Jim Calhoun: Game Over

 

Peter Casolino, New Haven Register

JIM CALHOUN: GAME OVER
by David Borges, New Haven Register

I first met Jim Calhoun on an August day in 2007, at a golf course somewhere in southeastern Connecticut.

I had just been named the new UConn beat writer for the New Haven Register, and I wanted to personally introduce myself to the longtime Huskies coach. His reputation preceded him, of course. I had heard the stories and knew he could be rough on the media. Heck, I was at the infamous 2004 press conference, covering Providence for the Pawtucket Times, when Calhoun berated former Register columnist Dave Solomon for insinuating that Calhoun had . . . um . . . “messed up” by not recruiting Waterbury’s Ryan Gomes.

So I walked up to Calhoun coming off a green, shook his hand and introduced myself, and he invited me to ride in his cart for a few holes. First thing he told me was that he hadn’t been happy— at all—with the Register’s coverage of his team over the past few years.

“Great,” I thought, “this is gonna be a fun cart ride.”

But over the next 10 minutes or so, I got a glimpse of the complex man that is Jim Calhoun. And complex—complicated, maybe—is as good a word as any to describe him. Fiercely protective of his players, yet as prone to criticizing them publicly as any coach I’ve known. Defiant, sometimes downright bullying toward the media yet respectful of it at the same time—provided he felt you were working hard and doing your job the right way. He was consumed by winning and furthering his legacy, yet determined to find a genuine balance for his family—especially his beloved grandkids—and sincerely dedicated to numerous charities.

In between golf shots—some nice drives, some missed putts, probably an eventual slightly embellished scorecard—Calhoun and I chatted about his beloved Red Sox, about the other writers on the beat he respected (including Solomon), about family and many other things. After a few holes, he carted me back to my car in the parking lot, telling me, “I know you’ve got a job to do, I respect that,” gave me his home and cell phone numbers and told me to call him whenever I needed. And I did, numerous times, over the ensuing years. He was as good as any big-time coach I’ve known at taking or returning calls.

Certainly, I caught a slightly kinder, gentler Jim Calhoun over the last five seasons on the UConn beat. Oh, he could still be as fiery as ever—calling a referee “incompetent” after being ejected from a game; famously shouting to journalist Ken Krayeske that he would give “not a dime back” of his hefty salary; running his team through an brutal, f-bomb-filled Sunday morning practice this past January, hours after a bad loss at Rutgers the night before.

I sat directly behind the UConn bench for what proved to be the final game Calhoun ever coached—a 77-64 loss to Iowa State in a second-round NCAA tournament game last March. I was stunned by the derisive, R-rated language Calhoun screamed at his players through most of their disappointing performance.

His players hardly seemed fazed, however—at least by the language. They’d heard it all before. They also knew that the man who was yelling at them—the hot-tempered Irishman who hated to lose as much as anyone in sport—was just one facet of Jim Calhoun, a very complex man.
 


CALHOUN: IN THEIR WORDS
compiled by Terese Karmel

“For the first time, I really feel he’s at peace with himself. The accident had a lot to do with his decision to retire. He was in bed, he couldn’t move, so he took a real hard look at himself and made the choice.” —George Blaney, UConn associate head coach

“I do remember the Connecticut program prior to Calhoun’s coming. Obviously, he built a dynasty and he did it pretty much through will, tenacity and hard work. At the end of the day, the guy was blue-collar.” —Tim Higgins, NCAA basketball ref for 35 years

“I remember games with Connecticut that, no matter what the score was—UConn could be up 24 points and in total control—Calhoun lived every possession of the game like it was the most important possession.” —Dick Vitale, ESPN college basketball analyst   

“He is truly the Frank Lloyd Wright of basketball, an architect, a builder. He came into a program like Connecticut, a local basketball school—not a UCLA or a Duke or a North Carolina—and made it an elite, marquee program.”  —Dick Vitale

“Over the 25-plus years I’ve covered Calhoun, he apparently felt that I had an agenda against his team. . . . Once he called me at home, called me every swear word in the book and threatened to ban me from the team’s locker room.” —Chris Elsberry, Connecticut Post sports columnist

