If you asked me to describe how I felt when I heard the news that Jim Calhoun was retiring as UConn’s basketball coach yesterday, the best way I could put it is like this:
You know how when your grandparents get older, they start to get sick, and after a while you begin to prepare for the worst? You start to say stuff like, “Well, they had a good run” and “It’s just their time” and “This is all for the best.” I’m guessing most of you have experienced that, right?
If so, I’m guessing you’ve also experienced the other side of that too: That no matter how much you prepare yourself, no matter how much you understand it’s their time and you think you’re ready for what’s coming… when the time actually does come, you never actually are?
Well that’s how just about every UConn fan on the planet feels right now.
Calhoun is retiring? Really? You serious? Oh man. Alright.
That’s the fans view, and admittedly I’m one of those of fans.
That also means that if you came here looking for a supposedly “unbiased” national view of Calhoun’s legacy, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want to hear about Calhoun’s “complicated” legacy (which as someone who is more well-informed than most writing on Calhoun today, isn’t nearly as complicated as a lot of people think), you’re going to have to go somewhere else.
Instead, I’m going to give you the other side.I’m going to give you the side that explains why Calhoun will always be revered in Connecticut, why we don’t care what outsiders think of the guy, and why, to blunt, no, he should’ve never given a dime back. I’ll also explain why Calhoun is a true icon, someone who has literally done as much for his school and state in general as any coach in the history of modern college athletics.
No, you may not like him, and that’s ok. This isn’t about you. This is about Calhoun, and what he means to us as UConn fans and residents of the state of Connecticut. In every sense of the word, the man is a living legend. And most of it has nothing to do with basketball.
That’s also why the grandparent analogy fits. It may not be perfect, and it may not be fair to fully compare an actual death to the retirement of a basketball coach. But in a lot of ways, it really does feel that way for UConn fans. This might be the end of UConn basketball as we know it, but it is the end of an era, the only era that many UConn basketball fans have ever known.
Understand that for everyone under 30 who follows the Huskies, a little part of their childhood died yesterday, and that for people of the same age, this fall and winter will be the first time they’ve ever seen anyone other than Jim Calhoun as the acting head coach in their lives. Yes the championships are important, his mere presence, the safety of knowing “Jim Calhoun is our head coach” was just as important as well. Like that grandparent, his best days were clearly behind him, but that doesn’t mean that we were necessarily ready to say good-bye either. For people my age, he’s the only coach we’ve ever known. Safe to say that win or lose, that November 9 opener against Michigan State is going strange. Very strange.
Anyway, this is a sports website, so I suppose we should move onto sports stuff. And I guess the best place to start is that lost in the shuffle of everything that’s happened around the program the last few years, is that by any tangible measurement, Calhoun is one of the five greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. That’s not my opinion. Those are the facts.
For starters, Calhoun is one of only five men to win at least three National Championships, joining some pretty darn good company in John Wooden (10 total titles), Adolph Rupp (four), Mike Krzyzewski (four) and Bobby Knight (three). He will also go down as the sixth winningest coach of all-time, trailing only Coach K (927 and counting), Knight (902), Jim Boeheim (890 and counting), Dean Smith (879) and Rupp at 876. With 875 victories on the final copy of Calhoun’s resume, it’s safe to assume that had he coached even one more season, Calhoun would’ve finished his career no worse than fourth on that list. Not bad for a guy who started his coaching career at a Connecticut high school in the late 1960’s.
Beyond those numbers are the other ones, the ones which provide further evidence of Calhoun’s greatness. In no particular order there are the four Final Fours, nine Elite Eights, 13 Sweet 16s, nine Big East regular season titles and seven Big East tourney titles as well. Then there are the NBA guys, which at last count totaled… actually, who am I kidding? At this point, I’m pretty sure even Calhoun has lost track of how many guys he’s put in the league.
What we do know though are the names, guys like Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Kemba, and a bunch of others, along with a few more Calhoun-coached players still at UConn who will likely get there eventually as well. Not to mention the handful that were in the NBA who’ve since retired or moved onto other basketball opportunities. You know, like Kevin Ollie, for example, a guy who spent 13 years in the league and now will be taking over as head coach of the program.
Speaking of all those players, they’re probably Calhoun’s greatest on the court legacy. Simply put, without them, the coach wouldn’t have won all those games. Of course without him, many would’ve never made it to the NBA in the first place.
