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Calhoun gave it his all for Huskies
When I last saw Jim Calhoun in person, at the Big East tournament in New York this spring, he looked like a man who needed to call it quits, even if, in his heart of hearts, he knew he wasn’t ready to hang it up.
It wasn’t that the legendary UConn coach and basketball Hall of Fame inductee had become emotionally disengaged with the sport to which he had devoted his life. No, in fact, it was quite the contrary.
Throughout the Huskies’ surprising run to the tournament quarterfinals, Calhoun was reflective about the emotionally taxing regular season his team had overcome, and the historically choleric leader at times sounded downright schmaltzy about his final days with a senior class that he, in some ways, felt he had let down.
You didn’t have to be particularly insightful or a close confidant of the coach to know that, even after 40 years — 26 at UConn and 14 down Interstate 90 at Northeastern — Calhoun still loved every moment he spent on the bench, in the gym, in the weight room or in his office, molding boys into men and transforming Connecticut into one of the most feared programs in college hoops.
But as the then-69-year-old lumbered around Madison Square Garden, his back still aching in the wake of recent surgery to address a painful case of spinal stenosis — the latest affliction in a decade that included treatment for prostate cancer, skin cancer (twice), broken ribs and other ailments that cost him some 40 games on the sideline — it was equally clear that, physically anyway, he’d had enough.
Calhoun’s deteriorating body simply couldn’t take the daily rigors of coaching a top-flight college program anymore. Add to that a broken hip as a result of an August bicycle crash, and you knew his coaching days were numbered. They had to be.
Of course, Calhoun had heard all that before, and never had he given it the credence it deserved.
But on Thursday, Calhoun finally heeded the advice that for years seemed so obvious to so many — especially after his third national championship, in 2011 — and retired from coaching at the age of 70, with 873 wins, those three banners and the respect of everyone who has ever played or coached for or against him under his belt.
“It’s been a long time, and some folks have asked, ‘Did your hip injury lead to you not coaching?’” Calhoun said during a news conference at Gampel Pavilion, where the university named assistant coach Kevin Ollie as Calhoun’s successor. “I hope to be better in the next three or four weeks, and practice, I could certainly do that. But the hip injury actually gave me a momentary pause … and it gave me a lot of time to contemplate some of the things in my life.
“I looked around and looked at our staff, looked at Kevin, looked at our kids, our players … and knew that we’re heading in the right direction. … So I thought it was an excellent time, and knew the university was in excellent shape, and I wanted to be a part of it in a whole different way.”
There are plenty of people out there who won’t miss Calhoun now that he’s gone. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, they might say. And, indeed, Calhoun was aggressive and abrasive and could be a real hothead — go ahead, just ask him about whether he thinks he makes too much money as a state employee, or about whether he should have recruited Ryan Gomes, and see what happens.
And, to be sure, Calhoun’s career didn’t come to pass without its low points — and the school will continue to deal with the consequences of the mess he’s leaving behind, even after he has moved on.
The program was already on probation, and will be until February 2014, as a result of a scandal involving a recruit, Nate Miles, who received improper benefits from booster-turned-agent Josh Nochimson. The Huskies are also not eligible to play in this season's NCAA tournament because their academic progress rate didn’t meet the minimum standard for teams to compete in postseason play.
But Calhoun has been as accountable as one could be about the mistakes that occurred under his watch, and he planned on seeing the dark times through, until his body decided it had other ideas.
“I thought it was the right time for me,” Calhoun said. “Thank God, physically, I’m very healthy, but I always felt, last year, guilty about missing 11 games … and I just didn’t want anything to get in their way, and I’m at a point where I have a lot of things I know I can do to help, and I know who’s in place. That’s very important.”
As he departs, Calhoun can take comfort in the fact that he’s stepping down knowing that he had already done everything he wanted to — everything that he could do — in the nearly three decades since he proclaimed that the job of transforming Connecticut into a national power was “doable.”
He took a small regional program and made it a powerhouse. He made podunk Storrs, Conn. — a place no one wanted to be — into one of the places to be if you wanted to make it in college hoops.
“It took players from all over the country who truly believed we were doing something very special here. Initially, it was based upon trust, on a dream, not on tangible facts we could show them,” Calhoun said, deflecting most of the credit for the school’s development away from himself. “But you believed … because we said that we believed it.”
Calhoun put the University of Connecticut on the map, almost literally, and put a host of players into the NBA in the process. Ray Allen, Caron Butler, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva and Kemba Walker are among the many who owe Calhoun a debt of gratitude for making their dreams of becoming a pro come true.
He also retires as one of just five Division I coaches to have won at least three national championships, joining John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp and Bobby Knight. Calhoun is also the sixth-winningest D-I coach of all time, trailing only Krzyzewski and Syracuse coach (and Calhoun rival) Jim Boeheim in that category among active coaches.
At his retirement ceremony, Calhoun looked back on his career and his love of basketball, which he said was sparked by the death of his father when he was 15 years old. And listening to him recall the comfort he derived from being around the sport couldn’t help but make you understand how hard it was for him to walk away.
“Basketball to me, all you needed was a boy, a ball and a dream, so I could do away with those thoughts I had,” Calhoun said. “So it became home, I guess. … The gym is a place of comfort, a place of competition, a place to seek excellence and a place to grow.”
And as such, it’ll be tough to take the cantankerous old man away from the game he loves, even if he’s retired. Jim Calhoun may no longer be the head coach, but he’ll always be UConn basketball.
“I would never tell Kevin, I would never tell any of our staff what to do — but if they sought my advice, I would give them my advice,” Calhoun said. “Our family is a close family, and no matter what I’m doing, I’m available to Kevin 24 hours a day, as I am for the rest of the staff, as I am for the guys. So that kind of describes who and where I’ll be.
“I’ll be here at UConn, with or without a whistle.”
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