Jim Calhoun leaves complicated legacy, but an indelible mark
Before I began to watch college basketball coaches for a living, and long before Jim Calhoun became a coach everyone thought worth watching, I had an early glimpse of the man who announced today that he's leaving Connecticut after a Hall of Fame career that, with three NCAA championships, puts him in a circle with only Rupp, Wooden, Knight and Krzyzewski.
Calhoun was still at Northeastern, coaching "the other Huskies," the Boston commuter school where he made his bones. And he didn't know he was being watched.
It was a winter's night in 1979. He stood alone at a payphone in a dark and deserted gym lobby. An hour earlier Calhoun's team had beaten Princeton at Princeton, thumped the Tigers by 22, and the joy he poured through the receiver that night, to who knows who, was almost demonic.
Fast forward to a summer's day several years later, to a playground in Boston, where afternoon play in the BNBL, the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, is unspooling. Few of the guys in action this day had a wisp of a chance of actually ever helping a Division I program, even a mid-major like Calhoun's. But there he was, with NORTHEASTERN on the breast of his shirt, chatting everyone up, looking for that one kid who -- let's be honest here -- had the drive and hunger to rival his own.
Neither of these vignettes is particularly remarkable in itself. Calhoun leaves the game having had 866 opportunities to kvell in a postgame phone call. And to count the number of hours he haunted inner-city summer leagues is an exercise best left to a math major. The point is, it was many, many workaday instances of the second that led to those many instances of the first. Digger Phelps got his nickname because his father was an undertaker; Calhoun himself actually worked a job digging graves. He was a working class guy who went 1-17 in his first season coaching high school, and realized that the best way to avoid ever experiencing that again was to never forget the operative part of his pedigree, which was "working."
Calhoun needed a cantilevered epaulet for the chip on his shoulder. And his skin wasn't thin, it was translucent. Where's the men's coach so insecure that he couldn't make peace with the women's coach he had to share a campus with? It surely was the devil's own punishment that this great consumer of media, a man who devoured what was written about him and his program with a hawk's eye and an elephant's memory, should have been shadowed by a retinue of reporters so huge that it became known as "the Horde."
But insecurity looks better when you consider the alternative, which can morph easily into complacency. And there was no room for complacency at UConn, a school with no tradition of Final Fours until Calhoun arrived in 1986. His first NCAA title team, in 1999, went 11-0 on the road that season, in what was the perfect tribute to its coach's personality. "When I walked in his sneakers, we dreamed of the postseason and being the best in New England," one of Calhoun's predecessors, Dee Rowe, told me this week. "Maybe, once, do what Holy Cross did in 1947 [when the Crusaders brought the region its first NCAA title]. Jim dared to pursue excellence. He dared to dream. What he's done is simply miraculous, because he did it in Storrs, Connecticut, where you ... don't have restaurants or movie theaters or clothing stores, not like Lexington or Chapel Hill. No one had ever done it before, and no one will ever do it again."
Calhoun might have stepped down three years ago, after reaching the Final Four and losing to Michigan State; or he might have done the same in 2011, after Kemba Walker led the Huskies to the NCAA title. In each case Calhoun's health -- three times he has had to deal with cancer -- would have supplied reason enough. Yet by hanging on to win a little more, to prove one more person wrong, he muddled through the aftermath of a Yahoo! Sports investigation, which found the Huskies had used an agent to land recruit Nate Miles and led to NCAA sanctions. Poor academic performance during the late Noughties means that this season's UConn team and interim coach Kevin Ollie will be ineligible for postseason play. For me, the tell about UConn came in the mid-90s, when Calhoun was prepared to hire as his chief recruiter a UNLV assistant coach named Greg (Shoes) Vetrone, whom SI soon implicated in arranging for pinch-hitters to take standardized tests for top prospects.
But unlike some other coaches of his era, the Bill Frieders and Jerry Tarkanians, Calhoun loved to engage the entire breadth of the world. He read books. (Literary agent and UConn grad Esther Newberg made sure Calhoun's office was well-stocked with the best and the latest.) He didn't just watch movies; he talked them to a far-thee-well. (Yeah,
If Bill Clinton, in Toni Morrison's famous phrase, was our first black president, Calhoun was a kind of a black white coach. An unlikely one, to be sure, coming from a city with a complicated racial history. But, as Rowe says, he was "a two-fisted, stand-up guy who fought for every inch." Calhoun forged uncommon bonds with the young black men who played for him. Like Clinton, as a teenager he had been thrust prematurely into the role of male head-of-household. Like Clinton, he had a natural appetite for his chosen arena. Like Clinton, no one will speak of his accomplishments without mentioning the messes on his watch.
There are cool personalities, and there are hot ones. Calhoun was a hot one. And that's why the news that he's leaving hits me as it does, like the chill in the air in New England with the basketball season coming on.