When word spread Friday afternoon that Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun was taking an immediate leave of absence -- his fifth while in charge of the Huskies -- it prompted immediate thoughts of a conversation with Calhoun from last season. Not one of the several about Kemba Walker's brilliance or his team's shocking stampede through March, but a longer sit-down in the coaches' locker room at Gampel Pavilion on the eve of the campaign's first scrimmage.
On that afternoon, before he knew what he had in the 2010-11 Huskies, before he knew what the NCAA would determine in the Nate Miles saga, before the athletic director with whom he often sparred was cast aside, Calhoun spoke at length about mortality. He discussed his father dying when Calhoun was 15 years old. He talked about the impact his high school coach, Fred Herget, had in getting him to college and how Herget later died fairly young of cancer. Just the day before the chat, Calhoun had been at the funeral of his best friend and roommate from his days at American International College.
Having gone through three cancer-related scares himself in addition to an undisclosed nine-game leave of absence the season before, Calhoun was well aware of his own fragility, but seemed more concerned about the condition of his program. He spoke openly about an early-career visit to see Dean Smith's North Carolina and how that always stayed with him to represent what a true program should be: excellence plus a stability and richness that, try as he might, was impossible to match in Storrs, Conn.
Calhoun didn't want to leave when the program was under a cloud, both with the NCAA and in its own performance relative to historical standards. He talked about his preferred method of transition, with the program being handed to a former player to keep the continuity and identity he had built in a quarter century, rightly supposing that his methods had been very successful in this rural environment.
A year, a third national title, a relative wrist slap and a new boss later, and Calhoun's program concerns -- at least on a macro level -- should be relieved. Short-term APR-related concerns aside, the program is in much better shape to move forward, with an alignment of interests in administration and money slowly coming in for a much-needed practice facility. So as he sat here the past few weeks watching this year's team continue to underachieve in really-hard-to-watch fashion, perhaps his own mortality finally spoke louder.
Minutes after Friday's announcement, Twitter was humming with its consummate level of snark. But between the Pete Gaudet jokes and the "this team is painful for us to watch, too" comments, there's a realism here as Calhoun deals with spinal stenosis, a very painful condition that my grandmother also suffers from (and I have seen how it limits her): he doesn't have to deal with this anymore. What this means for the Huskies for the rest of the season is uncertain -- they didn't play very well during Calhoun's three-game Big East suspension -- and Calhoun certainly can handle some blowback from anyone who thinks he's bailing on his team. He's been through a lot worse than that.
In light of all this, you will hear a re-emergence of the belief that Calhoun should have been satisfied going out on top, but that's not who he is, nor is it like very many who reach the top of the sporting world. We have seen repeatedly, most recently with Joe Paterno, that legends rarely step down before they have to. If Michael Jordan couldn't stay away for good after exiting at the peak with one of the alltime signature basketball moments, why should it surprise us that Calhoun came back after a national title? He knew on paper who was returning and what he added with Andre Drummond. He's making well into the seven figures as a man soon to turn 70. Where else would he get that buzz ... and that loot?
Six months later and the picture has changed again. No one knows if this will be the last time for Calhoun on the UConn sideline, but know that he knows this: The reasons he didn't want to retire a couple years ago aren't there, and even the great ones eventually run out of time.