On Wednesday afternoon, I was chatting with a friend of mine that happens to be a UConn fan about the future of the Big East with Notre Dame basketball headed to the ACC.
He asked me, semi-jokingly, “When does UConn get labeled a mid-major again?”
My response? “When Jim Calhoun finally retires.”
Well … that just happened.
And it puts the future of the UConn program in serious doubt.
Think about it like this: before Calhoun got to UConn, they were nothing. Literally. When Calhoun took over in 1986, UConn was coming off of a 9-19 season and had made just one NCAA tournament since joining the Big East in 1979. Within four years, he had led UConn to a Big East regular season title, a Big East Tournament title, and a trip to the Elite Eight. Since then, he’s led the Huskies to three national titles, a fourth Final Four, and spent more than two decades as an annual favorite to win one of the strongest basketball conferences in the country while churning out NBA players at a better rate than just about any program in the country.
Jim Calhoun, quite frankly, IS UConn basketball.
But he’s not exactly leaving the program in pristine condition.
The Huskies are coming off one of their most disappointing seasons ever, as they went from a team with top five talent to a below .500 record in Big East play and a first round exit in the NCAA tournament. That’s when the defections started, as two players — Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond — headed straight for the NBA while two more — Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith — transferred out of the program. To make matters worse, UConn is ineligible for the postseason this year as a result of APR penalties stemming from a pair of disastrous recruiting classes a couple years back. And since Calhoun has managed to piss off just about everyone outside of the state of Connecticut at some point in his career — the latest being his ability to work around scholarship restrictions to get Drummond into school last season — the NCAA opted against any kind of leniency in this case.
To make matters worse, UConn is stuck in a conference that no one wants to be a part of anymore, joining forces with some of the best of Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 to try and keep the Big East afloat in name only. You don’t think the Huskies wanted a seat at the ACC’s table?
So the question now becomes: does UConn have staying power?
Has Calhoun done enough to build UConn into a national program, or were the Huskies simply successful because of his coaching acumen and ability to amass and develop talent?
In other words, is UConn truly one of the best basketball programs in the country, or were they simply successful as a result of having a college basketball legend at the helm for a quarter-century?
It will be a couple of years before we get an answer, but the early results are, dare I say, promising? Despite the issues with players transferring and their postseason ban, UConn was still able to bring in a solid recruiting class, headlined by NYC native Omar Calhoun. And even with the uncertainty surrounding Jim Calhoun’s future at the school, the Huskies were able to earn commitments from a pair of top 100 recruits in Kenton Facey and Terrence Samuel. And those two aren’t the only UConn targets that are fans of newly-minted head coach Kevin Ollie.
The future isn’t going to be easy for the Huskies.
But it’s also fair to say that the future wouldn’t be easy with Jim Calhoun at the helm. And it wouldn’t be easy for anyone else tasked with replacing the most popular man in the state of Connecticut.
UConn will never reach the heights that they did under Calhoun, and it’s unfair to expect anyone to live up to those lofty standards. Three national titles and four Final Fours in 12 years? In Storrs, CT?
Instead of worrying about whether or not the future of the program will hold the same success as the past, UConn fans should focus on the fact that they got to experience a run of success that few in sports ever do.