Day 10: Connecticut | Traveling Violations
STORRS, Conn. – There is still a whistle hanging from Jim Calhoun's neck. He uses it liberally to stop play or get his team's attention.
Twenty years ago, this would not be noteworthy. The coach of the Connecticut Huskies is supposed to have a whistle. Every coach has one.
But today, they don't. Why the whistle went out of style among coaches is a mystery for another day, but it has. Today they like to shout. During an 11-day, 11-school tour, we hadn't seen a single whistle. Hadn't seen one in years actually.
Just another example of the old-school coach here who has assembled all this new-school talent and will enter the season as the favorite to win the national championship because somehow he's found a way to make it all work out.
"I think we are pretty talented," Calhoun said on a rainy Monday afternoon. "But you can't play 12 people. If it were a 12-man game we probably would win the national championship."
Yes, 12-man game. In an era when coaches complain about scholarship limits and recruiting rules, Calhoun has assembled a dozen-deep team of talent that defies modern logic.
Why would so many kids come here to compete for playing time? Why would so many players seek out a demanding 60-something grandfather of five who still does things the old way, from practice plans to whistle blowing?
"Actually, he'll use our slang," said junior Emeka Okafor, one of two Huskies (Ben Gordon is the other) being hyped for national player of the year honors. "He'll say, 'My bad.' "
OK, so he has adapted some. But not much. He certainly didn't assemble all this talent by babying kids. He didn't drive this program to the national elite (capped by the 1999 NCAA title) by being nice.
"I would say that if you had come here in 1988, with Cliff Robinson, you wouldn't have seen too much different at those practices (than today's)," said Calhoun, who has 647 career victories.
"Most of our teams have kind of come at you," he said. "And most of our practices reflect that. There aren't a lot of hugs going on.
"The clinic is straightforward. We believe that if you continue to do something a lot of times, eventually it will become part of your basketball IQ and your basketball mechanics."
So that is what the Huskies do. Potential All-American after potential All-American do straightforward drills, all under the watchful eye of Calhoun, who paces the Gampel Pavilion floor with whistle and sharp New England wit ready.
And when he talks, everyone listens.
"He's the general," Okafor said. "The commander. And we are the followers. Coach wouldn't be where he is if he didn't know what he was doing. So we all have that faith in him."
Calhoun is a rare breed in coaching, a self-made man. In his profession, who knows you is as important as what you know or what you've done, which is why most careers begin under one of the big coaching trees, whether it is Bob Knight, Henry Iba, John Wooden or whomever.
Calhoun started his career as a high school coach in Massachusetts. He then worked Division III, D-II and then D-I Northeastern. In 1986, he took over a ho-hum UConn program that was struggling to compete in the Big East.
"Every step he made was by himself. Everything he has got he earned himself," assistant Tom Moore said. "[Former] coach Dee Rowe here at UConn likes to say that in the coaching field that to get jobs that everybody needs a rabbi. And Coach Calhoun never had a rabbi."
With no rabbi to guide him, he sticks with what he knows works. Make things very intense and demanding but not overly complicated. Fundamentals, done to perfection, should be enough. Ask for better from players and they'll give it.
"What you see here is real basic," Moore said. "It is not splitting the atom. But it is the intensity with which he demands our guys play. And the thing is, you practice 100, 110 times a year, and he doesn't let up on the intensity at all.
"We could be on a seven-game winning streak and Ben could be averaging 25 plus [points per game], and Ben knows that [during] the Wednesday practice after a Tuesday win, he is still going to be [challenged]."
Calhoun would have it no other way. Even with this, perhaps his most talented team (NBA scouts have their eyes on as many as eight Huskies), he is not coddling anyone.
"Life is pretty good here as a basketball player," he notes.
No apologies. No excuses. Old school.
And perhaps, this year again, the best school.