The retiring coach didn't rely on tricks or gimmicks: He simply recruited well and took joy in the game.
Jim Calhoun is stepping aside today, a month before the start of what would have been his 27th season as men's basketball coach at the University of Connecticut. He leaves the game as both a winner—three national titles, four Final Four appearances, 873 wins in 40 seasons at UConn and Northeastern—and a character of note in American sport. This is a not insignificant accomplishment: success—particularly sustained success spanning multiple decades, carried out in a place like Storrs, Connecticut, a chunk of dark territory on the college basketball landscape prior to 1986—tends to earn one the benefit of the doubt with media and fans.
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Not Calhoun. Even the warmest assessments of his career to appear since word of the resignation broke last night admit he's a problem play, as coaches go. His critics—who tend to be national columnists, not reporters on the beat, which anyone who knows anything about sports media knows will tell you is the true test of congeniality in the coaching ranks—insist the school's upcoming one-year postseason ban for failing to make grades (according to the NCAA's newly-designed, highly confusing and selective Academic Progress Reports) and the shady recruitment of a guard named Nate Miles back in 2006 (which earned Calhoun a three-game suspension last year) tarnish his legacy irrevocably.
Maybe. But mild NCAA sanctions of yesteryear have a way of falling into footnote. It will be harder to forget Calhoun's sideline demeanor (not aesthetically pleasing, with the stomping and f-bombs) and prickly postgame news conferences. It is true, he never mastered the art of the evasive response. He was more inclined to offer an 800-word affront to the concept of a non-answer, on-the-record and peppered with elliptical and majestic profanity. Whether this is preferrable to "I'm not going to get into that here" is a matter of personal preference. But it's instructive to look at his most frequently replayed addresss, delivered after a loss to Providence in 2004. Friars forward Ryan Gomes (a Waterbury native on his way to being named First Team All-America) scored 24 points and nabbed 12 rebounds. When asked (not for the first time) how Gomes was ever able to get out of the state, Calhoun said, "I fucked up!"—a claim he went on to repeat several times.
The incident is uniquely Calhoun and an example of what people why people who value him—and I do—will take him above Wooden, Rupp, or any other coach that might be coming down the pike. Calhoun did not claim infallibility. He knew his history and did not retreat from it. The part of the clip that never gets replayed during the "Top 10 Press Conference Meltdowns" or whatever is that earlier in the interview, Calhoun notes that he couldn't offer Gomes a scholarship because he had offers out to future UConn stars Emeka Okafor and Caron Butler. It's less a diatribe and more a highly public act of self-criticism. Whereas Mike Kryzewski, Bobby Knight, and Roy Williams wouldn't have understood the question.
Jim Calhoun is a great, mantraless basketball coach: There are tricks, no Pyramids of Success you can master in a three-hour course at the Hilton out by the airport. He recruited well, kept his wits about him in in-game situations. (There is no better game coach working in the NBA or NCAA.) Above all, he never lost his joy. In the end, that's Jim Calhoun's grail. After being eliminated from the 2005 NCAA tournament, he told the media: "[W]e lost that joy of playing." Seasons were judged on how much joy a squad brought their head coach. He never lost his ability to be flustered or moved by what he saw on the basketball court. Coaching basketball let Jim Calhoun see the world and do some good. (The UConn cardiac center bears his name.) He never stopped noticing. The gratitude is on display in his Hall of Fame induction speech, circa 2005.
The game has taken me to many places. I've traveled from Braintree High School to American International College in Springfield; from Old Lyme, Connecticut, to Westport; from Boston to Tel Aviv; from Dedham, Massachusetts, to Anchorage, Alaska; from Storrs to Sarajevo. I've experienced the noise of the inner city and the quiet of sleepy country towns. The game has introduced me to American citizens, families, and culture.
And then he took them back to Connecticut.