Aging Calhoun not ready to let go of the UConn program he built
Jim Calhoun: "I've put 25 years of sweat equity into this program. I love UConn."
The question looms large: What will Huskies program be without Calhoun?
The potential impact of the NCAA sanctions aside, the program's in decent shape
STORRS, Conn. -- After his team's shootaround before last Wednesday's exhibition opener, Jim Calhoun slowly ambled off the Gampel Pavilion court, headed down a corridor and stopped in front of the locked door to the UConn coaches' room. A sign to the right of the door identified it as "The Bunker."
"Some days, it feels like one," Calhoun half-joked, as he punched in the security code.
These certainly are combative times for Calhoun as his program -- and make no mistake, this is his program, one he built from nothing into one of the nation's best -- is fighting to retain its elite status. On the court, three of the past four seasons have ended without an NCAA tournament win. In two of those, the Huskies missed the dance entirely. Off it, the past few years have been littered with more drama than an average episode of Glee.
Two players were suspended for their roles in a theft. One also contracted a life-threatening brain ailment. Calhoun himself went through a third cancer scare and also missed nine games last season with an undisclosed illness. There were expected (and unexpected) departures to the pros. And, yes, there's also the NCAA investigation of UConn's recruiting tactics that could see the program get slammed with significant penalties as early as the end of the month.
Now, on the dawn of a new season, with a youthful roster that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East, Calhoun and the school face two very relevant (and interrelated) questions: How long should a legendary coach chase his own shadow, and what will the program be without him?
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Inside the locker room, Calhoun settled into a soft, blue upholstered chair curiously adorned with the 2008 Final Four logo, a year in which UConn was upset in the first round by San Diego after point guard A.J. Price, he of both a suspension and serious illness, blew out his knee. It was a surprising visual reminder of one of the Huskies' recent on-court disappointments.
SI.com's Seth Davis wrote earlier this year that Calhoun told him he would have retired had the Huskies won it all in 2009. Because of the NCAA investigation, though, Calhoun's math changed. The answer to the first looming question now depends heavily on his comfort level with the second one.
"I've put 25 years of sweat equity into this program. I love UConn," Calhoun said. "This is my adopted state and it's where I'm from now and plan to remain after, so I want to pass [the program] on with good, stable structure."
It's hard to ask a coach to plan his own exit, but Calhoun, 68, isn't blind to his mortality. The day before the exhibition against American International College -- Calhoun's alma mater -- he went to the funeral of his college roommate, a close friend for nearly half a century. So, like in an athletics version of estate planning, Calhoun has an idea of how he thinks this should go.
"Obviously, I'd like to pass [the program] on to one of my former players because I think if you gave it twentysomething years, we have the fifth-best record in college basketball, two national championships, a lot of terrific players," Calhoun said. "They, in turn, could continue to build. I do think what's gone on here has worked, so I'd love to hand the team on."
There's no foolproof blueprint for this, though. Arizona had profound issues transitioning from legendary coach Lute Olson. Indiana has fallen off badly from the Bob Knight days. Even North Carolina, which Calhoun visited early in his coaching career and credits with opening his eyes to what a true program was, had extended trouble replacing Dean Smith. Given all of his accomplishments and the unique setting in which it was achieved, there are no guarantees that any replacement will be able to maintain what Calhoun has accomplished here.
Storrs is not a college town. It's a town with a college, surrounded mostly by nondescript local businesses and marshy forest. The campus is a hodgepodge of older, New England-style buildings and new construction. Up the hill at the back of campus sits 20-year-old Gampel Pavilion, with its silvery dome and modest 10,027-seat capacity. Next door is vacant, rundown Memorial Stadium, where UConn football used to toil as a I-AA program before its upgrade to BCS status and eventual move to newly constructed Rentschler Field, 25 miles away in East Hartford.
On this day in early November, bulky jackets and Uggs already are the campus attire of choice. It's not exactly Tobacco Road.
"No matter what we say, we don't have the richness [of tradition of a Carolina or Kansas]," Calhoun said, noting that the sport's blue-blood programs can, regardless of the record in a given season, instantly reload with elite talent. "We have a litany of great players in the NBA who certainly have helped sell this program because of who they are ... but we're located in a hamlet in Storrs, Conn., and I do think that's a little more difficult."
The potential impact of the NCAA violations aside, Calhoun's program is in decent shape. Despite, as longtime assistant coach George Blaney put it, "some people throwing funerals" for the Huskies, UConn was just in a Final Four the season before last. For those decrying the down years in 2007 and '10, an occasional one isn't something new. UConn has missed the NCAAs every three or four seasons since its first Elite Eight run under Calhoun in 1990. In an era where the Huskies have lost a slew of players early to the NBA, more volatility is understandable. This year's freshmen look promising and the Huskies just received an important verbal commitment from Ryan Boatright, a top point guard in the Class of 2011.
Still, it's hard to imagine any successful coach willingly stepping down, especially when the getting is once again getting good. Doubly so in the case of Calhoun, about whom Blaney said, "I don't know that I've ever met anybody that likes challenges more than [Jim] does, and know when he gets 'no,' that's even better."
Right now, a lot of people are telling Calhoun no, and he's relishing his role as the underdog once again. Despite all of his success, he's still the boy who lost his father at age 15 and put off college in order to work in a Massachusetts quarry to help his mother make ends meet, still the coach who told the media he wouldn't give back a dime of his hefty seven-figure salary to a state in a budget crunch. In short, he's still a fighter, and fighters don't quit, even if their skills start diminishing, even if they get sage advice from a peer.
"When I was sick last year, [former St. John's coach] Louie Carnesecca quoted something that [legendary predecessor] Joe Lapchick had told him," Calhoun said. "He said, 'Irish!' -- that's what Louie calls me all the time -- he said 'Irish, if you keep chasing yourself, you'll drive yourself crazy. You're never going to catch that young guy.'"
The determination on Jim Calhoun's face says he's not quite ready to concede that. His said his decision to retire will come when he feels he's no longer coaching at his own high standard, and right now, he still thinks he is. When that day does arrive, though, whether it's this year or several down the road, UConn administrators will face their own, sobering question: Have they found a young guy who can catch Calhoun?
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