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The worst part of Jim Calhoun’s story is that there was a time when he actually stood for something.
Of course, this was before he cashed it all in to turn the University of Connecticut into a quick-and-dirty basketball factory – ethics, morals and good academic practices be damned. In the end he got his rings. He got his banners. He got the Hall of Fame. But somewhere along the way he lost a piece of what made him unique in a world that swirled with ugly.
A quick glance at Jim Calhoun's 26-year run at UConn:
• Won three national titles (1999, 2004 and 2011) and had four Final Four appearances
• Won 10 Big East regular-season championships, seven Big East Tournament titles and an NIT crown (1988).
• Three-time cancer survivor
• Elected to Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005
• Served three-game suspension in 2011-12 season for recruiting violations
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.
By the time Yahoo! Sports discovered countless violations in the recruitment of a player named Nate Miles, there could be no more denying it: UConn was a dirty program.
On Thursday, Calhoun is supposed to leave coaching. He is probably walking out a season too late. He should have left after his third national championship in the spring of 2011. That way he could have snipped the nets, stepped down the ladder and disappeared stage left. But that’s not Calhoun. He never was about graceful exits. He wanted to keep going, to bellow at another generation of referees and stomp his feet on the floor. He wanted to keep winning.
Still, the NCAA sanctions from the Miles case had damaged his recruiting. A tournament ban for academic failings hurt the program more. He couldn’t keep players from leaving. He lost support inside the university. Even before he broke his hip this summer, Calhoun was dropping hints about an autumn exit; that way the school wouldn’t be able to find a replacement. It would have to accept Kevin Ollie as his hand-picked successor.
He leaves a complicated legacy of three championships but also the tarnish of an NCAA scoundrel. Try as he may to clear his name, he will forever be mentioned in the same breath as those men he couldn’t stand.
The saddest thing is that Calhoun could coach. Nobody practiced as hard as Connecticut. Nobody’s players were in better shape. Every drill was designed to maximize toughness. His signature practice play was to have each player dunk from the baseline as another tried to block the attempt. Who else would do this? Who would be crazy enough to try it? Every day the bodies crashed to the floor, then everybody picked themselves up and tried it again.
But as good of a coach as Calhoun was and as consumed with winning as he became, he was also afflicted with insecurities. He had a brilliant mind and was well read and cultured. He had the ability to understand exactly how he was perceived and his desire to be seen as great appeared to drive him.
In the days before the Internet he sent a team manager in the snow on a 100-mile round trip from the college in Storrs to downtown Hartford and then the airport near the Massachusetts border because two of the state’s biggest newspapers had boxes in those locations. It didn’t matter that the papers were mailed to the school and would arrive in another day or two. He couldn’t wait that long. He had to know right away what was being said about his team.
Ultimately, his legacy will say he broke the rules to win big. It wasn’t enough to have two titles, he had to have three. It wasn’t enough to have a fleet of gifted players, he had to have Nate Miles. Ultimately, he recruited a player to UConn who didn’t belong. And he risked the NCAA’s ire until it could no longer look the other way.
Calhoun will forever have his defenders. The majority of UConn fans, long raised on basketball irrelevance before he arrived, won’t care that he broke NCAA rules. They will say UConn was just doing what everyone else did. In a way, they are right. But the Calhoun who arrived in Storrs 625 victories ago was not a man who would be beholden to his players. He wasn’t going to be like those men. But his will to win bigger than all of them left him tarnished – a basketball Hall of Famer with an asterisk.
His replacement is a decent man. Kevin Ollie played 13 years in the NBA by making every bit of his talent matter. He probably could have been a head coach or a general manager, but he came back to his school, to his old coach, to the person who made him as a basketball player. When Ollie played for the Seattle SuperSonics, he didn’t live in a big house or a sprawling apartment or huge hotel suite but in the small motel across the street from the team’s practice facility. He cooked on a hotplate in his room and sent extra money back to his family in Connecticut.
Maybe Kevin Ollie won’t win a national championship. Who knows if he’ll be any good in a sport that values talent acquisition over anything else. But you also get the sense Ollie won’t sell his good name for a championship.
And when he is done his legacy won’t be conflicted.
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