That’s because as great as Calhoun’s raw coaching numbers were, they pale in comparison to his ability to not only identify talent, but develop it too. UConn was never a factory of McDonald’s All American’s and one-and-done superstars, but instead, a place where average players became good and good players became first round NBA Draft picks.
As a matter of fact, while other schools have become one year jumping off points for pre-packaged NBA superstars, I can only think of maybe three guys- Rudy Gay, Andre Drummond and maybe Charlie Villanueva- who arrived at UConn as sure-fire, can’t miss NBA Draft picks, and Drummond, will go down as Calhoun’s first and only one-and-done player. At UConn, the players didn’t make the program and the program didn’t make them. They made each other.
Just for fun, let’s take a look at some of those guys, and let you know just how much the basketball education from Jim Calhoun molded them into the players they became.
For example, did you know Ray Allen was a lightly recruited player out of South Carolina who barely played his freshman year at UConn? As you may have heard, he eventually evolved into the best shooter in the history of basketball, literally. Or that Emeka Okafor was an overlooked and undersized center that didn’t even get a scholarship offer from UConn until the spring of his senior year of high school? As you may know by now, he turned into a first-team All-American and near consensus National Player of the Year.
Beyond them, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler and Hilton Armstrong weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans but eventually landed in the NBA as lottery picks, and Marcus Williams, Josh Boone and Jeremy Lamb became first round picks despite little national acclaim when they arrived in Storrs too. Kemba Walker and Rip Hamilton had a bit more hype, but with both undersized for their positions, neither was considered an NBA lock when they arrived in Storrs either. Yet all at least got a shot in the league.
Heck, to look at it from a different perspective, what else do you need to know, other than that he turned Hasheem Thabeet into the second overall pick in the draft.
No seriously, let me go ahead and pause for a second to let you take that one in for a second.
If you’re wondering why some people in Connecticut think Calhoun can walk on water, that’s Exhibit A right there.
Beyond just the players and those wins is the ancillary subtext around them though. You know how they say “the devil is in the details?” Well with Calhoun, the details are getting overlooked this morning.
When it comes to Calhoun, let’s not forget the following things: He thrived in the single toughest era ever for a college basketball coach to sustain long-term success (the one-and-done era, where talent couldn’t be hoarded and rosters flipped over more often than your average stack of iHop pancakes). Or that he spent most of his years and compiled most of those wins in the single toughest conference in the sport (for whatever the Big East might be in a few years, remember it was just two years ago when they put 11 teams into the NCAA Tournament). Not to mention that those three championships came in the single toughest postseason tournament we have in sports. I’m sorry NBA, NFL and MLB fans, but there is nothing harder to do than win six straight single elimination games. It’s true.
Really though, you want to know what the most underrated thing about Calhoun’s career is that I’ve never heard anyone talk about? The man won those three National Championships by playing three completely different styles. John Calipari might run a “players first” program, but to his credit, Calhoun always put his players first when it came to winning.
Think about it for a second.
For years, UConn was known for its wing players, guys like Ray Allen, Caron Butler, Rudy Gay, and of course Rip Hamilton, who led them to their first title in 1999. Eventually though the program evolved, the team recruited better big guys and it was a low-post player (Okafor) and a low-post offense which won them their second championship. And of course, the third title was won in large part by UConn having the best small guy on the floor. His name was Kemba Walker, and I’m guessing you’ve heard of him by now.
As easy as it is to forget now, Calhoun’s first teams played a fast, frenetic, pressing pace, and as he slowed down in old age, so too did they. He evolved as the sport did, and like any great coach adjusted yearly, to the team, his personnel and the players he had at his disposal. That’s something that Calhoun has never gotten nearly enough credit for. There is no system or style that will define him. He won in a lot of ways over a lot of different years.
Still, if we’re talking about context, there are no words that can adequately provide the context of just how bad the UConn program arrived when he got to UConn, and just how great of a job he did to make the school relevant, let alone into a college basketball super-power. Just remember that the reason Calhoun got the job in the first place was because in the season prior arriving to Storrs, Calhoun took an undersized Northeastern team onto UConn’s home floor and beat them by 20 points. Yes, Calhoun was a rising star in coaching at that point, and Northeastern was on his way to fifth NCAA Tournament in six years. Still, what does it say about the state of a Big East program that they got beat that bad, by a team with such few inherent advantages?
