If you know Jim Calhoun, then you knew exactly what he was going to say on his last day as a coach. He got this far believing he could talk almost anyone into practically anything. He was not about to stop now.
“The first step in being special is to believe you’re special,” Calhoun began.
“Fortunately,” he added a moment later, “being stubborn and Irish — which go together — I believed it.”
Calhoun was special, a guy who bludgeoned his way into the NCAA record book and rulebook and refused to change even one thing in how he went about his business. He was a three-time national champion and the sixth-winningest coach in major college basketball, but in his mind, still always the underdog. It’s not hard to understand why.
Calhoun beat back cancer three times to return to work and on another occasion, only four days after back surgery so he could be on the sideline for Huskies’ regular-season finale. Even at Thursday’s retirement announcement in Storrs, Conn., despite doctors’ orders to use crutches while recovering from a fractured hip, Calhoun left them at his seat and stubbornly made the short trip to the podium on his own two feet. Some surprise. He was selling the audacity of hope long before it became a campaign slogan.
In 1999, on the eve of the first of his three titles, Calhoun recalled making the short hop from Northeastern in Boston, where he built a one-time commuter school into a mid-major power, to take over perennial Big East doormat UConn. Upon arrival, with no tradition and only the most meager facilities, he pitched recruits instead on the chance to get their heads handed to them by the best players in the best arenas in the best conference in the country.
“We would tell kids, ‘Would you like to play against Reggie Williams and Alonzo Mourning? Would you like to play in the Carrier Dome — just not for Syracuse?’ And if a kid said, ‘I love Georgetown an awful lot,’ I’d ask, ‘Have you talked to Coach Thompson? No? Good.’
“And then,” he added, laughing, “we went from there.”
After seven failed attempts to get past the round of eight in the NCAA tournament, Calhoun played for the championship the next night. When the evening began, everyone figured it was his lousy luck again to run into Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, with one of his best teams ever. What no one knew until the end was how much the events of the preceding month had buffeted the gruff, tough-talking Calhoun.
He had only recently lost a young friend he treated like a son — former Connecticut equipment manager Joe McGinn, who died of kidney disease at age 26 — and gained a granddaughter whose picture he tucked into the breast pocket of his sport coat for the entire ride. When it was his turn to climb the ladder on the floor of Tropicana Field to cut down the net, he made sure to leave one strand dangling.
“That,” Calhoun explained afterward, dabbing the tears at the corners of his eyes, “was for Joe.”
By then, he had already coached a few of the more than two dozen players who made it to the NBA — Ray Allen, Cliff Robinson and Donyell Marshall. And while each successful season made recruiting easier, all the attention — and especially the scrutiny — that went along with it never sat well with Calhoun. He battled the NCAA frequently in recent years, most notably after prep star Nate Miles was expelled before playing a game for the Huskies. That fight earned Calhoun a three-game coaching ban, cost the program three scholarships and resulted in UConn getting slapped with the dreaded “lack of institutional control” label. Even now, the team that former UConn guard and trusted aide Kevin Ollie inherits has precious little experience and can’t play in the 2013 tournament because the program failed to qualify academically under Calhoun’s watch.
In light of those transgressions, some people will look at the 70-year-old coach struggling to get around and take away the wrong impression — that of a broken coach leaving behind a broken program. Those who do will have forgotten the lesson embedded in that long, strange journey that produced the last of Calhoun’s championships.
He started the 2010-11 season with a young team playing badly, had to contend with the NCAA snooping around campus. and then came a death in the family. All those things conspired to make people wonder whether one of the most successful coaches of his generation should call it a career. Instead, Calhoun presided over an unprecedented run of wins that carried UConn from the Big East tournament straight to the top again.
But the day before, in another one of those rare moments when he revealed a softer side, Calhoun reminisced about when he was 28, just getting a foothold in the profession yet thinking he already had all the answers.
“Now I’m 68,” he said, “and I have a lot of questions.”
Enough of those have melted away that Calhoun can finally walk away — no matter how many doubters remain — with a clear conscience.
“Bottom line is we can all survive what we need to survive if we know who we are, ” he said on the eve of the 2011 championship game. “Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you.
“But I know who I am,” he added with a conviction every bit as strong now as it was then, “and I’m comfortable with what I’ve done.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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