Time For Jim Calhoun To Take A (Back) Seat At UConn

College BasketballSportsBasketballUConn HuskiesHeavy EngineeringArts and CultureManufacturing and Engineering

Jim Calhoun walked off the court at Gampel Pavilion, down a tunnel, through the heavy set of doors and into the hallways of a building he is accustomed to navigating with great energy and purpose.

From an office decorated with symbols of his success, to a locker room where he addressed hundreds of players, to the beloved "bunker" where he gathered his staff for hours at a time, Calhoun has moved at light speed over the years, knowing exactly what needed to be done immediately, and what needed to be done next.

"I think he's enjoyed the journey but I don't know if he ever has let himself really smell the roses," his son Jeff Calhoun said Thursday. "He did, but not fully, because he was always going forward. That just goes to the nature of who he is."

That's how the UConn program was built from a New England also-ran into a national giant, with a stubborn and passionate man picking a path, sticking to it and doing everything loudly and authoritatively. That, too, is the foundation for a Hall of Fame career that is now officially over. And when Calhoun re-entered those hallways following a press conference to mark his retirement and Kevin Ollie's appointment to the position of UConn men's basketball coach, he didn't have to rush to the next task at hand.

In fact, Calhoun wasn't entirely sure what was to come next. He now transitions from a head coach with his hands on everything to a special assistant within the athletic department, a role that will continue to be defined well after Calhoun empties his office and sets up somewhere else on campus. It was a bizarre, surreal day at Gampel, but one that made clear that this is the perfect time for Calhoun to step aside.

"I'm actually happy for him," said longtime friend and assistant coach George Blaney, juggling conflicting emotions, "because I've never seen him at peace like this."

Calhoun, 70, is comfortable with not having to carry the torch and light all the fires for a program he still wants to help steer in the right direction. He trusts those around him. He's leaving on his terms, which no longer call for him to push the button on every single decision for the team or program. Calhoun will be paid $300,000 a year in his new role, which includes work with the basketball program, UConn Health Center and the university at large. Whenever he fully retires, he will be named head coach emeritus. He goes out with 873 wins, three national titles and four Final Fours.

"I'll miss it terribly, no question," Calhoun said of coaching. "In this new part of the job, I'll be a little more objective and less passionate, but I think I have a lot more to offer as a person."

Ironically, Calhoun didn't fully understand that he was content with slowing down a bit until he was forced to. He fell off his bike on Aug. 4 and fractured a hip. The injury was not the reason for his retirement, but it was the reason he was able to focus more clearly on what he wanted. Calhoun's slow recovery has turned many would-be frenzied hours at Gampel into quiet times of introspection.

And this is what he came up with: It's time to turn the page. An incredibly experienced staff remains intact with Ollie, 39, at the helm. Calhoun has great working relationships with athletic director Warde Manuel and President Susan Herbst. The program is still dealing with fallout from its academic shortcomings and is banned from postseason play this year, but Calhoun feels the issues have been addressed and will be overcome.

"One of the legends of college basketball, period," Manuel said. "It's never easy replacing a legend. This will be a transition that is tough, but he's going to be by my side, be there for Kevin and be there for this university. That will make it a little easier. We're going to manage it carefully and deliberately."

Calhoun won't have a whistle. He won't lead practices or draw up game plans. The extreme sideline behavior, the bombastic press conferences, the sarcasm, the no-patience substituting patterns — they are all things of the past. One loud, outspoken fighter has given way to his former player, Ollie, a fighter of a different kind, much more mild-mannered but equally stubborn and optimistic. Ollie begins his coaching career with an unusual one-year contract. He spent the first six years of his 13-year NBA career without a guaranteed contract.

At the press conference, Ollie thanked Calhoun and called him "my second father."

UConn basketball is a little less colorful and entertaining today, as perhaps the most fascinating person to come across the state's sporting landscape has ended his on-court journey. Did you see him dance with joy after Kemba Walker's buzzer-beater against Pittsburgh in the 2011 Big East tournament? Did you see him shed a tear after defeating Gonzaga to reach the Final Four in 1999? Do you remember the Ryan Gomes and "Not one dime back" rants? There were memorable remarks after national titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011, at his Hall of Fame induction in 2005, even during his first press conference at UConn, in 1986, when he famously said, "It's doable."

And it's been done — his way.

"All those who have tried to understand me, I don't know how you could do that," Calhoun said. "I have a difficult time with that concept myself. … I never, ever, ever said I was mistake-free. I never said I didn't want to take [something] back. But I was always trying to do that right thing. And if you maintain that, your character, you feel a lot better about yourself."

Calhoun, never an assistant on any level, has had a team to coach for the past 40 years. Now, he must decide exactly how he can make a meaningful impact from a different seat. He'll work with Manuel in a number of areas, including fundraising for the new practice facility in which he will eventually have an office. He'll attend practices and offer advice — only when it's asked for. He hasn't decided whether to attend games. That's tricky — potential torture internally, and potentially unfair to Ollie.

"Maybe it's because I'm 6-foot-5, but this shadow can be somewhat long," Calhoun said. "I don't want that shadow on Kevin, ever. I'll pick and choose."

Calhoun's wife, Pat, his two sons and his six grandchildren attended Thursday's press conference, as well as former players, former assistants, the current staff, the current team and a couple hundred fans. Herbst called Calhoun "a legend, our legend," and Calhoun talked mostly about what has been accomplished by the university, saying that building UConn into a basketball power was a task far too complicated and multi-faceted for one man to receive all the credit. Still, he'll go down as perhaps the greatest program-builder in basketball history.

The public has seen snippets of what goes into that, a snarling Calhoun on TV here and there. Calhoun has been a controversial figure, which often leads to sweeping characterizations or incomplete portrayals. Some view him only as a championship coach who has bettered the lives of countless players and raised millions of dollars for cancer research. Others view him as an overpaid state employee with a temper who was busted for involving an agent in the recruitment of a player.

The Calhoun Era has been complicated for many, but not for everybody.

"Jim has always been an excellent husband and father and grandfather," Pat Calhoun said. "And he has always given us enough time and more time than we ever needed. Truth be known, I'm probably one of the few family members that said to Jim, 'I would love it if you kept coaching.' I also knew in my heart and soul that it was time to go, for his benefit. It's just time. You know that. The decision was made and he's very happy. As long as he can have some involvement with the university and help people, he'll be just fine."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
College BasketballSportsBasketballUConn HuskiesHeavy EngineeringArts and CultureManufacturing and Engineering
Comments
Loading