Calhoun can’t escape cheater tag

For almost two years Jim Calhoun fought with all the fury he could muster to save his name. The NCAA has been coming, chasing UConn’s basketball coach with a list of allegations so iron-clad it was almost impossible to deny wrongdoing. Still there was no stopping Calhoun’s frantic self defense; his assistants, his school, his basketball team be damned.

Even as the University of Connecticut labored to soften the blow of the news that its basketball coaches used a former team manager turned NBA agent to recruit a player, it seemed Calhoun was running his own vigorous defense, one designed to protect his legacy rather than aid his program under attack.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun's legacy took a hit with Tuesday's announcement by the NCAA.
(Jamie Rhodes/US Presswire)

By all accounts nobody wanted the talented but troubled recruit Nate Miles more than Calhoun. And yet when the fallout of Miles’ sloppy recruitment fell into the NCAA’s lap, Calhoun started running.

He protested that he knew little of what his assistants were doing even though there were more than 2,000 text messages and phone calls from his staffers to the agent in question.

Then when his claims of innocence fell silent against the weight of the NCAA’s original findings, he threw out his two loyal assistants hoping the NCAA would feast on them, leaving him alone. His own response to the NCAA ran 63 pages.

[Related: Yahoo! Sports probe]

So while it was easy to assume Calhoun got off light when the NCAA didn’t put a postseason ban on his team, Tuesday, the punishment that did come was actually far worse for the reputation he fought bitterly to guard. By finding Calhoun failed to create an atmosphere of compliance, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions was essentially saying he was no better than the crooks, cheaters and scoundrels against whom he has coached for nearly 40 years.

Forever now the Calhoun name will include a three-game conference suspension for recruiting violations.

And that he can never erase.

Perhaps Calhoun thought he could scare the NCAA off the way he prowls the sidelines barking at his players and officials. In another time he might have escaped. But the NCAA is placing more blame on coaches when their programs break rules. USC’s Pete Carroll deftly escaped the axe when he ran to the Seahawks last winter and now Calhoun has been bloodied in a way he never thought he would.

Even worse, his program has been weakened. In addition to losing the two young assistants he threw into the NCAA’s furnace, the team will have one fewer scholarship to give for three seasons, will not be allowed to make those important first calls on prospects next season and won’t have as many official visits with which to host top recruits.

Sure the Huskies still get to play in the NCAA tournament, but this was never about the tournaments for Calhoun; this was always about his legend.

Without even discussing the moral failings of Miles, who was tossed out of UConn just weeks after his arrival, the NCAA’s report said Connecticut took “extraordinary steps” to recruit Miles. It went on to say UConn’s athletic director Jeff Hathaway called it the “most intense” he had seen Calhoun in pursuit of a player. Hathaway, the report said, also used the word “zeal” to describe Calhoun’s desire to have Miles on his team.

It was clear the committee bought none of Calhoun’s defense and saw through his attempt to run a bus over the discarded assistants, Patrick Sellers and Beau Archibald, that it levied no punishment against Sellers (while hitting Archibald with what amounts to a two-year banishment).

“You had over 2,000 phone calls between [the agent Josh Nochimson] and the four [UConn] staffers in the time frame when recruiting started to commence with the student-athlete, the head coach has to bear responsibility for that,” infraction committee chairman Dennis Thomas said on a conference call Tuesday. “The head coach had a responsibility to know what was going on with his assistant coaches and the operations director.”

The irony in all of this is Calhoun had already written his legacy. He’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s won more than 800 games. He has two national titles. He turned Connecticut into a national power, one of the truly elite. He has a $13 million extension that came despite the NCAA investigation. And yet he tarnished it all with Nate Miles, an AAU superstar who will never amount to anything.

Once years ago, when forced to discuss another head coach who was at the time on the rise and yet one he clearly did not like, Calhoun stood outside a hotel and sputtered: “—— might be compelling but he cheats.”

Somehow, even as his rosters got better and better and eyebrows were raised around the rest of basketball, Calhoun created an image that he was somehow different from those other men who ran renegade programs.

Tuesday, the NCAA said he wasn’t.

That will hurt him far more than a postseason ban he could explain away as the indulgences of some out-of-control assistant coach.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 22, 2011