Season Preview: CHD sits down with Jacksonville coach Cliff Warren

To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with Jacksonville coach Cliff Warren about playing/working for a Marine-turned-Hall-of-Fame-coach.


You play Florida State, Wake Forest, and Florida before Thanksgiving.  Which of these three games do you feel will present your biggest test, and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? All the non-league games on our schedule will be a challenge, especially the high-major teams. Getting to play the Gators at our place in front of our home crowd will be great for our fans. We have a lot of depth this year that we did not have over the past couple of years. The competition on a daily basis will challenge our players at all five positions, which is a good thing.

You played basketball at Mount St. Mary’s where you graduated in the top-five in school history in career assists.  What is the key to being a good PG? Just having good vision, being unselfish, and wanting to get along with your teammates, as is having a good basketball IQ.

A few years after graduating you returned to your alma mater as an assistant under Coach Jim Phelan, who was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.  What made him such a great coach, and what is the most important thing that you ever learned from him? He just let players play and treated everyone like young men. If you could not play, then he would let you know that as well! Due to his Marine background he wanted us to play tough and physical. As a teenager you do not always understand your coach, but things made a lot more sense after I started working for him.

In the 2003 NIT as an assistant under Coach Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech, BJ Elder scored eight points including a turnaround jumper with 0.3 seconds left in a one-point win at Iowa.  How was the play drawn up? I remember it was snowing and we had to get a charter flight out of there. BJ was a big strong guard, we put him in the mid-post and he hit a fadeaway without even taking a dribble.

Take me through the magical 2004 NCAA tourney when Will Bynum made a twisting layup with 1.5 seconds left in a two-point win over Oklahoma State.  Did you start to think that you were a team of destiny who was going to win it all? That shot was in the Final 4, but even earlier in the tourney we thought we could make a deep run. We beat Kansas in Kansas City in front of a red, white and blue crowd, which was a tough game. The players did a dynamite job of saying they would do whatever it took to get to the Final 4. Will just willed us to the title game.

Tourney MOP Emeka Okafor had 24 points and 15 rebounds in a nine-point win by UConn in the title game.  What made Okafor so unstoppable? We had a lot of heroic efforts by players with several nagging injuries just to get there, and we did not have enough left in the title game. Okafor was hard to stop because he was playing so well at the time.

After going 1–26 in your first season as head coach at Jacksonville (the worst performance in school history) you improved to 15-14 in year two.  How were you able to turn it all around so fast? Real simple: players. My staff and I just tried to improve the players we had: I did not score a single basket myself! Our administration was behind both myself and the program 100%, which helped us get this thing going in the right direction.

In 2009 you won the first Atlantic Sun title in school history en route to being named conference COY.  What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding honor? What was important was the fact that our team won a title, which was a gradual process and a culmination of many things. We had put in enough effort over the previous few years: it was our time despite so many other good teams in the league. We won at Belmont, and Marcus Allen  (the first person to say yes to me about coming to JU) made the go-ahead basket. The award goes to our team and staff.

In the 2010 NIT against top-seeded ASU Ben Smith made a three-point shot with 1.5 seconds left to upset the Sun Devils: where does that rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen? It is definitely in the top three or four plays in my time as a head coach. Ben was a young man who matured over the years: what a way for him to finish his career as a senior. Seeing that shot as the opening to Sportscenter all day long was amazing recognition for Ben and our entire university.

In the 2011 CIT Papa Dia scored 24 points including a pair of free throws after officials put 0.1 seconds back on the clock in a one-point win by SMU.  Where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? I am still not able to comment on those officials, but it was heartbreaking. People who watched the game would say we won the game.

You were an assistant coach for Hewitt and team USA at the 2011 FIBA U-19 World Championship in Latvia.  Which of your players impressed you the most (Jahii Carson, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Doug McDermott/other)? They were all very impressive players and people, but the two who stood out the most were McDermott and Hardaway. Even at the trials they would try to beat the coaches to the gym to get some extra shooting practice. I thought they had a professional approach to being students of the game.