“In my junior year, I was in a five-game slump. I wasn’t scoring, but instead of benching me he stuck by me and let me play through it. There was pressure to put other players in—practice guys who didn’t play much. But I was practicing hard. He told me, ’Stick with it and it’ll be over before you know it.’ And it turned out he was right.”  —Tony Robertson, UConn guard 1999-03

For Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim, who locked horns with Calhoun year after year, the highlight was probably the one most fans would choose between the Huskies and the Orange: the 6-overtime Big East semi-final at Madison Square Garden in 2009, which Syracuse finally won 127-117 after 3 hours and 46 minutes. “It was an epic night,” says Boeheim. “It started at 9:30 and we were still playing basketball at 1 in the morning. It was something you’ll always remember.” And when it was all over and they met at mid-court to shake hands? “We said the same thing we say after every game: ‘Nice game.’”

“He was the best motivator I’ve ever had. He talked a lot about work ethic . . . When you’re coming up from high school where you were the best player, you don’t always put out your best effort. You’re used to being a lot better than everybody else. But when I got to UConn I was playing against better players, so it was all about work ethic.”  —Chris Smith, UConn guard 1988-92

“Once, when a columnist questioned why Calhoun didn’t take advantage of an educational opportunity to see Pearl Harbor when the Huskies were playing in the Maui Tournament, the coach shot back: ‘Hey, the kids are at the Farmington Marriott for semester break. Think I should take them to the [bleeping] Mark Twain House?’” —Mike DiMauro, sports columnist, The Day of New London

“One of the things I really respect about the guy, even at his age, is that he wakes up in the morning with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to beat someone’s butt every day. The other thing is that I learned from him. He’s a great example of how to survive in the Big East. He was really good to me when I came into the league 12 years ago. He was one of the elder statesmen. He didn’t have to spend time with a young coach, but he did at meetings, during conference calls. He subtly mentored me, and now I’m one of the older guys and I mentor the young coaches.”  —Mike Brey, head coach at Notre Dame

“The off-season therapy bills of the Big East referees will be reduced because they don’t have to deal with Jim Calhoun.” —Mike Brey

Kevin Freeman, a UConn forward who started on Calhoun’s first national championship team in 1999, found himself playing professionally in Israel in 2005-06 with a bad hand injury on a bad team with little pay. One day, he said to himself, “I’ll call Coach and see what he thinks I should do.” So he did. “Coach said to me, ‘Kevin, you didn’t finish your degree. Why don’t you take a break from basketball and come back and finish your degree. Clear your head.’ So Freeman left Israel and came back to Storrs. “UConn was my home,” he explains now. Calhoun let him help out with the team and travel with them, and he smoothed out the transition so Freeman could enroll in classes and finish his degree in political science. Calhoun’s words and deeds “led me to where I am today,” Freeman says. “If I hadn’t gotten the degree, I wouldn’t have the job I have today.”
 


3 THINGS WE'LL MISS ABOUT JIM CALHOUN
by Charles Monagan

1 - The Fake Smile
When was a smile not really a smile? When it came after a referee’s call that Calhoun especially disagreed with. The classic fake smile was usually accompanied by tightly folded arms, but it might also have included more dismissive gestures, such as the one pictured here. As a rule, the refs didn’t smile back. In fact, they didn’t think it was funny at all.

2 - The Quick Hook
Pity the player who got a specific instruction from Calhoun, got put back in the game and then made the same mistake. Whiplash—and an instant trip back to the bench. Or a player who didn’t hustle. “I’m a tough coach,” Calhoun has allowed. “If you don’t move your butt out there, I’m going to pull you out.”

3 - The Fast Talk
Listening to Calhoun bluster his way through a post-game press conference, a pre-game interview or even  the opening of a Webster Bank branch was always accompanied by the vague feeling that our pocket was being picked. But it wasn’t. Calhoun was just an ambitious guy from Braintree, Mass., hustling to make his mark on the world. Did he succeed? He did. He produced greatness in others. 
 

Jim Calhoun: Game Over

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