That’s also why while the argument will rage on where Calhoun fits amongst the all-time greats (and for the record, in the process of writing my book, I had several people- from college head coaches, to assistants, to AAU coaches - tell me they think he’s the best ever), what is indisputable is that he is the best “program-builder” ever. When Calhoun got to UConn there was no ready-made title team like when Roy Williams got to North Carolina, there weren’t decades of a winning tradition to precede him like Bill Self had at Kansas, no program with everything in place that just needed the “right guy” like when John Calipari arrived at Kentucky. For lack of a better term, there was no “blueprint” for success at UConn when Calhoun arrived, if only because the school had never really had any before.
As a matter of fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize “blueprint” might be the perfect word to describe just how lousy the state of UConn basketball was when Calhoun arrived in the fall of 1985.
Why do I say that? Well, funny story actually.
You want to know dire the situation was when Calhoun arrived in Storrs? How about the fact that when Calhoun first got to UConn, the gym that the Huskies played in was so lousy that Calhoun conveniently “forgot” to show it to recruits and instead much preferred laying out the blueprint for a soon-to-be-built Gampel Pavilion instead. Yes, that story is 100 percent true.
It also reiterates the bigger picture of just how far UConn took the basketball program in 26 years at the school. When Calhoun arrived in Storrs, not only were there no banners in the rafters and no trophies in the trophy case, there was quite literally not a suitable Division I basketball arena to play in. Yet somehow, somewhere along the way, Calhoun built a college basketball super-power. In the middle of the Connecticut woods none the less.
Speaking of which, that’s the part you won’t read from the national guys today; how Calhoun’s greatest legacy has nothing to do with actual basketball, but instead comes in the impact he made on the school and state in general. It’s something that can’t be explained if you didn’t live through it, something that’s impossible to describe if you’re not from Connecticut.
Just know that in the same way UConn’s basketball gym (and again, it was a “gym” more so than an “arena”) was falling apart when Calhoun arrived, so too was the entire campus. Just trust me on this one. I drove through that campus as a kid periodically, and as recently as the mid-1990’s, the best way to describe it would be “A bunch of decaying buildings, set to the backdrop of more decaying buildings.” It was run down, beat up, and hardly representative of what a flagship, state university should be. If anything, it much more closely resembled the commuter college around the corner from your house than UNC-Chapel Hill or University of Michigan. Understand that when Calhoun got to UConn, not only did the basketball team have no identity, but neither did the school as a whole.
Eventually though as the program grew, so too did the profile of the university. All of a sudden every hoops game became a two hour infomercial for the school, and for the first time ever people had a reason to know the name “UConn” without immediately mistaking it for someplace located just outside Alaska (which by the way, seriously did happen).
Well guess what?
With increased exposure came increased pride in the school, and with increased pride came increased fundraising too. That dilapidated campus I just mentioned eventually got a billion dollar infusion of taxpayer money in the late 1990’s, another $1.3 billion in 2002, and in the here and now, UConn is considered one of the top public universities in the country. Again, that’s not my opinion. It’s fact. And it’s also a fact that I’m proud to be a graduate of that university.
And while there are plenty of government officials that would never admit it publicly, it’s no secret in Connecticut that the funding for upgrades at the school wouldn’t have happened without the success of both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. When you have pride in something you don’t mind investing into it, and it was UConn basketball that first gave the state pride in its flagship university. To which I ask: A lot of people have built a basketball program from the ground up. But how many of those same people have helped build an entire university from the ground up as well? Not many, I’m guessing.
Which is why in Connecticut, this is a day of mourning.
It’s not so much about the wins and losses, titles and trophies, but about a man that gave an entire state something to be proud of and rally around. We in Connecticut don’t have much to call our own, but UConn basketball is one of those things.
And so too is Calhoun.
In the end, there will be other coaches at the school, other coaches who break his records at other schools, and maybe down the line UConn might even win a title or two. Only time will tell on that last one.
But even if they do, it’ll never be under the same context and in the same situation that Calhoun did it.
He was one of a kind and an original. Most importantly he was ours.
Today is a sad day for UConn basketball, but it’s an even sadder day for the state of Connecticut.
Coach Calhoun, you will be missed.
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