11:23 PM EDT, September 12, 2012
We knew the toughest man in the room, the most competitive man in the gym, the greatest college basketball coach in New England history would battle until the end. We knew he'd go the full 15 rounds.
We just didn't know the last battle wouldn't be on the basketball court. It would be for his successor.
Jim Calhoun built a regional basketball program into a three-time NCAA champion, a powerhouse with as many national titles over two decades as Kentucky, Carolina or Duke. Even as late as 1998, who would have been crazy enough to predict such a thing?
So when the long-awaited word on Calhoun Wednesday night finally turned out to be the word "retirement," the only question left is why in the world wouldn't UConn put every effort into building on his success by chasing after the biggest and best available coach to replace him? Why limit the possibilities in any way?
Even if Calhoun's allegiances don't sway him such, even if his strong desire was to handpick a loyal soldier as his successor, even if he doesn't see it this way today, a wide open search that lands the best man ultimately is the greatest tribute that could be paid to Calhoun.
After months of reflection, doctor's visits and backroom maneuvering, Calhoun is retiring from UConn after 26 years. A Hall of Fame coach, to be sure, he is the man who allowed UConn fans to put UMass, Rhode Island and BC in their rearview mirror and put the Huskies on a level playing field with Duke and Carolina and Kentucky.
And that means plenty. It should mean a statue outside Gampel Pavilion. It should mean a court named after him. It gave him license to have input on his successor, input he obviously gave on Kevin Ollie's behalf.
It does not make Calhoun athletic director. It does not make him school president. It does not make him the most powerful man in Connecticut. Maybe four years ago, before Nate Miles, before the lousy APR scores, it did. Not anymore.
College sports became so immersed in the cult of coaching personality over the years that perspective on academics, salaries, loyalties, cheating, even common decency went badly awry. Blind loyalty mercifully looks to be out of vogue these days. After Penn State, it is a bad time for a coaching icon to try to throw his weight around.
Calhoun built this program, but it is not his to keep. The 873 wins, those are his. The championships, they are his. The legend as The Battler, The Bully, as Father Flanagan, all the contradictions that make up this complex man, are all his. So many hearts in Connecticut, those belong to him, too.
But the program, that belongs to the school.
That's why Warde Manuel and Susan Herbst would be stupid if they don't throw open the process and tell every coach in America, "We have one of the best jobs in the country. Come and try to get it." And really mean it.
Watching Calhoun break through to his first Final Four by beating Gonzaga in Phoenix in 1999 and then watching him break in tears afterward was one of the most amazing and moving days in UConn history. It was the only time I've ever seen Calhoun cry. It was the day UConn went big time. And it wasn't nearly the end.
Calhoun kept bashing away at anything in his way, opponents, cancer, reporters, athletic directors, until, by sheer force of will, the worst loser in the world bent destiny his way. He didn't settle for one national championship. He would take UConn to two and then three titles, lift him among the pantheon of the greatest coaching names.
That's right. He beat Duke and he beat cancer. All in one lifetime.
After the NCAA and Big East ruled the Huskies out of the 2013 postseason because of academic sanctions, some, including me, questioned whether Calhoun could muster the fire to coach with nothing really to play for. He immediately answered with how much he loved being in the gym, pushing players to be their best. He sounded as if he had some fire left.
When Calhoun broke his hip early in August, I swore it cemented his return. I figured he'd cut off his leg before he'd let somebody write that he'd retire off an injury. He's also 70. Contrary to previously published reports, he is not immortal. In recent weeks, people told me he was still hurting after surgery. With that and with no postseason championships to play, he had enough.
Yet there still was one game to play. All along, people said Calhoun would play a great game of chicken, careening impending retirement so close to the season that he'd ensure his guy would be the coach. Whether it was by design or circumstance, it worked to the extent that it got Ollie the job for this year. The press conference is Thursday and the framework will be explained, but the way I understand it is Ollie has one year as head coach to show his mettle, to prove himself.
In the past months, the whispers were the poker game went like this: Calhoun wanted Ollie to be permanent coach and Manuel wanted a man with head coaching experience and was willing to name Ollie only as an interim. Ironically, Calhoun probably would have had an easier time convincing Jeff Hathaway, an AD he helped sack.
I heard Ollie wasn't crazy about the interim idea, to the point where he was hesitant about taking the job. That's understandable. Lacking inside presence, the team isn't going to be very good this season, and every move Ollie makes, every breath he takes, will be weighed in a decision on whether he should be the permanent guy. Is it fair? Not entirely. But he does have the wheel and it's his car to drive. Manuel wanted a head coach. Well, now he has one to audition for a year.
In the coming months, if Shaka Smart is interested in UConn, chase down Shaka Smart. Or Brad Stevens. Or Sean Miller. Fill in your own favorite name. And if, in the end, that search leads Manuel back to Kevin Ollie? Great. If he ultimately proves to be the right man. Great.
A lot of the media from the outside will slobber that UConn was nothing before Jim Calhoun and will be nothing again after him. Other media will scold that success came because Calhoun dodged enough NCAA rules and his players dodged enough classrooms. It says here UConn is selling itself short if it believes basketball ends with Jim Calhoun. UConn is selling itself short if it believes it's a one-trick pony.
I have no idea what kind of game coach Ollie will be, nor do I have any idea how he will handle the daily public pressures with the media. Nor, in truth, does anyone. He hasn't done it yet. He is an impressive guy. A tireless worker on the court as a player, a family man off it. UConn has staked much of its continued success on getting players into the NBA. There is no better representative in that regard than Ollie. He casts a wide net in recruiting in that he can sell the fact that the program generates so many pros and not all of them were automatic stars like Rudy Gay. Just look at him.
One argument is if Ollie is guaranteed only a year, you'll damage recruiting because of uncertainty. There's some validity there. But let's be honest, even the 2012 recruits, Terrence Samuel (rated 112th nationally by Rivals) and Kenton Facey (62nd), aren't top 20 recruits. And a big name coach could elevate recruiting in a heartbeat.
Calhoun has wanted to be like John Thompson was around Georgetown, a retired godfather. If it works out that way, if Calhoun wants to raise money for the new practice facility, be a cheerleader/adviser emeritus, that's great. It can't be the No. 1 goal. The No. 1 goal is the best man to succeed him.
UConn fans are permitted to feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to Jim Calhoun. And today they are permitted to feel sadness about his retirement. Yet, in the end, Calhoun's present feelings should be secondary to his past accomplishments. He has built something great enough to keep going. And there is no better tribute than that.
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