The UConn basketball coach is in the middle of his fifth medical leave in eight years. Why won't he just retire?
UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun missed his third straight game on Saturday. He's recovering from spinal stenosis, a painful back condition that recently left the coach bedridden for three days, and has since prevented him from boarding a plane or performing the stressful duties associated with coaching, including standing for long stretches of time, arguing with referees, and shouting over the din of a crowd. This is the 69-year-old's fifth medical leave in the last eight years, a track record that includes three cancer-related scares and one hiatus ascribed to an undisclosed ailment. A lot of people will look at these facts and say it's time for Calhoun to retire. But that's not likely to happen. The Hall of Fame coach who transformed UConn from an after-thought Big-East program into a three-time National Champion will almost certainly return to the sidelines. "There's no question," Calhoun told ESPN recently. "I've talked to the people at UConn and president (Susan) Herbst. I just want to get a resolution on my back."
The issue of when coaches should retire, either because of age, health issues, or the combination of the two, has been bandied about quite a bit in recent years, in cases involving collegiate coaches including Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, Rick Majerus, Urban Meyer, and Calhoun. It's not a black-and-white issue, not least because many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of forcing someone to abandon the profession they love. The issue is further complicated when a coach is successful and beloved—when they contribute exceptional value to a university, both as a figurehead and a recruiting tool, even if they're not winning championships.
For instance, who had the power (or the will power) to put someone like Paterno into retirement? He was too popular. And having been head coach at Penn State since 1966, he didn't seem capable of imagining himself as a "former head coach." Even when he was injured several times during games and practices, injuries that were a direct result of his age and frailty, the octogenarian forged ahead, sometimes coaching games from the press box. It was sad and somewhat unseemly—and yet completely understandable. After all, would you want anyone telling you that you're too old or unhealthy to do something you love? Something with which you've had tremendous success? Something that dominates your identity?
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Jack Singer is a California-based sports psychologist who has helped coaches who are obsessed with their professions. Many of these consultations are initiated by a concerned spouse, who will call Singer and explain how the demands of the job are adversely affecting their husband's health and families.
"Most high-level coaches have a Type-A personality. You see this not only with coaches but executives and doctors," Singer says. "One problem with Type A personalities is these folks tend to be all-or-nothing thinkers. That is if they don't win it all or they don't continue to be successful, they consider themselves to be failures. So folks like this have a tough time walking away from their jobs. They keep thinking just one more championship or one more success story. Their whole life is based on that, and all of their self-esteem is wrapped up in their work. And that's why what you frequently see, when these folks are forced to retire, they get sick rather quickly.