Jim Calhoun stood on the podium, maybe it was a smile – more likely a smirk. UConn’s Hall of Fame coach was anxiously waiting to accept the national championship trophy from the head of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, whose organization hit his program with major sanctions just six weeks prior.
Calhoun didn’t have to say a word. His “kiss my ass” expression said it all.
Calhoun won his third national title on Monday night over Butler in what could either be termed a defensive masterpiece or contest between a pair of inept offensive performances that someone had to win.
In doing so, the 68-year-old Calhoun became the oldest coach to ever cut down the nets in the NCAA championship. He also joined exclusive company, becoming the fifth coach to win three national championships, joining John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight.
“The sweetness of it,” Calhoun said after the 53-41 victory. “It was very sweet.”
Now it’s time. Time for Calhoun to call it a career, and walk away.
There would be no more fitting way for him to end it. A litany of circumstances has brought him to this point.
There have been a couple of bouts with cancer, a nasty bike accident in 2009 in which he broke several ribs – and a medical leave of absence last season.
His sister-in-law and college roommate both passed away recently. And his program, the one he built basically from scratch, was showing signs of falling apart.
“The stress of everything, losing so many close games last season and the drawn-out process with the NCAA, it took its toll on him,” said UConn assistant Andre LaFleur, who also played for Calhoun at Northeastern. “But he’s tough. He wants to take punches and come back at you. He doesn’t have a glass jaw.”
Calhoun loves a good fight, even yearns for confrontation, but leaving the game now would mean he’d get in the last laugh against the sport’s governing body. The same one which also whacked him with a three-game suspension to begin Big East Conference play next season as part of the decision stemming from the program’s relationship with former student manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson and ex-UConn recruit Nate Miles.
He could go out on top with his middle finger up in the direction of the NCAA.
But Calhoun wouldn’t commit to anything Monday night, saying he learned years ago from former North Carolina coach Dean Smith to take some time before making an emotional decision fresh off a season.
“I have no idea,” UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway said of Calhoun’s future after the win. “I really don’t know.”
People close to Calhoun felt the right time would have been after last season, but the stubborn Bostonian wouldn’t give in and refused to call it quits even when it clearly appeared to be the intelligent decision. Instead, he signed a four-year contract extension this past offseason that almost no one believed would ultimately see its course.
This season came and Calhoun lost three seniors – Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards – off a team that underachieved badly and went to the NIT.
He had a quick, solid point guard coming back in Kemba Walker and a ton of question marks. Other coaches were crushing him on the recruiting trail, saying his health wouldn’t allow him to go even another year.
It became difficult to haul in the elite kids – as he had been accustomed to doing over the past decade in Storrs. They struggled to beat Drake for freshman big man Michael Bradley and were forced to take a pair of overseas kids late just to fill the roster.
But Calhoun’s improbable ride began in Maui as the Huskies pulled off an unlikely championship with a win over Michigan State and a rout of Kentucky.
That’s when Calhoun realized he had a star in Walker. But it wouldn’t be enough to sustain this staggering start.
The Huskies did eventually came down to earth, losing four of their last five in the regular season to earn a No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament, which meant they would have to win five games in five days to claim the title.
After the regular-season finale, a loss to Notre Dame on Senior Day, this team was toast. Kemba had run out of gas, and the kids surrounding him couldn’t climb the freshman wall.
However, somehow Walker performed more magic – and Kemba’s Kids – nine freshmen and sophomores – grew up in Madison Square Garden.
“We needed that badly,” Calhoun said. “We wouldn’t be here without that.”
Then came the NCAA tournament ride and six more wins, including one over his former rival, John Calipari, and Kentucky in the national semifinals.
Even better, Calhoun won’t have to share the limelight this time – as he did in 2004 – with UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma, who isn’t exactly a drinking buddy.
Walker and Calhoun embraced on the court moments after the final buzzer sounded Monday night, a tough New York City point guard and an even tougher coach from Boston.
Neither could have fathomed this back in November. No one could.
“It’s unreal,” Walker said. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”
“This is as sweet a ride as I’ve ever been on in my life,” Calhoun said.