Will Calhoun choose to go out on top with his third national title?
HOUSTON -- Jim Calhoun knew better than to answer the burning question in a swirl of confetti Monday night. "The worst time to make a decision about any kind of coaching situation," Calhoun said, "is to do it in the great emotion of great things happening to you."
"Great emotion" doesn't even begin to describe the catharsis Calhoun experienced when the clock struck zero on Connecticut's 53-41 win against Butler. He had whipped a group that featured one great player (Kemba Walker) and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores into a respectable outfit, only to see it fall off a cliff at the end of the regular season. He had sparred with the NCAA, which suspended him for three Big East games next season and took away scholarships because of improprieties in the recruitment of Nate Miles, who never played a game in a UConn uniform. He had coached his team to five wins in five days in the Big East tournament, and that streak offered a glimmer of hope that somehow his Huskies could rip off a six-game win streak in the NCAA tournament.
When the buzzer finally sounded Monday, the 68-year-old Calhoun found guard Donnell Beverly, his lone senior, and bearhugged him. "This is sweet," Calhoun said, according to Beverly. "This is really sweet, huh?"
But is the win a sweet memory to cap a career, or is it a tantalizing taste that will bring Calhoun back in search of more sweetness?
To expect Calhoun to answer that question Monday would have been the acme of foolishness. Only in the movies do coaches win the big game and retire during the press conference. In real life, they say something similar to what Calhoun said Monday. "Recruiting starts in another day or two," Calhoun said. "Everybody will say, 'They really didn't have that good a season, they have everybody coming back,' something of that nature. So it begins again."
So Calhoun will go back to work this week, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will stand on the sidelines when UConn opens the season in November. He knows he has a choice. He'll ask if he can give all of himself to the pursuit of a fourth national title, to the grind of selecting, recruiting and coaching players. "If I can, I'll coach as long as I can keep on doing it," Calhoun said. "If I decide that I don't, then I'll move on to something because I do have an incredible life with my family and friends and other things that I do."
If Calhoun walked away now, no one would fault him. Some might applaud him. After all, his three national titles place him in an incredible group. Before Monday, only Bob Knight (three), Mike Krzyzewski (four), Adolph Rupp (four) and John Wooden (10) had won three national titles. Calhoun did it in a 12-year stretch with a program that, when he arrived in 1986, was about as mid-major as the Butler team much of the nation hoped would beat the Huskies on Monday.
If Calhoun walked away now, some might say he snuck away ahead of the NCAA posse. Miles, the player whose recruitment landed Calhoun in the NCAA's crosshairs, surfaced again last week to tell
Calhoun, who can't stop himself from reading and hearing what people write and say about him, said he used to think others wrote a man's legacy. Now he isn't so sure. Given his situation, that's probably a healthy attitude to adopt. "Talk to my players," Calhoun said. "Talk to those hundreds and hundreds of guys who played for me. Talk to Jimmy Boeheim and the people I've coached against for a long period of time, talk to people from our league, then maybe you'll find out more about me. Then if you want to look at my legacy number-wise, that's OK."
No matter how he chooses, Calhoun's legacy will be a complex one. He has the championships. He has given more to charity than a lot of people will make in their lifetimes. Yet he also has been branded by the NCAA, and that iron could go back into the fire should Calhoun decide to return.
Former player Kevin Ollie now serves on Calhoun's staff. He remembers the profanity-laced tirades. He also remembers the hugs. "You don't like it sometimes as a player," Ollie said. "Me, I wanted to transfer my freshman year. But as you kept going, you knew that he loved you. He wanted the best to come out of you. He knew something that you didn't even know you had inside."
Calhoun drew that out of this year's team even as he dealt with the NCAA investigation, which concluded in late February when Calhoun's penalties were announced. Ollie could tell the situation wore on his boss, but he said Calhoun never let it affect him on the court. "To push that aside when we're in practice for those two to three hours, to know that his team needs him and needs his undivided attention and dealing with those problems once practice was over with, it was just remarkable," Ollie said. "He motivated this team. He put a demand on their potential each and every day."
Ollie believes Calhoun earned a manner of vindication Monday night. "You hurt for him," Ollie said. "One thing you fight for is when somebody challenges your integrity. That you weren't honest. That you didn't have an atmosphere of compliance. Coach, that's his name. That's his character on the line. Coach came out fighting. Not in the media, and not fighting the NCAA. He fought by going out here and winning the national championship."
If Monday was Calhoun's final game, it was a vintage performance. He thought the Huskies allowed the Bulldogs to bully them in the first half, and he told them that at halftime. "Coach was mad at us," Walker said. "Honestly. ... He told us, 'Just get some balls,' basically. Just get some balls. And we really listened to him." In the second, UConn smothered Butler. The Bulldogs missed 31 of their last 37 shots, and the Huskies finally began converting on the other end. Per Calhoun's instruction, fortitude of a certain anatomical variety had been procured.
Walker, who in three years became an extension of Calhoun on the court, doesn't believe anyone will have to talk Calhoun into returning. "I think he's going to come back," Walker said. "He's got a special group of guys here, and it's only going to get better."
Beverly isn't so sure. "This would be a great way to go out," Beverly said. "On top. As a champion. But I really don't know. He looks like he could coach until he's 78. He has a lot of energy. I love his enthusiasm. His willingness to win is really what wills this team."
If Calhoun asked his advice, Ollie knows exactly what he would say. "Come back, because the kids need him," Ollie said. "And I don't think he can live without this." Then Ollie paused. "If he doesn't come back, that's fine, too," Ollie said. "He deserves to sit back and reflect on what his coaching career has been."
Calhoun wouldn't make the choice Monday with