Connecticut's Jim Calhoun still loves coaching

"I still think doing what I love makes the other stuff worth putting up with," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By JOHN FEINSTEIN
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Some losses are tougher to take than others. As the celebration began Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center in the seconds after Georgetown's stunning 72-69 victory over Connecticut, Jim Calhoun walked through the handshake line, a blank look on his face, probably not even seeing any of the players or coaches he was congratulating.

"I've just never gotten to the point where a loss doesn't tear me up," he said. "I still feel as if I've failed whenever we lose. My friends will say to me, 'Don't you know how much you've done?' My answer is, no I don't. Not when I've got Georgetown to play at noon today. I stay in the present."

Calhoun actually said those words about three hours before Saturday's tip-off. As he spoke, he easily might have passed for just another visitor to the nation's capital, someone looking to stay inside on a frigid morning. He already had worked out and was sipping a cup of coffee while his players sat quietly around him eating their pregame meal.

Calhoun is 67 and has been a head coach at the college level for 38 years -- 14 at Northeastern and 24 at U-Conn. He has won 816 games, which puts him second (behind Mike Krzyzewski) in wins among active coaches and only 86 wins short of Bob Knight's all-time mark of 902 victories. He has won two national championships, he is in the Hall of Fame and he has beaten cancer -- twice.

He has raised millions of dollars for numerous charities and stayed on his bike last summer for the last 16 miles of a charity bike race after taking a fall that broke five ribs. When Connecticut was accused of a number of recruiting violations last March, a lot of people thought Calhoun might call it a career after the Huskies put the distractions aside and made it to the Final Four.

Instead, after announcing last spring that he would be back at Connecticut this season, he signed a five-year contract extension. One thing is certain about Calhoun: He will not go quietly into the night.

"When I'm attacked, I have a tendency to overreact," he said, smiling. "It can be medically, it can be personally, it can be my coaching. I felt like my program, the kids I'd coached and my school were under siege. I did think about it [retiring], but at this point I think about it almost every year. I think every older coach does that. I didn't want to make a decision while I was emotional. I've always said that. I didn't want to leave at a time when I was feeling wrapped up in the glory of a moment or when I was feeling hurt.

"I waited a couple weeks, thought about it and finally decided I wasn't ready to stop doing this. I still love coaching. I love practice, I love recruiting -- the part where you go watch a kid and try to project how good he can become -- I love seeing the kids turn corners as players and people.

"These days when you're in the spotlight, which you're going to be if you coach in the Big East, there are times you wish you could turn it off. The outside stuff that comes with coaching has just grown and grown. I remember running into Dean Smith the summer before he quit [in 1997] and he said to me: 'I love basketball. It's the non-basketball stuff that will drive me out.' I still think doing what I love makes the other stuff worth putting up with."

A loss like Saturday's will no doubt keep Calhoun up at night. He readily concedes that he is still obsessed with basketball and with competing and with trying to win.

"The other night, Pat [his wife of 42 years] and I went to Hartford to a musical called 'In the Heights,' " he said. "It was wonderful. At one point as I was sitting there I realized I wasn't listening to the music, I was thinking about Georgetown. I understand that about myself. I don't see that changing."

He knows people couldn't understand last March when his first reaction to his team's classic six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament was to shrug and say, "A loss is a loss."


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