Saying Goodbye to UConn head coach Jim Calhoun

By: Kels Dayton

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How do you say goodbye to Jim Calhoun?

Jim Calhoun is calling it a career after 26 years at UConn. (John Woike/Hartford Courant)

It’s a question those of us UConn fans have been asking for years, but the answer always seemed to be out there in the future, like electric cars or a black president.

Suddenly, with one glance at ESPN’s Bottom Line, the future is now. Calhoun is gone, and UConn basketball will never be the same.

The Basketball Hall of Famer will announce his retirement in a press conference in Storrs on Thursday. He will be replaced by assistant coach Kevin Ollie, who has made a tremendous connection to the players, administration, and fans in just two seasons on the bench. Whether or not Ollie is able to replicate the success Calhoun has had, one thing is for sure: he won’t be as entertaining to watch.

I grew up in the glory days of Connecticut basketball. I was 11 years old when UConn won its first title in 1999. 17 when they won title two, 24 when they won title three. If you ask me, the man is a legend and should be revered for transforming a middling program from the Yankee Conference into a national powerhouse, mostly on the sheer force of his will.

My dad and I have been going to games for years, and we would often watch Calhoun’s reactions on the sidelines instead of the action on the floor. We’d laugh when he ripped someone out of the game just seconds after he had put him in. Any missed defensive assignment, bad pass, or otherwise bonehead play would mean immediate ejection from the contest. Often, you could see it coming. No one in the country substituted like Calhoun.

Calhoun won three national titles with Connecticut. (AP Photo)

My dad used to joke that the television cameras refused to show him during timeouts, because of how ahem…demonstrative he was. He’d bark incessantly at the referees, scream at assistant George Blaney, and stand in stone-cold silence during timeouts, leaving his players to figure out for themselves how to get back on track. But that was all a part of Calhoun’s charm. He was stubborn, fiery and intimidating, and hilarious to watch. It was that same personality that turned little Connecticut into an elite program.

 We all knew it was going to happen sometime. Calhoun is 70 years old and in rough shape, having endured two bicycle accidents, bouts with skin and prostate cancer, and stress-related stomach ailments that have kept him out of 40 games during his career. He missed 11 games last season with severe back problems.

He was also staring down the barrel of a relatively meaningless season, as UConn is barred from postseason play (thanks to the bogus Academic Progress Rate crackdown) and the best the Huskies can hope for is a regular-season Big East title.

Still, if he hadn’t suffered a broken hip in another bicycle accident in August, Calhoun likely would  have returned for another year of vein-popping, sign-kicking, gum-spitting excellence. He never wanted to leave the Huskies this way, asking a new coach to navigate what figures to be the toughest season the program has endured in decades. The departures of Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, and Roscoe Smith (among others) left UConn with an extremely young, inexperienced roster. Beyond that, Calhoun loves a challenge, and I’m sure he would have considered it a personal mission to ensure that the 2013 Huskies overachieved to the point that national experts wouldn’t even recognize them.

In the end, it was probably the bike accident that did him in. He admits himself that it gave him “a momentary pause.”

“I couldn’t do anything for two weeks,” he said. “It gave me a lot of time to contemplate some of the things in my life. But I looked around and realized that we were headed in the right direction. I knew this was the time.”

Calhoun always said that he would take legendary former North Carolina head coach Dean Smith’s advice and wait until the fall to make his final decision, to see if he still had the competitive fire to coach next season. In the end, he still had the fire, he just didn’t have the stamina to get through another grueling season.

Whatever it was, we’ll still miss him.

I’ll miss the national titles, the confidence that came with being an elite program, and the scrappy, underdog feel that Calhoun’s best teams always had. No one gave them a chance to defeat mighty Duke in 1999. Even fewer people believed they were capable of going on that miraculous eleven-game run in 2011, one that not many coaches in basketball history could have helped orchestrate. Calhoun’s Huskies were the definition of a vintage Big East team: tough, bruising, and never willing to give in. (It’s almost fitting that the Big East as we knew it continued disintegrating on the same day as his retirement, with Notre Dame  bailing).

He’s still going to be a presence at practices and in meetings, and Calhoun even said that he would now have more time to focus on individual player development. “Just don’t come to me with questions about playing time,” he said. “That’s coach Ollie’s responsibility now.”

Still, it’s going to be strange to look over at the bench and not see him there, in all his vein-popping, bench-kicking, gum-spitting glory.

No matter how successful UConn basketball continues to be, it will never have another coach like Jim Calhoun.

And there will never be a good time to say goodbye.



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