Jim Calhoun: Another Big-Time College Coach Who Can't Let Go

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?

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.

"Paterno is a good case of this."

It took the devastating sexual abuse allegations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in early November for Paterno's 45-year reign to end in Happy Valley. Paterno didn't leave of his own volition, though; and instead of retiring immediately, he offered to walk away at the end of the season. But university trustees were uncomfortable with what he may have known and not done about the Sandusky situation, so they fired the beloved coach. Less than a week later, his family announced that Paterno was receiving treatment for lung cancer. He died January 22, just two months later.

"His cancer just flourished," Singer says. "That's a normal, common story when these types of people are forced to walk away from what was their main source of satisfaction in life."

As head coach of the Florida Gators, Urban Meyer won National Championships in 2006 and 2008. But in December 2009, citing health issues associated with his demanding, stressful position, he announced that he would retire after the upcoming bowl game. The next day, he changed course, announcing that he would instead take an indefinite leave of absence. By the following March, he was back to full duties as head coach, unable or unwilling to loosen his grip. Following one more season at Florida, Meyer again cited health issues and retired again, ostensibly for good. He was just 46 years old.

This past season he worked for ESPN as a college football analyst. He was still around the game, but sans the stress. He became a respected commentator, who probably could have held that position for decades. But he obviously missed the up-close competition, because this winter he signed on as the new head coach at Ohio State University.

"It lasted one or two years and he's right back in the thick of it again," Singer says.

"These people cannot walk away from it. It's like they're gambling. They keep hoping that nothing will happen to them. Even though he had a great gig with ESPN, that wasn't good enough. He needed to be on the sidelines, seeing if he could lead another team to a national championship."

UConn has struggled this season, the reigning national champions a pedestrian 15-9, including losses in six of their last seven games. The team's troubles extend beyond the absence of Calhoun, though. Four returning starters (minus star Kemba Walker, who left for the NBA) have not provided the expected consistency. And there's no reason to believe that Calhoun's return would be the panacea for this team's ills. There's also no reason to believe that Calhoun won't return at some point. The evidence says that he needs to be on the sidelines—if not for his team, then for himself.