This summer, I attended Jim Calhoun's charity golf tournament headquartered at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. I took the opportunity to introduce Calhoun to my wife, and as the three of us chatted, I asked him, "What's the over-under on when you'll retire?"
Calhoun's response surprised me. "If we had won the championship last year," he said, "I was going to retire."
Later, when my wife also expressed surprise at what Calhoun had said, I told her I didn't believe him. "That man is going to die on the sidelines," I said.
My little quip doesn't seem so funny this morning in the wake of UConn's announcement that Calhoun is taking a temporary leave of absence to deal with an undisclosed medical issue, but it doesn't seem any less true. Calhoun is 67 years old, an age where most people should be making tee times and visiting grandchildren, but he is as intense, as hardworking, as driven, as paranoid and as hungry for a championship as he has ever been. He is also not currently coaching his team, and I can't help but believe that all those factors are linked.
The school's statement did not reveal the precise reason for Calhoun's leave, other than to say it was not related to his past bouts with cancer. SI.com's Luke Winn reports that someone in the program told him it is stress-related. Two people in the program whom I spoke with last night said they did not know the reason, but they did say that nothing in Calhoun's behavior the previous day at practice indicated to them that something was amiss. One of them pointed out that he still puts himself through a vigorous, hour-long cardio workout every day. "He works out like he coaches," this person said.
It is impossible to know just how long Calhoun's leave will be, but it seems safe to say he won't be returning in the very near future. Otherwise, there's no reason to call this a "leave of absence." Whatever is going on must be quite serious, which is why I hope Calhoun will take this time to do more than just deal with whatever temporary health issue has arisen. I hope he steps back, looks at the big picture and decides to retire at the end of this season.
No doubt people will link Calhoun's leave to what has been going on with Florida football coach Urban Meyer and bring up the heart attack that killed late Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. Take away that Meyer is two decades his junior, and those are apt analogies. People often talk about what a stressful job coaching is, but it is far less stressful than a lot of jobs out there (firemen, policemen and neurosurgeons, to name a few). It's also hard to believe that someone making a salary well into the seven figures should be feeling any kind of stress.
But the reason coaches have so many health issues isn't because the job itself is so stressful. It's because it attracts a certain type of animal who is so intensely driven that he puts his desire to vanquish his foes ahead of more important things like family and health. The only thing more common than coaches getting sick is coaches getting divorced. It's hard to be an attentive dad and husband when you're constantly on the road, watching game tape and fretting about getting fired.
Coaching is the perfect vocation for the hypercompetitive man. If you look around the country, it is very hard to find a college basketball coach who was a top player. Beyond Johnny Dawkins, Isiah Thomas (who I'm not sure really counts, given that it's his first year in college), Steve Alford and Jeff Capel, there aren't many who come to mind. What you find instead are a bunch of guys who had the competitive zeal to be NBA players but not the physical gifts. Therefore, the only outlet for their drive is coaching.
Calhoun played a little ball -- he graduated the American International College in Springfield, Mass., as the school's fourth all-time leading scorer -- but he was never going to make a living at it. So he poured himself into coaching like few others have, starting out at two high schools before moving on to Northeastern, where he discovered Reggie Lewis. When he took over at the University of Connecticut in 1986, the school barely had any kind of basketball program, yet Calhoun transformed it into a winner in one of the more remarkable building jobs the sport has seen. Even while winning two national championships and making the Hall of Fame, Calhoun never shed the skin he grew as an unproven high school coach. He is never comfortable and never satisfied, still the type of man who can fly off the handle just because an obnoxious reporter asks him why he makes so much money when the rest of the country is in a recession.
There was Calhoun earlier this season, throwing his body over the scorer's table at Madison Square Garden because he didn't like a referee's call in a game against Duke. There he was earlier this month in Cincinnati, barely making eye contact with Bearcats coach Mick Cronin during a postgame handshake because he was so disgusted by a loss. (Any coach will tell you that nobody does a quicker postgame blow-by after a defeat than Calhoun.) Calhoun may not be the most popular fellow among his peers, but nobody will call him a phony. After the Huskies blew a 19-point lead at Georgetown two weeks ago, I sent a message to Calhoun asking him to give me a call but didn't really expect him to. He rang me up at home and was more sanguine than I expected about his team's prospects. "We're not that far away," he kept saying.
Indeed, Calhoun still holds fast to the coach's natural optimism: We're not that far away. A few hard practices and we can turn this thing around. No way we can quit just yet. But I fear it is just that way of thinking that is putting his health in jeopardy. Four times over the past two years, Calhoun has missed all or part of a game because of dehydration and other minor illnesses. He is clearly pushing himself to the brink, and possibly beyond.
Calhoun doesn't need me to tell him how to live his life, and I'm guessing he'll ignore this advice, but I'm hoping against hope that this latest bout with his health will scare him straight. To his great credit, Calhoun has remained an attentive husband and father despite the demands of his profession, and he should consider himself fortunate that he is in good enough shape to hit the treadmill even at the age of 67. The game of college basketball will miss him when he retires, but his family will miss him more if he keeps putting this kind of toll on his body. So please, coach, get out while you still can. The sideline is no place for a good man to die.