One of the most interesting aspects of a sports figure’s retirement are the reactions of fans and media alike. With Jim Calhoun ending a coaching career that’s spanned four decades, there’s no shortage of opinions in regards to a run that resulted in 873 victories and three national titles.
But what makes the reactions to Calhoun’s career so interesting are the different views provided by national writers and members of “The Horde”, the famed group of beat writers that followed the Connecticut program’s every step. Below are a sampling of the various commentaries on Calhoun’s career.
Dana O’Neil (ESPN): “Calhoun can be combative, prickly and at times downright difficult to like. He ambles on his aching hip into the locker room of retirement with his share of detractors and critics. Frankly, not everyone will be sorry to see him go. But whether you liked him or loathed him, you had to respect him.
“I personally enjoyed the crusty New Englander. He was blunt, often to his own detriment, and his news conference filibusters gave more than one stenographer carpal tunnel syndrome. But you always knew where you stood with him and you always knew where he stood. And usually he stood his ground, defiantly.”
Mike DeCourcy (Sporting News): “Calhoun always insisted 3 o’clock on winter afternoons would feel so empty if he weren’t on the court at Gampel Pavilion—not far from longtime assistant George Blaney, who was clinging to the same obsession—and sarcastically goading his players into elevating their level of play. That is what Calhoun did better than anyone, ever: Coaching ‘em up.
“The other legends recruited prospects acknowledged to be transcendent talents and turned them into champions, which surely is no mean feat. Those guys had to find players who filled the roles around Lew Alcindor and Isiah Thomas and Christian Laettner and James Worthy. They had to call the right plays, manage the egos, throw a tantrum when it seemed most prudent and build the team’s collective belief.”
Jeff Goodman (CBS Sports): “Sure, he’s a guy who has taken shots as his career wound into its twilight. There were the NCAA sanctions — which included Calhoun being suspended for a trio of league games — due to the program’s involvement with former manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson. There was the postseason ban this season.
“But Calhoun will ultimately be remembered for taking a program that was irrelevant and turning it into a national powerhouse. There were three national titles — in 1999, 2004 and 2011. It became a factory, churning out NBA players and victories, with the one constant over the past 26 seasons being Calhoun.”
Les Carpenter (Yahoo! Sports): “Back when he first transformed UConn from Big East joke into conference contender he seemed to be a man with integrity. He might have yelled too much at his players or screamed irrationally at referees. He often had the look of a haunted madman desperate to do anything to win a game. But he was also a teacher, a leader, someone who appeared to care about his players enough to send many of them into the world with college degrees.
“Then something happened in the lust for championships. He changed. People talked about it. Newspapers launched investigations following leads about a coach and a program that maybe weren’t so clean anymore. The investigations came up dry but the rumors continued to swirl. The coach who despised the instant winners and talked of his disgust for the titles they bought, was starting to follow that very path.”
Gary Parrish (CBS Sports): “And it’s why it would be wrong to spend this space waxing poetically only about how Calhoun made college basketball relevant in New England, about how he built a program out of nothing in the middle of nowhere, about how he signed and developed Rip, Emeka, Kemba and dozens of other NBA Draft picks, the last being Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb.
“That’s some of story, and that portion of the story is really impressive. It’s why Calhoun is in the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. But the other part of the story is about a bully who apparently didn’t demand the same type of excellence in the classroom from his players that he demanded on the court, about a stubborn man who walked away only when his body failed him yet again, about a rule-breaker who left a program on probation, banned from the NCAA tournament and without the kind of talent necessary to compete in the Big East.”
Alexander Wolff (Sports Illustrated): “But insecurity looks better when you consider the alternative, which can morph easily into complacency. And there was no room for complacency at UConn, a school with no tradition of Final Fours until Calhoun arrived in 1986. His first NCAA title team, in 1999, went 11-0 on the road that season, in what was the perfect tribute to its coach’s personality. “When I walked in his sneakers, we dreamed of the postseason and being the best in New England,” one of Calhoun’s predecessors, Dee Rowe, told me this week.
