Connecticut's Jim Calhoun still loves coaching

Sunday, January 10, 2010; D08

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."

"Now, I can look back and say, 'Gee, that really was special,' " he said. "I know my kids gave me everything they had that night, just like [Orange Coach Jim Boeheim's] kids did for him. It was historic and great to be a part of. That night all I could think about was a play here, a play there, a missed shot. All I knew at that moment was that we were out of the tournament."

Calhoun has always been a lightning rod in coaching. He and Maryland's Gary Williams got into a public spat six years ago over the recruiting of Rudy Gay. Last February, when a freelance reporter tried to bait him in a postgame news conference by repeatedly asking him if he thought he was overpaid given the economy, Calhoun took the bait, saying, "I wouldn't give a dime back." He pointed out how much money his team brings into the state's economy but still got ripped in some circles for his initial comment.

"Shouldn't have done it," he said. "I let the guy get to me, which is what he wanted. I didn't have to defend my record but I lost my temper."

His temper has gotten him in trouble on more than one occasion, but he has always been someone who makes no bones about who he is or what he's trying to accomplish. Several years ago, after Connecticut won its second national title, he was invited to throw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium. He politely declined. "I'm a lifelong Red Sox fan," he said. "I wouldn't feel right doing it."

His father died when he was 15, and Calhoun later dropped out of Lowell University as a freshman. Almost two years later, after working various jobs to help support his five siblings, he was given a second chance, a basketball scholarship to American International College. He got a degree in sociology but chose coaching, and after going 39-1 his last two seasons at Dedham High School, took a pay cut to become the coach at Northeastern in 1972. At the time he took the Connecticut job in 1986, there were many who thought the school should drop out of the Big East, that it simply couldn't compete.

He was 9-19 that first season. Three years later, the Huskies were 31-6 and came within a buzzer-beating Christian Laettner jumper of the Final Four. Since then, Connecticut has become one of the power basketball schools in the country.

None of that mattered to Calhoun on Saturday. A 19-point lead had been blown. His team had not dealt well with adversity on the road. There were bad shots, missed free throws and poor defense when it mattered most. Even so, there was little time to be miserable. Pittsburgh will be in Storrs on Wednesday.

That meant Calhoun and his coaches would head straight to the bunker as soon as they got home.

"Of all the things I would miss if I stopped coaching, I think I'd miss the bunker the most," he said. "The camaraderie I feel in there, the safety I feel. I would really miss that."

The bunker is a conference room with a lounge that is down the hall from the basketball offices. It is where the coaches retreat to go over a game, to look at tape, to relax. There is one phone in the bunker and almost no one knows the number. There is no spotlight, there are no questions. Just a search for answers.

Almost 45 years after he first became a coach, Jim Calhoun is still searching for answers. He didn't have quite as many as he needed to beat Georgetown. He will spend the next four days trying to find enough of them to beat Pitt. And he will love every moment.

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