead, so it was a tough loss.

You also spent several years in the 1990s as the school’s athletic director: how were you able to balance the two gigs at the same time? I did not do a very good job as AD and should never have accepted that job. It was too much to handle when I look back at it but I thought I could juggle them both.

You oversaw the transition of the program from D-2 to D-1.  What is the biggest difference between the two levels? The biggest difference is financial. If you have the backing and the budget then you will have some kind of success: it is all about the money.

You were a six-time CCAA COY and remain the winningest coach in school history.  What did it mean to you to receive such outstanding individual honors, and do you think that anyone will ever break your record? I am not too much into records: I am always kind of looking ahead rather than behind. However, I am proud of leading a good program for a long time.

In 2011 you were inducted into the UCR Hall of Fame: where does that rank among the highlights of your career? It was a great honor for me but even bigger for my family. I wish my dad had been alive to see that: it was the icing on the cake.

Last April you became an assistant for Coach Rick Croy at Cal Baptist.  Why did you decide to take a job with your former assistant, and what do you hope to do in the future? He got me off the couch after being retired for five years, so here I am. This is the last go-around for me but I will help them as long as I have the energy to do this. The school is very supportive so I could not have gotten into a better situation…with a five-mile commute!