Off Campus: Calhoun makes exit on his own terms

A typical sideline sight: Jim Calhoun
A typical sideline sight: Jim Calhoun (yelling. ED REINKE / AP)
Posted: September 15, 2012

To the early Big East list of coaching characters - Louie and Rollie, Big John and Sour Jim - one more was added. It was as if the Big East Conference realized it needed a crazy and fearless Boston Irishman to complete the cast.

Jim Calhoun may have been the craziest. I'm looking at a typical game photo, Calhoun screaming at one of his guys, three inches away, mouth wide, eyebrows arched, all creased and craggy and explosive. (Soundtrack easily imagined). The player is standing expressionless, and a teammate is walking behind them, paying no mind.

That was Calhoun. Deal with it or move on.

Calhoun wasn't the only Big East coach to put his school on the map, but his impact was as great as John Thompson's or Jim Boeheim's. (That's the top three right there). It wasn't just the three national titles in different decades, the seven Big East banners, the 26 seasons in Storrs. Along with a women's basketball coach from Norristown, Calhoun turned the University of Connecticut into UConn, a school into a national brand. That doesn't happen in a marketing meeting. Calhoun changed Storrs for good.

From afar, it seemed to lessen Calhoun that he couldn't stand to share the spotlight with women's coach Geno Auriemma, or at least couldn't stand Auriemma, and some combination of vice versa. Again, that's from down I-95. Maybe it made more sense up close. Boston Irish vs. Philly Italian and all that. It still seemed diminishing, in addition to the window into some driving insecurity.

In breaking down Calhoun as a basketball coach, you probably would not get better players than he did. Your guys were not going to outwork his guys. That left X's and O's, getting the better of Calhoun there, and good luck with that.

Richard Hamilton, a Coatesville kid who tore down nets at UConn, once said: "I played four years for Jim Calhoun. I can go through anything."

Given his impact, Calhoun played one last card, a power play that UConn honchos no doubt saw coming but could do little to prevent since the 70-year-old coach, who has survived three cancer bouts, had legitimate health issues to sort through - the latest when he suffered a broken hip last month.

Calhoun wanted former player (and former 76er) Kevin Ollie, now a Huskies assistant, to replace him. Calhoun kept slow-playing the retirement decision, a la Dean Smith waiting until just before the season so longtime assistant Bill Guthridge could succeed him at North Carolina.

At least Guthridge was a longtime assistant. Ollie, given a one-year contract - not interim, more like prove-himself, coach - had been on Calhoun's staff, and that was the sum total of his coaching experience. Ollie also had 13 seasons in the NBA, always as a second or third point guard. If you find somebody who says anything bad about him, you'll have a scoop. He's top-notch, smart, and likable.

That's not the point. UConn basketball has become an important public institution in the state of Connecticut. I was in an elevator at a football game last weekend with a man smart enough to run the NCAA, except he's got a better job. This man pointed out that if the head of some other important state agency tried to push a guy with two years' experience to succeed him at a huge salary, he'd probably be indicted or at least investigated. Ollie's salary, UConn announced Thursday, is $625,000.

Look at it this way: Who would you rather have as your coach right now, Shaka Smart or Kevin Ollie? Virginia Commonwealth's coach is on the short list for any job that opens. UConn is the kind of job he'd almost have to take. But Calhoun's loyalty to his guys - "We think our legacy is important" - is winning the day in the short-term. Ollie reportedly balked at taking only a one-year deal, but UConn held its ground - take it or leave it. Everybody played the cards they were dealt.

So, Calhoun had earned the right to shuffle the deck? In fact, he probably deserved to be ushered into retirement before this. Career achievements probably kept him from being fired. UConn is ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament for failure to meet new Academic Progress Rate scores. That bar isn't set terribly high, but Calhoun's team didn't meet it. Make no mistake: Calhoun cared about his guys. More than a few Calhoun players no doubt wished the coach cared about them a little less. But that academic mark is on his ledger, even as an asterisk.

He also got caught cheating. How did that steady stream of elite talent make its way to oh-so-scenic Storrs? At least one player picked the Huskies after an agent got involved in his recruiting. That agent happened to be a former UConn manager under Calhoun. Eventually, two Huskies assistants resigned, and Calhoun served a three-game suspension.

Calhoun never apologized for anything. Not his way. And he believed he always earned his way. (Google Calhoun and combative. It must be illegal to write about one without the other).

UConn paid Calhoun a lot to win ball games, which suited him fine, and few did it better for longer, with 873 wins over 40 years at Northeastern and Connecticut. Short of Mike Krzyzewski's calling it quits at Duke, this is about as big as it gets in college hoops. A coach didn't merely retire. The lights went out Thursday on something substantial. Life in Storrs will be a little saner, and nobody looked happy about it.


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

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