Jim Calhoun reflects on past, present and whether he will retire
STORRS, Conn. -- Jim Calhoun is more than a month into his latest rehab program and as usual he is pushing the envelope. "About another eight days,'' says the University of Connecticut basketball coach, sitting in a chair in his office at Gampel Pavilion, "and I can move to a cane.''
There are no baby steps for the 70-year-old Calhoun as he recovers from a fractured left hip he suffered after falling off his bike near his summer home in Madison, Conn. That has never been his way. He's worked hard at his rehab with sessions at home, starting with a walker, then moving to crutches and sessions in the pool at UConn. All at a fast pace.
Calhoun is back at work in a limited capacity, knowing that the clock is ticking on not only his recovery, but also on a much larger issue: whether he will return to UConn for his 27th season.
Calhoun says that he has not made up his mind, but his manner suggests something different. He is more relaxed, at peace with what he has done and what he still wants to do.
"I would be very, very surprised if I didn't have something to say within the next two weeks,'' he said as he talks more about the past than the future. Calhoun said he has not decided whether or not to retire, but he sounds like he might be ready to step away. Although the competitive part of him thinks he could coach for another two years, the practical side realizes that this might be time.
"I could have walked away last year,'' said Calhoun, referring to when UConn won the national title in April 2011, the last crowning moment in a Hall of Fame coaching career that has produced 873 wins and three national championships, making him one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. "But I walked off the stage [in Houston], there were 70,000 people and we had all those guys back. I couldn't do it. I thought we could do it again. We had the players. We had a team that won 53 games in two years. We've had 25 consecutive winning seasons. That's hard to do.''
He came back and the Huskies didn't come close to repeating, finishing with a 20-14 record and losing to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Off the court problems only added to the misery. First, Calhoun was handed a three-game suspension by the NCAA for violating recruiting rules. Then, there was a bout with spinal stenosis, a painful arthritic condition that required surgery and forced Calhoun to miss several games in the middle of the season. Finally, the NCAA banned the Huskies from next season's NCAA tournament for poor academic performance. The Big East has added to the ban by barring the Huskies from the conference tournament in New York City, a decision that new UConn president Susan Herbst is quietly trying to fight.
Calhoun absorbed all of that and was ready to move forward this summer when he hit a patch of sand and fell off his bike, fracturing his hip and requiring surgery and the insertion of a rod and pins in his left leg for support.
Calhoun says he has waffled on his decision on whether or not to return for months. "Depends on how I feel sometimes," he said. "But I'm very close to knowing. I'm just going to wake up one morning and I will know what is the right thing to do. I always said if I ever come here and say, 'Jeez I'm not sure, I will know it's time.'''
Calhoun has made it clear that he would prefer the line of succession to include former Husky point guard and current assistant coach Kevin Ollie. When asked if new UConn athletic director Warde Manuel had already designated Ollie as the next coach would there still be any indecision about his future, Calhoun smiled and said, "That didn't happen. It's a university decision and I have confidence they will do the right thing.''
Calhoun has been at UConn for nearly a third of his life. He grew up in suburban Boston and was the quasi head of his household after his father died when he was 15. Often combative, Calhoun has taken on a me-against-the-world stance.
But when talking about UConn and the legacy he will leave, Calhoun softens. When asked about how people should remember his tenure with the Huskies, Calhoun said, "I always tried to do my best. I hope they say I left this a better place. We built a family here and from a basketball standpoint I think we took away a lot of the inferiority complex that existed here. The thing people always said was why UConn couldn't do it. I think we changed that. When I came here, no one really knew about this place. UConn was North to Alaska. Now it is a program.''
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.