STORRS, Conn. — Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun could have stepped down immediately after winning the 2011 national championship. Voices from every direction told him retirement was absolutely the right thing to do. People whispered it in his ear. Fans said it was time. Columnists wrote it would be the perfect Hollywood script or, at the very least, another Al McGuire moment for college basketball.
At 68 years old, he watched his team roll off 11 consecutive victories to win the Big East tournament championship and then rule the Final Four. Some have called it the most incredible winning streak in postseason history. And with that he claimed the distinction of being the oldest man ever to lead a college basketball team to the national championship.
To celebrate, he hugged and kissed his children — and his grandchildren. His wife stood on the floor at Reliant Stadium in Houston that night, wiping tears from her eyes and watching her husband and her Huskies cut down the NCAA nets for the third time in Calhoun’s career.
“I never want Jim to retire,” Pat Calhoun said at that moment. “Unless he wants to retire.”
And now we know that moment has come. NBC Connecticut first reported Wednesday night that Calhoun, 70, has decided to retire from coaching after 26 seasons at UConn and 40 years overall. Sources confirmed the report and a news conference has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at UConn’s Gampel Pavilion to “address the future of the men’s basketball program.” Assistant coach Kevin Ollie, who played for Calhoun at UConn and then played 13 years in the NBA, is expected to be introduced as UConn’s new head coach.
Calhoun has taken the Dean Smith approach to retirement. To those who know Calhoun best, that comes as no surprise. Smith retired from North Carolina on Oct. 9. 1997, just days before practice was scheduled to begin. Smith gave little warning but said he felt he could not give his team the same enthusiasm he had given in the past.
Over the past four or five years, Calhoun has often referenced Smith’s comments and used the summer months to evaluate his passion. He came back for the 2011-12 season because he said he felt it was his duty. As part of NCAA sanctions that resulted from recruiting violations in the Nate Miles case, Calhoun was suspended from three Big East games last season. He said it was his responsibility to serve that suspension.
He waited until late last August to announce he was returning. And now this announcement comes with the first official practice just over four weeks away. Calhoun has two years remaining on his contract and most of this summer he hinted that he would return — but he never made the commitment.
UConn's run to the 2011 NCAA title was one of the highlights of Calhoun's tenure.
Calhoun fractured his left hip in a biking accident on Aug. 4. His recovery is ongoing but he is using crutches to get around and will need a cane before long. Last season he missed time on the bench because of spinal stenosis but returned after surgery and led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament for the 18th time. Perhaps those issues were a factor. Maybe he was tired of missing games.
At this time, only Calhoun understands the timing.
We do know a rather humbling 77-64 loss to Iowa State in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament will go in the record books as his final game.
He walks away with 873 coaching victories, sixth best all-time in NCAA Division I. Only Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim, Smith and Adolph Rupp recorded more. Even though UConn is banned from NCAA and Big East postseason play in 2013 for underachieving on Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, Calhoun could have easily moved past Rupp (876) and Smith (879) by coaching one more season.
Calhoun, however, was never motivated by that list. Those words from Smith always stuck in his mind.
“It’s going to be what I feel passionately. Can I give the kids everything humanly possible that I can?” Calhoun said during the 2011 Final Four. “If I can, I’ll coach as long as I can keep on doing it. If I decide that I can’t, then I’ll move on to something else, because I do have an incredible life with my family and friends.”
Calhoun was pleased recently when a ranking of the 50 most successful programs of the last 50 years by ESPN.com placed UConn at No. 9. He has every reason to be proud of that, considering where the program was when he took over for Dom Perno in 1986.
Calhoun took over the UConn job from Dom Perno in 1986.
“I’ll do everything in my power to make the program good,” he said when he was introduced on May 15, 1986. “I can’t do any more than that. I don’t work miracles.”
Some would say he did work a miracle in Storrs. UConn no longer is confused with the Yukon Territory. New construction on the campus in Storrs is attributed to increased enrollment and a higher quality of student admissions. Studies have shown all of that was sparked by the success of UConn basketball. The university’s reputation has been enormously upgraded and UConn is now considered a top-20 public institution nationally.
The Huskies were charter members of the Big East Conference in 1979 but the Yankee Conference mentality of the administration meant UConn was securely fixed in the bottom three of the standings year in and year out. Calhoun was hired to change that, and he did. UConn is 48-14 in the NCAA tournament since Calhoun arrived. Prior to the Calhoun Era, the Huskies had experienced true March Madness only 13 times with a 4-14 NCAA record (losing twice in 1956 after playing in a third-place game). In Perno’s final season, callers to a sports talk show in Hartford repeatedly urged the school to return to the Yankee Conference.
After a 9-19 record his first season, Calhoun won the NIT in 1988. The love affair with an entire state was on and Huskymania was born. UConn’s “Dream Season” in 1989-90 ended one step short of a Final Four. After several disappointing NCAA exits (nine Elite Eights and 13 Sweet 16 appearances brought some heartache along with the titles), Calhoun finally experienced a national championship in 1999 when he outcoached Krzyzewski and UConn knocked off heavily favored Duke 77-74. With championships in 2004 and 2011, Calhoun became just the fifth coach to win three national titles. John Wooden, Krzyzewski, Rupp and Knight are the others.
If you want to say Calhoun stayed too long, go ahead. Factor in his health problems and don’t ignore the NCAA issues in recent years. But when Calhoun’s legacy is finalized, he truly did work a miracle in Storrs. And that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Take it from Boeheim.
“Jim Calhoun has done as good a job as has ever been done in college basketball history in taking over a program that was at one level and taking it to a totally different place,” Boeheim said when he entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with Calhoun in the Class of 2005. “A lot of coaches have been able to take good programs and keep them at that level or make them a little better, but Jim Calhoun had done something at Connecticut that I really don’t think anybody has ever done any place else.”