At times, Jim Calhoun looks exactly like what he is: the oldest coach in the NCAA tournament, a couple of months shy of 69; a two-time cancer survivor; and an oft-criticized coaching icon whom the NCAA has sanctioned in the past month.
That’s how Calhoun appeared Wednesday afternoon, as he slowly climbed the nine steps to the podium in the interview room at Verizon Center
Then he started to talk — about his team winning five games in the Big East tournament a week ago; about his star, Kemba Walker; about his NCAA tournament memories. The words, as always, came in a rush.
Afterward, as he descended those nine steps and left the room, there was spring in his step. He continued talking about what keeps him going after 39 years in the business.
“My friends tell me all the time, ‘Relax, what are you so worried about? Look at what you’ve done,’’’ he said. “I can’t possibly do that. We’re playing Bucknell tomorrow, and all I can think is, ‘We can’t lose to Bucknell; we just can’t.’ I think that before every game, especially this time of year.
“There’s no doubt I fear failure a lot more than I enjoy success.”
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Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon says people ask him all the time when Calhoun is going to retire.
“I mean, logic says he would step down,” Dixon said. “Except you aren’t talking logic; you’re talking Jim Calhoun. . . . This is who he is; this is what he does.”
Dixon is always quick to point out that when he first came to Pittsburgh as Ben Howland’s top assistant in 1999, the program they tried to emulate was U-Conn’s.
“You look at where they’d been and where they were — national champions when we got there,” he said. “But it was more than that. It was the way they played: really emphasizing rebounding and defense; recruiting hard-nosed kids who wanted to get after it. We haven’t done what they’ve done, nowhere close, but we have tried to look at their model because he’s certainly made it work.”
Be Like Jim — not everyone would agree with that particular creed.
Among college basketball’s great coaches — and Calhoun certainly qualifies, with 850 wins, two national titles and a plaque in the Hall of Fame — Calhoun is the target of the most sniping by his peers.
Many look at the recent NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations as part of a pattern, not a variance. Mention former Husky Rudy Gay to Maryland Coach Gary Williams, and prepare for a diatribe on how Calhoun paid Gay’s AAU coach to bring a team to Storrs for a preseason exhibition. Not long afterward, the NCAA pass rule permitting Division I schools to play exhibitions only against NCAA-sanctioned teams. Many coaches call it, “The Calhoun Rule.”
When Connecticut lost an historic six-overtime game to Syracuse in the Big East tournament two years ago, people were euphoric about the intensity of the game, the level it was played on, the heart shown by both teams. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim remembers looking around Madison Square Garden during one of the overtimes and thinking, “Wow, isn’t this something. It’s after midnight and no one has left the building.”
Calhoun’s reaction wasn’t quite as dewy-eyed. “It’s a loss,” he said afterwards. “That’s all I see it as, a loss.”
Told of Calhoun’s comments three days later, Boeheim responded, “Why does he act like that?”
Calhoun knows what’s said about him and honestly doesn’t care very much. He has an absolute belief in what he’s done and what he’s doing.
“The answer lies not in the wins or the losses,” he says. “It lies in who our kids become. I feel pretty good about that.”
Calhoun was 15 when his father died of a heart attack; he dropped out of college as a freshman to support his family. He was, among other things, a grave-digger and a headstone cutter. He went back to college, graduated and became a high school coach. His first team was 1-17. His first college job was at Northeastern where he transitioned the program from Division II to Division I and created a mid-major power. Then, in 1986, the Connecticut job opened up.
U-Conn. was supposed to be a coaching graveyard. Many thought the school should drop out of the Big East and find a conference it could compete in. In Calhoun’s second season, Connecticut won the NIT. In his fourth season, the Huskies won the Big East title and lost in the NCAA tournament regional final, only after Duke’s Christian Laettner made a shot at the buzzer. Nine years later, in 1999, the school won the NCAA title, beating Duke. It won another in 2004, the year after Calhoun had surgery for prostate cancer. Four years later he had a serious bout with skin cancer.
Along the way there have been off-court issues with players (notably the Marcus Williams, A.J. Price laptop-stealing scandal of 2005) and feuds with fellow coaches. One way or the other, Calhoun is always in battle.
It shows on his face and sometimes in his step. But never in his coaching.
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With 11:37 left in Thursday night’s game, TV went to a timeout. Bucknell had scored the last two baskets of the game and, as his team came to the bench, Calhoun was furious. He was demonstrating proper technique to all five players as they walked in his direction.
U-Conn was leading at that moment, 64-31.
“Jim’s approach is to push them and push them to reach a certain level. Once they get there, he pushes them to the next level,” said George Blaney, a successful head coach himself for 25 years and now a U-Conn. assistant. “He can’t do it any other way. The day he doesn’t get on them in that situation is the day he stops being Jim Calhoun.”
That day appears to be a long way off. Closing in on 900 wins and 70 years old, he’s worried only about the next loss. And the next battle.