STORRS, Conn. — The indestructible man looks vibrant and ruddy after 72 years of living, 45 years of coaching and 12 years of bucking prostate cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, five broken ribs, spinal stenosis and a hip fracture. He speaks with enough velocity that his words swarm and his sentences vie, new ones starting before the last ones finish. With championship photos with three U.S. presidents among the hanging mementos, he sits in a new office in a new practice facility just steps from the basketball arena across Jim Calhoun Way.
He’s that same Jim Calhoun, and he’s 30 months into his individual navigation of a universal situation: the retirement of the driven. “If anybody tells you it’s not difficult, they’re lying to you,” he begins and then makes off on a long paragraph and soon says, “I love the smell of the game. I love the feel of the game.” He attests to a void and to how sad it would be if there were no void.
As March blossoms with its defending champion in a wobbly spot, Calhoun uses “we” and “our” to describe University of Connecticut basketball, as well he ought. The Huskies’ reigning national champion head coach, Kevin Ollie, played for Calhoun at U-Conn. The associate head coach, Glen Miller, played for Calhoun at U-Conn. The two assistant coaches, Karl Hobbs and Ricky Moore, played for Calhoun at U-Conn., and so did the director of basketball administration (Kevin Freeman) — but not the scouting and video director (Dave Sevush).
He was Calhoun’s student manager.
With three seasons of tapering anxiety as a viewer following 26 seasons of bustle as a builder, Calhoun says, “It’s our team at U-Conn., but Kevin’s the guy calling the shots, as well it should be, and he’s done a terrific job. So my point being simply that, yeah, it’s ingrained in me. I mean, do I ever want to pick a whistle back up? Sure.”
“No, probably not.”
He put down the whistle in September 2012 “because I had a pin put in, I had a knee problem and I had some cancer come back,” he said. He left it to Ollie, then 39, even as he left himself available to Ollie for idea-bouncing, as during three magic weeks last spring when U-Conn. toted a plebeian No. 7 seed all the way to the ladders and the scissors. All the while, Calhoun watched as his creation lurched into uncertainty in the great American conference-realignment land grab.
All the realigning left U-Conn. in a woozy frontier set to continue this week down the road in Hartford at its second American Athletic Conference tournament, with rivals the fans haven’t had much time to loathe. With Shabazz Napier in Miami Heat attire, U-Conn. has sailed sideways to 17-13 and a No. 6 seed. NBA personnel who love Ollie from his 13 seasons and 11 franchises as a player there figure to try to lure him even as U-Conn. did, signing him last May to five years and $15 million.
Perhaps it’s an ultimate sign of the national moment that a defending champion could know this kind of doubt.
“The landscape has kind of, I don’t think it’s treated us unfairly, but somehow or another, we didn’t catch the [proverbial] last train to Tucson,” Calhoun said. “And so we aren’t necessarily, well, I can’t say we’re not where we want to be, because in 2011 we won a national championship and in 2014 we won a national championship, and so therefore, I have concerns like everybody here and everybody anyplace. And that’s why I say, the only thing we can control is us. ”
So he watches his creation with the sweaty palms he probably would have were U-Conn. 30-0, even as his viewing tension has gotten “much better,” he said, “because I’m comfortable with who’s in charge, Kevin, and was always comfortable but nervous for him [at first]. Not about him, for him.”
Calhoun still watches in an analytical way that prompted his wife of 48 years, Pat, to say, “God, you’re an awful fan,” not prone to cheering. (“My heart’s a good fan, though,” he said, pronounced in the Bostonian “haht.”)
His brain still might float away at Thanksgiving dinner or whatnot just out of habit. (His family always knows where it has gone.) He finds something new to see in the game every day, relishes witnessing practices in his new ESPN analyst role. “I mean, I’m attacking broadcasting,” he said.
On the other hand, 6 a.m. no longer brings a brain filling with tasks, and 3 p.m. no longer means practice. He and Pat voraciously go to cinema; he can wax about Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” then Michael Keaton in “Johnny Dangerously,” then Richard Burton in “Becket.” He and Pat hit the theatre; he’s on the board of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. He reads with zeal; right now, he’s raving to everyone about Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat.” He’s a multi-sport aficionado who can describe details of the first Boston Patriots game of Sept. 9, 1960, which he attended, and the recent Super Bowl, which he attended.
“So am I a person who has to be doing things? Without question. Am I driven? Yeah,” he said.
As senior night got going, though, he balked somewhat when assistant director of communications Phil Chardis entered Calhoun’s office and said one of the seniors had asked for Calhoun’s presence at midcourt. Of his approach to this whole transition, he said, “The biggest thing for me to do was to be there and not be there. Be invisible but be there. And that’s the hard thing to do.” As the number of players he recruited dwindles, he stood out there off to the side from Ollie, greeting and hugging the procession of seniors and parents.
Then he proceeded to his customary spot at a baseline table, next to Athletic Director Warde Manuel. He refrains very purposely from any theatrics, but as Memphis led 22-9 before a quarrelsome game developed, his face showed the old tension. As Connecticut led 53-52 with two minutes left, coming off a good win four days earlier over No. 21 SMU, he remained.
Yet as that score remained halfway through the final minute, he had gone, per custom. Shaq Goodwin’s shot for Memphis kissed just about every part of the rim before falling with eight seconds left. Senior Ryan Boatright, one of Calhoun’s last recruits, missed on a drive as time expired. Memphis Coach Josh Pastner, on Memphis’s first Storrs trip, complimented the atmosphere. Ollie came in and said, “The SMU game, the ball was moving, everybody was touching the ball, everybody was part of the game plan, and I just thought tonight there was a lot of selfishness. The ball was sticking a lot.”
D.C. Sports Bog: Two Maryland basketball teams, two top 10 rankings