“Maybe, once, do what Holy Cross did in 1947 [when the Crusaders brought the region its first NCAA title]. Jim dared to pursue excellence. He dared to dream. What he’s done is simply miraculous, because he did it in Storrs, Connecticut, where you … don’t have restaurants or movie theaters or clothing stores, not like Lexington or Chapel Hill. No one had ever done it before, and no one will ever do it again.”
Jeff Jacobs (Hartford Courant): “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.”
Chris Elsberry (Connecticut Post): “Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Calhoun, who turned 70 in May and is the grandfather of six, decided to put down the clipboard for good. What’s the difference between three or four NCAA titles? What’s the difference between 870 and 890 wins? What’s another Big East championship on the resume? When you’ve done as much and won as much as Calhoun had won, it can only be desire that keeps you going. That desire must have finally started to fade.
“Because he could have stayed. His contract still has two seasons left to run on it. Apparently, however, in the aftermath of a disappointing first-round loss to Iowa State in the NCAA tournament; a three-game suspension by the NCAA for his actions (or lack thereof) in the Nate Miles recruiting affair; his players’ poor academics that led to a 2013 postseason ban; the transfers of Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith; the loss of Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond to the NBA draft; his absence of eight games with yet another medical issue, spinal stenosis; and, lastly, surgery on a fractured hip after a fall off his bicycle in early August, Calhoun must have felt enough was enough.”
Bob Moseley (Connecticut Post): “Maybe Calhoun thought he could reform a kid with questionable character. He lost on [Phil] Dixon but triumphed with Caron Butler, an at-risk youth from Racine, Wisc., who turned his life around. There have been many other success stories, and also some embarrassments along the way.
“But the good far outweighs the bad with Calhoun. His coaching has brought millions of dollars to UConn, elevated the school’s national profile, and lured thousands of prospective students to Storrs. He’s also been a staunch supporter of charities, including the Jim and Pat Calhoun Cardiology Research Endowment Fund. All things considered, he’s been a state treasure.”
Chip Malafronte (New Haven Register): “His legacy is firm. Complicated, perhaps, given his combative nature and recent controversies. But Calhoun is a Hall of Famer. A coaching legend. Seven Big East tournament titles, four Final Fours and three national titles. He is to UConn what John Wooden is to UCLA, Dean Smith to North Carolina and Mike Krzyzewski to Duke. He leaves with the program on probation, unable to compete in this season’s NCAA tournament. It doesn’t help that the Huskies suffered major personnel losses in the offseason.”
Neill Ostrout (Journal Inquirer): “Calhoun’s three national titles put him in some elite company. Only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight have won as many in Division I basketball history. That’s odd to consider when one looks at the program Calhoun took over from Dom Perno in 1986. The Huskies were a regional power but rarely contended nationally.”That began to change with the surprising NIT title Calhoun and the Huskies claimed in 1988. And it shifted seismically with the 1989-90 Dream Season, a breakthrough campaign that saw the Huskies win a legendary NCAA Tournament game when Tate George hit “The Shot” and come within a Christian Laettner jump shot of making the Final Four. Although capable UConn teams fell short of the making the Final Four again in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998, the 1999 team of Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and company “Shocked the World” with a win over Duke in the title game to give Calhoun and UConn their first national championship.”
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim (as told to Mike Waters of the Syracuse Post-Standard): “I think it’s one of the great coaching jobs of all-time,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Thursday morning. “I think the biggest thing for me is when you take over at a Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina or Duke, it’s still a hard job but you’ve got so many assets and so much tradition. If you do a great job there, it’s great. But if you take over a program like Connecticut, which was still coming out of the Yankee Conference, and do what he’s done. It’s pretty remarkable.’’
Lastly, while this isn’t a thought college basketball now has a new piece of art to consider. Kentucky had its Anthony Davis portrait made with cereal, and UConn can claim a statue of Jim Calhoun made out of Legos
Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.