Jim Calhoun is retiring as Connecticut’s basketball coach. A Connecticut alum wanted to share a few words…
Wednesday was not a great day for my alma mater, the University of Connecticut.
In the morning, we lost one of our few remaining conference rivals who had any sort of cache, Notre Dame, to a conference that has done a wonderful job of directly and indirectly pushing UConn further and further down the totem pole of college athletics. At this point, it doesn’t even faze me anymore when someone leaves for the ACC, considering the Big East is usually too busy producing another absurd sportsmanship ad.
Thursday afternoon, Jim Calhoun will make his retirement official in a press conference at a building that he effectively built, Gampel Pavilion. He will be retiring from leading a program he built from nothing into a three-time National Championship-winning power. He did this in the godforsaken location of Storrs, Connecticut, a remote place where the biggest news of the last few months was the opening of a 7-Eleven and a Froyo World.
Jim Calhoun showed up in Storrs in May 1986, with nary a Froyo World in sight. UConn was coming off a 12-16 year in the Big East, having been a perennial doormat for almost the entirety of the conference’s existence to that point. Games played at the decrepit Field House on campus and at the slightly-less-decrepit Hartford Civic Center had good crowds, even though UConn was getting killed.
And yet, when asked at his introductory press conference if he could ever see UConn becoming a national player, he said, with a straight face, “It’s Doable”.
Within three years, UConn went from 9-19 to NIT Champions to being a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater away from the Final Four. The program became even more than he suggested, turning into a national powerhouse. They carried the banner for the Big East in the early-90s, when Georgetown faded from the spotlight (with one incredible exception) and Syracuse dealt with its own NCAA allegations, reaching the summit with the 1999 National Championship against Duke.
In 2001, Calhoun did something almost unheard of in college athletics: he turned down the money and chose to stay in Storrs instead of going to South Carolina. The decision to stay was rewarded with a pair of national championships over the next decade. But around those championships were the specter of an NCAA investigation into the recruitment of Nate Miles, as well as the embarrassment of failing to meet minimum APR requirements, which leave UConn ineligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Jim Calhoun is a true son of New England, where his roots were established from the moment you heard him speak a single word. As a teenager he lost his father to a heart attack, taking up jobs such as headstone engraver and gravedigger to help his family. He worked his way up from high school coach to Northeastern University.
While Calhoun is a great coach, a retirement so close to the start of a season that holds the cloud of NCAA Tournament ineligibility, puts UConn in a major bind. The program is in the hands of Kevin Ollie, NBA journeyman extraordinaire. He has two years of coaching experience. Reports are that Ollie is getting a one-year contract, with his position to be re-evaluated thereafter. Not exactly an ideal situation for recruiting.
Jim Calhoun was incredibly brash and arrogant, famous for several press conference explosions. He’d scream at his players on the court, always an awkward watch. He is an incredibly tough guy to like (just ask the closest Maryland/Syracuse/Georgetown fan), but make no mistake, the State of Connecticut loves him. Winning will do that. So will staying. But Calhoun also endeared himself to the community-at-large when he:
-Raised over $6 million for cardiology research, through his UConn alumni charity game, where former players and coaches would return to the state from around the world to show their support for a coach who constantly berated them in public.
-Raised nearly $1 million for the Connecticut Food Bank with an annual holiday food drive, where the team serves Thanksgiving dinner at a Hartford food shelter.
-Served as honorary chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Those are the things that matter more than how many f-bombs Jim Calhoun drops in a press conference, or how terse he was with reporters. UConn’s APR violations certainly look better when compared to the ongoing NCAA-approved sham at UNC. Life is easier when you are old money rather than new money.
Jim Calhoun did something that few people do anymore- he built something. There are understandable questions of where UConn goes from here as a program, in the wake of the NCAA sanctions and the destabilization of the Big East. Having a new $30 million practice facility will help. As Calhoun steps aside, he leaves an almost unmatchable legacy, for Kevin Ollie or anyone who would step into his large, curmudgeonly shadow.
[Photo via Presswire]