Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun just won’t go away


Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, center, celebrates with his players after winning a third national championship. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
Mike Wise
Columnist April 5, 2011

Amid all the errant shots of Monday night’s NCAA title game, and then amid the confetti, the streamers and the primal roar from the player we now know simply as Kemba at the end, one thing stood out:

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The old man won’t go away.

You can suspend Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun for three Big East games next season for recruiting violations and probe his controversial program for corruption until 2020.

Keep telling him he’s dirty, go ahead.

Then watch as his team grows more physical on each possession and wins on the last night of the season, a 53-41 victory over Butler for the national championship. Watch Calhoun take your contempt for him and his program and sneer.

Watch the old man become one of just five coaches to win three or more national championships.

At a crotchety 68, he also just became the oldest coach to win an NCAA men’s basketball Division I title.

Damn the NCAA investigators.

Damn any of his peers who turned him in.

Damn the best story in college basketball the past two years.

U-Conn. 53, Hickory High, the sequel, 41.

So dies the small-school Indiana championship dream, along with any notion that karma has a place in sports.

John Wooden. Adolph Rupp. Bob Knight. Mike Krzyzewski. Jim Calhoun. That’s the list of men’s Division I coaches who have won three or more titles.

Short of probation or Kemba Walker being injured, Calhoun would not be kept down. The man is as indestructible as a New England winter, maybe more bitter and cold toward the people who wanted to see him lose on Monday night.

Heck, five of his ribs can be broken after a fall in the 50-mile, Jim Calhoun Cancer Challenge Ride in 2009.

He is still finishing that race.

He is still beating cancer, three times now.

On the night he won his third national championship, Calhoun managed to overcome scrutiny, suspension, sickness and, finally, the sentimental favorite on the last night of the college basketball season.

Cantankerous, inaudible sometimes, the old man is a survivor.

Whatever you think of Calhoun, this was his most impressive coaching performance, turning a team with one star and a few nice role players not expected to make the Final Four at the beginning of the season into the final snapshot of “One Shining Moment.”

Apropos, this one was pure Calhoun, pure Big East grunt and grit, the Huskies holding Butler to 19 percent shooting, a title game low.

Did you see this esthetically unappealing mess on the court? No team ever shot this poorly (34.5 percent) to win a championship. It was a physical scrum with no flow or rhythm for most of 40 minutes. The game was just waiting for someone to take over and exert their dominance.

Who, though?

Walker, who tirelessly led his team to nine victories in 19 days?

Butler’s Shelvin Mack, the stutter-stepping, stop-and-pop guard who knocked down a three-pointer before the first-half buzzer to provide the Bulldogs’ 22-19 halftime lead after 20 minutes of slog, no-flow basketball?

Matt Howard, the beefy center whose effort and skill got Butler here as much as Mack’s clutch shots?

Or the youngster, Jeremy Lamb, U-Conn.’s 6-foot-5 freshman swingman who all but disappeared in the first half?

It was the kid who showed up first. Lamb knifed inside for soft pull-up jumpers. He spotted up from the perimeter, knocking down important shots as the Huskies began to forge a little room early in the second half. He scored 10 of his 12 points in second half and finished with seven rebounds.

They weren’t huge numbers, but in a woefully played offensive game like this — where a five-point lead felt like 15 — every bucket mattered.

It wasn’t pretty; in point of fact, it was downright ugly, an in-your-grille scrap in which a foul could have been called on just about every possession on both ends.

And the mentally and physically toughest, most ornery team in college basketball, taking the cue from their survivor of a coach, won by knockout in the second half.

The way the old man figured it, if neither the NCAA nor his Big East foes could drop Jim Calhoun, there was no way Butler was going to make his team take an eight-count on Monday night before 75,000 people – most of who came to see U-Conn. lose.

“The championship is incredibly wonderful to bring to Connecticut and our fans, but to give these kids, the work they put in, it’s maybe, professionally, the happiest moment in my life,” Calhoun said.

Of course it’s his happiest moment. The old man got back at everyone.

He won’t go away. Not without another trophy on the last night of the season, the night Jim Calhoun ruined everyone else’s dream but the one belonging to him and his players.

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