Calhoun goes out fighting, times retirement to help former player
STORRS, Connecticut -- Among the countless words that have been used over the years to describe Jim Calhoun, the best may have been uttered by George Blaney, Calhoun's longtime friend and assistant coach at UConn the last 12 years. "This is a man," Blaney once said, "who wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror, puts on a pair of boxing gloves and asks himself, Who am I going to fight today?"
Calhoun, 70, officially announced his retirement here on Thursday during a press conference at Gampel Pavilion, bringing to a close a 26-year career at UConn that included three national championships and an induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. To the naked eye, it appeared that this proud, aging pugilist was finally unlacing his gloves. A closer look reveals one last assault. Calhoun made this decision at this time for one simple reason: He wants Kevin Ollie, his point guard from 1991-95 and assistant the last two years, to be UConn's next head coach. "I'm always going to fight for my guys," Calhoun told me afterward. "That's just who I am."
In the other corner, we have Warde Manuel, UConn's athletic director. He is unconvinced that he should turn his program over to a man whose entire coaching experience consists of those two years on Calhoun's staff. Ollie is a man of high intellect and magnificent character, and he has a pedigree earned through a 13-year NBA career with 11 different teams. But he has never been a head coach at any level, and he has no established network of contacts in the all-important world of recruiting. It would take an enormous leap of faith to give him this job.
So Calhoun had no choice but to give Manuel no choice. If the coach had announced his retirement last spring, Manuel would have replaced him with an experienced, recognized name. By waiting until a month before practice, Calhoun essentially forced Manuel to give Ollie an audition. Rather than saddling Ollie with an interim tag, Manuel agreed to give him a contract for just one season that will pay Ollie $384,615. (That amount is pro-rated from a $625,000 annual salary). Ollie's task will not be easy given that the Huskies are ineligible for postseason play for failing to meet the NCAA's academic standard. As a result of that penalty, the roster has been depleted by defections and transfers.
A close friend of Calhoun's told me that Calhoun is "pissed" that Manuel didn't heed his wishes. Then again, being "pissed" is Calhoun's natural state. His pals joke that he's not happy unless he's miserable.
And yet, he sure looked happy on Thursday, beaming from behind the podium as he thanked his players, his family, his university, his fans. Calhoun has been beset by numerous health issues the last few years, the latest coming on August 4, when he fell off his bike and fractured his hip. Before that, Calhoun had been wavering about whether he should retire. "I was worried because he kept flipping back and forth on what he wanted to do," Blaney said. "In July, I started feeling that he was very tired of the outside things in basketball that go on. From that point, I started feeling that it was maybe time."
Forced to convalesce at home following his bike accident, Calhoun had some quiet time to reflect and he cemented his decision. When Manuel said again he wouldn't give Ollie the job, Calhoun tried to convince him to designate Ollie the head-coach-in-waiting while Calhoun coached one more season. Manuel again refused to go along.
Needless to say, it is not in Calhoun's nature to accept defeat with an insouciant shrug. We all know he has a chip on his shoulder, but that chip has carried Calhoun as much as he has carried it. In the hands of a less driven, less insecure man, UConn would never have become one of the elite basketball programs in America. (It also may not have landed on NCAA probation for recruiting violations.) Calhoun didn't finesse his way into the Hall of Fame. He got there by throwing punches and sharp elbows and knees to the groin, all the while chewing gum and spewing profanity with a sharp Boston accent. Kinda charming, when you think about it.
Stories of Calhoun's brawls have been raining aplenty since news of his retirement broke Wednesday. There was the time when, moments after Calhoun's team blew a late 15-point lead during an exhibition game in London, his assistants had to restrain him from going after an opposing player who celebrated a little too enthusiastically. There was the time before a game at Louisville when he told his video coordinator to film the Louisville fans heading for the exits in the last couple of minutes if UConn was winning big. When Calhoun was supposed to be resting at home following prostate surgery in 2003 -- one of three bouts with cancer -- he argued with his wife, Pat, over whether he could pop into the office briefly to meet with his assistants. Turns out Pat can fight dirty, too. She hid his car keys.
As a young coach at Northeastern, Calhoun once coveted the Boston College job but was passed over for Jim O'Brien. Soon after he took over at UConn, his team embarked on a win streak over BC that stretched past 20 games. "He relished every one of those," said Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, a former assistant. "It takes a lot of energy to be wired that way."
This type of personality did not endear Calhoun to his peers. One year, while the media was voting him as the runaway choice for Big East coach of the year, Calhoun received just one first-place vote from his fellow coaches. (Then-commissioner Mike Tranghese had to work the phones make sure Calhoun shared the award, sparing the league embarrassment.) But that same fighting spirit that alienated coaches also imbued Calhoun's players with confidence. Even when they were out-manned, they felt like they had a puncher's chance. "I used to love walking with him onto the court for road games. He was like a general," said Pat Sellers, another former assistant. "I felt like we were going to win every time, just because we had Coach Calhoun there."
And yet, even as Calhoun was doing battle with every coach, player, referee and sportswriter in sight, he remained somehow endearing. He yelled at his players because he loved them. He argued with sportswriters because he respected them. (Well, most of them anyway.) He could be irritable and crotchety, but at least he was never phony. You always knew where you stood with him. Usually, it was toe-to-toe.
Thus, it was apropos that during Thursday's press conference, Ollie, a native Californian, grew emotional as he spoke about his official recruiting visit to UConn 12 years ago. Pointing to where he was sitting during that day's practice, Ollie recalled that a fight broke out between two players. "I thought, this is the place for me -- just like L.A.," Ollie said, prompting laughter from the audience. "I was sold."
Manuel, alas, is not yet sold on Ollie, though he insists he is keeping an open mind. "I truly want to see what Kevin Ollie is going to do," Manuel said. "I'm not thinking about a national search. I'm not talking to other people. The decision will be made at the appropriate time. I mean, who better to give me advice on who should be the next head coach at UConn than Jim Calhoun?"
When I pointed out that Calhoun typically likes to have his advice followed, Manuel laughed. "That's the difference," he said. "I get to take the advice, and then I make the decision that I think is in the best interest of UConn."
Calhoun acknowledged that this is one shot he won't be calling. "This is the way he wants to do things, and I respect that. I don't run the university," he said. Still, as he made his way off the floor on his crutches, the now-former head basketball coach at the University of Connecticut allowed himself a moment to daydream. "I would love to walk into Kevin's office, with Ward, some time in February and say, 'Oh by the way ... ' "
That daydream stands toe-to-toe with reality, but no one should be surprised the battle has been joined. This is Jim Calhoun we're talking about. Of course he's going out swinging.