Jim Calhoun on past, present and whether to retire (cont.)
Calhoun came to UConn from Northeastern with a chip on his shoulder after Boston College wouldn't hire him. "[BC] told me I couldn't win [there],'' said Calhoun, who proceeded to beat BC 23 straight times at UConn. "When we won 22 in a row I said, I think I can win here.''
Calhoun may have turned UConn into a national power, but his focus remained local. "Winning in your back yard is important,'' said Calhoun, who says his fondest memory at UConn was not winning his first national championship in 1999, but rather beating Ohio State in 1988 to win the NIT. "I remember driving back home with [my wife] Pat on the Merritt Parkway at about 2 in the morning after that game and thinking about how special it was because we had finally won a big tournament. We were known as a school who bought a lot of tickets, but always left early.
"The thing I learned and believed is that winning any championship is good. Winning any league is good, but winning [consistently] is hard.''
It got easier as UConn became a brand name and Calhoun attracted and developed the best players. But with success came scrutiny. When Calhoun won his third national championship in 2011, he had reached a pinnacle of success few coaches had achieved. He also took the shots from critics who said his manner was too gruff, his coaching methods and recruiting questionable. The NCAA sanctions were particularly painful because UConn was accused of lacking institutional control.
"Sure it hurts,'' said Calhoun. "I'm not oblivious. I feel some pain from it, but maybe its just being stubborn or you can call it perseverance ... I don't like anything to touch this program.''
Calhoun then gets his game face on. "Most of the violations [too many phone calls and text messages] aren't even violations any more," he says. "We've had three years of passing APR scores. We have the documentation. Unless you do something really big, the average person doesn't give a hoot. The fan wants to know, 'Coach how are we going to do this year?'
"But I learned a long time ago that if you spend a lot of time worrying about things you can't control, you won't control the things you should.'''
Calhoun gets out of his chair, grabs his crutches and heads to his other office, the court at Gampel Pavilion, where a pick-up game with former UConn players, including NBA veterans Donnie Marshall and Ray Allen, is taking place. Allen, who recently signed with the NBA champion Miami Heat after a long run with the Celtics, comes over and says hello to Calhoun and associate head coach George Blaney. Blaney and Calhoun are the odd couple of college basketball, one-time rivals who are now friends who feed off each other's personalities.
"We have an unusual relationship,'' says Blaney, who has been with Calhoun for 12 years and has taken the reigns when Calhoun hasn't been able to be on the bench. "We're alike and really different. Jim requires that you are on top of things. To me that is fun. It's a challenge.''
Blaney remembers his first day on the job, when he was running a camp in which new UConn recruit Emeka Okafor was participating. "Emeka was a freshman and Jim was on the road,'' said Blaney. I watched him for five minutes and I went into Jim's office and wrote on the blackboard, 'Emeka, O My God.'''
Blaney remembers filling in when Calhoun was temporarily hospitalized for an illness during a first-round NCAA tournament game in 2009. "We're ready to go to the arena and Jim calls me and tells me he is sick and that he won't be coaching that night,'' said Blaney. "I say fine. We start playing and we're ahead by seven and then I look up and we're ahead by 28 at halftime and we win by 63. I go to the hospital and talk to Jim and he says, he probably won't be back for the next game and I say OK. The next day we're ready to go to the arena again and Jim calls me and says he is feeling better and he is ready to go. There is just dead silence on the phone from me. Jim loves telling that story, saying, 'He really wanted me back.'"
Allen comes over and listens to a conversation about injuries and how Calhoun treated them during practice. "In 40 years of coaching, Jim never had a player get injured during practice,'' says Blaney with a smile.
Allen laughs, remembering when he sprained his ankle during one practice. "[Calhoun] just walked to the other end of the court,'' says Allen.
Calhoun laughs. "You played in the next game against Northeastern, didn't you?'' said Calhoun.
"No,'' said Allen. "I didn't.''
Always wanting the last word, Calhoun says: "Well, you could have played if we needed you.''
Exchanges like these with players and coaches keep Calhoun going. If it were as simple as basketball, Calhoun would definitely be back, but things are much more complicated these days.
Calhoun is asked again about the future and what he might do. "I know I will have enough to do no matter what happens,'' he said. "If I come back, I might coach another couple of years. I know I have got to have something to wake up to in the morning to get me going each day."
Before his bike injury he was doing that, taking recruiting trips, getting UConn ready for another season.
"I was on a recruiting trip to Washington and as I was going around and talking to people and doing things, I said to myself, this could be the last recruiting trip I ever take," Calhoun said. "I know I have plenty of things I want to do. I have plans. I'm just going to go with how I feel. I will know.''
As is usually the case with Calhoun, you get the feeling that he already knows. He's just not ready to tell us.
Read more from Mark Blaudschun in his new blog, A Jersey Guy.
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