While UConn practiced on Tuesday afternoon in Storrs, Jim Calhoun was at home, serving the first day of his medical leave of absence. His doctor had recommended that the 67-year-old Hall of Fame coach "address some temporary medical issues" -- issues that are not a cardiac problem or cancer, according to a UConn spokesman. Calhoun is a three-time cancer survivor who has also dealt with lesser health problems: He missed UConn's first-round NCAA Tournament game last March after being hospitalized due to dehydration, and this summer, broke several ribs (and later fainted) in a charity bike-race accident. So while Tuesday's news about his health was breaking, it was not, in any way, out of the ordinary.
A program source told SI.com that Calhoun's issue, this time, is stress-related, and that he needed time away from basketball for his health to stabilize. He'll miss Wednesday's game against St. John's, with associate head coach George Blaney taking over the team and the source said it was likely, but not yet certain, that Calhoun wouldn't be on the sidelines for Saturday's home game against No. 1 Texas, either. Just how "temporary" the leave of absence is remains unclear. As we saw with Florida coach Urban Meyer, who in the lead-up to this year's Sugar Bowl said he planned to resign due to health issues, and then changed his mind in less than a day, it's often impossible for college coaches -- especially two-time, national title-winning coaches -- to pull away from their programs for very long.
Tuesday's news brought to mind a column the Washington Post'sJohn Feinsteinwrote about Calhoun on Jan. 10, the day after a heartbreaking loss at Georgetown in which the Huskies had blown a 19- point lead. Re-read nine days later, the story (headline: "Jim Calhoun still loves coaching") contains some eerie foreshadowing, including the lead, in which Feinstein describes Calhoun walking through the postgame handshake line with "a blank look on his face, probably not even seeing any of the players or coaches he was congratulating."
Earlier in the day, three hours before tip-off, Calhoun had apparently remarked, "I've just never gotten to the point where a loss doesn't tear me up."
That loss to the Hoyas was only the beginning of a miserable three-game stretch. On Jan. 13, UConn lost to Pittsburgh at home by 10, and fell to 2-3 in the Big East. On Jan. 17, the Huskies lost by five at Michigan, and fell to 11-6 on the season -- a record that, combined with their resume's lack of a marquee victory, makes them look like a team in danger of being on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Calhoun's '09-10 squad has been confounding: They're long on talent, with a lineup of three (and maybe four) future NBA Draft picks; and they were capable of going toe-to-toe with Kentucky, the nation's only remaining undefeated, in December at Madison Square Garden. But in Big East play, they've hardly looked like one of the nation's elite, and that had to have tormented their coach. The Huskies could very well use this as a rallying point to upset the Longhorns on Saturday and regain some momentum, but they have some deeper offensive issues (especially with three-point shooting) that one win won't fix.
Calhoun also said in that Post story (as he's stated previously) that he considered retiring after last season, when he felt his program was under siege from allegations of illegal recruiting and potential NCAA violations. "I waited a couple weeks, thought about it and finally decided I wasn't ready to stop doing this," he said. "I still love coaching. I love practice, I love recruiting -- the part where you go watch a kid and try to project how good he can become -- I love seeing the kids turn corners as players and people."
The matter of his contract looms: Entering the '09-10 season, Calhoun was in the strange position -- particularly for a Hall of Famer who's been on the sidelines for more games than any other active D-I coach -- of being in the final year of an agreement with the school. Typically, for recruiting purposes, successful coaches enjoy a 4-5 year buffer, and Calhoun said he was in the process of finalizing a new, five-year deal with UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway in December. But the school, curiously, has yet to make any kind of official contract announcement.
At some point, when it comes to his health, Calhoun may have to decide enough is enough, but it would be surprising if this week's medical leave is anything more than what his doctor said it is: temporary. Calhoun has a reputation as a stubborn fighter. One would expect him to return and try to salvage the '09-10 campaign. As stressful as this season has been, he still has the personnel to make the Huskies a decent NCAA Tournament team -- one that could, in March, look back at Jan. 19 as its nadir.