Knocked Down, But Certainly Not Out

The Hartford Courant

Jim Calhoun didn't get to where he is in life by changing much about himself.

"Some people may not like me," he said recently. "I may not like them. That's cool."

Calhoun has been alive for 68 years. He's been a college basketball coach for 39. He's been at UConn for 25. Combative, driven and defensive along the way, he has managed to claw himself into the Hall of Fame and pull UConn onto the national map with the doubt surrounding him, real or perceived, serving as fuel along the way.

"I'm a natural underdog, sometimes for no apparent reason," Calhoun said. "And if I can't be the underdog, I'll make myself the underdog, somehow."

Perception? Reputation? It matters to Calhoun, but not enough to sway him from the beliefs and behavior that have been consistent throughout his most successful and turbulent times. The man is who he is, which is, perhaps above anything else, unyielding.

As he begins yet another season in Storrs, Calhoun is surrounded by more questions than ever -- about his future, his health, his approach, even his ethics. The NCAA has alleged that UConn committed eight major recruiting violations, including that Calhoun failed to foster an atmosphere of compliance in his program, and a good portion of the offseason has been spent mounting a defense that strongly denies the most serious charges.

While Calhoun hasn't been able to speak specifically about UConn's case, other than what is contained in an official response to the NCAA made public about a month after it was filed, his general approach has been no different than the one that has carried him to such success and, at times, such controversy.

"The worst thing to do -- this is what my friends tell me -- is to come after me," Calhoun said. "I'm usually better coming out of a corner than I am up on the pedestal."

Indeed, there he was a few weeks ago in New York, at Big East media day, the typical large gathering of reporters surrounding him and listening to remarks that were insightful but consistent with the person he has been since Day 1. Challenge him, back him into a corner, and he comes back out like an angry dog. This is not new. For all his colorful quips and sarcasm and confrontations, Calhoun rarely tries to pretend to be someone he's not. A journey through his thought process, while usually fascinating, will not include apologies or second-guessing.

"I know who I am, I know what I've done in college athletics and I know what I've done in my life and the way I've conducted my business," he said. "I know who I am and feel very good about the way I've approached things."

No matter if Calhoun retires after this season or signs another contract when his current deal -- a five-year $13 million contract signed in May -- expires in 2014, he's clearly at the tail-end of his career. As he continues to ascend the all-time list of Division I victories, Calhoun has battled through more and more trying times. The most recent period in UConn basketball history has been among the more challenging and tumultuous.

Just before the Huskies reached the 2009 Final Four, a Yahoo! Sports story detailed the relationship between the program and a team manager-turned-agent, Josh Nochimson, who allegedly fostered an improper relationship with recruit Nate Miles.

That report sparked the NCAA's 16-month investigation of the program. Meanwhile, UConn struggled through an up-and-down season that ended with an 18-16 record and a second-round loss to Virginia Tech in the NIT. There were exhilarating highs, exasperating lows, and Calhoun's curious seven-game medical leave of absence for an undisclosed medical reason that he would never discuss. Already, the man had beaten cancer three times. These personal issues, more than anything basketball-related, give Calhoun pause.

"When you're facing 36 days of radiation, making those 56 miles each way by myself, which I wanted to do, you do get a different type of perspective," he said. "When something happens where you know you can't just keep doing what you're doing for a period of time, as happened last year, for whatever particular reason is not particularly important to anybody else, you may put a stop to it for a period of time. Without question -- I don't want you to think it's life-threatening -- but, yeah, as you stay in this, I'm as excited to coach as I've been in a long time."

Now, UConn and Calhoun certainly are the underdogs, picked to finish 10th in the 16-team Big East. Calhoun has welcomed six freshmen to the program and is coaching a team that has as many question marks as any in his tenure. Recruiting has taken a hit in the wake of the NCAA investigations. UConn already has self-imposed sanctions that include the loss of a scholarship and a two-year period of probation, and the NCAA will issue a final ruling sometime in the coming weeks.

"Jim has always been great about putting things in boxes and getting himself in a particular state of mind where he can concentrate on what he needs to concentrate on at that particular time," associate head coach George Blaney said. "We'll see where it takes us."

Calhoun continues to say what he has since first addressing the allegations.

"I believe in UConn, certainly believe in myself, certainly believe in my staff and certainly believe that if mistakes were made -- that's my opening statement; I got criticized for that we'll own up to them," Calhoun said. "All I'd like people to do is look at us -- someone asked me about culture recently. ... What a culture can be is actions over an extended period of time. That's a culture. That's how people act in a particular environment and how people come out of a program. We've made some adjustments in our culture, certainly. There's been some changes, some of them necessitated. Our culture, over 25 years at UConn, has been a very good culture. If mistakes were made, we're human beings, we're part of that same society."

There have been times, through his unwavering beliefs and unshakable stances, that Calhoun has been hurt. Walking onto the court for UConn's 2009 national semifinal against Michigan State in Detroit, a group of Michigan State fans chanted, "Cheater."

"My grandchildren were in the crowd, not in that particular section, probably didn't hear a word," Calhoun said. "But I did. I was very sensitive to that because I may be a lot of things, profane, I could give you a lot of different things I am, but that word I'm not. I'm a lot of things, and like or dislike me, but that I'm not. That was, to me, the most [hurtful]."

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