STORRS — Jim Calhoun sat in the front row of a near-empty Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday and he watched Kemba Walker, now in the NBA, push the ball up and down the court with the current UConn men's basketball players. Calhoun's legs were crossed, he was smiling.
"Life is full of tough decisions," Calhoun said when asked about his possible retirement. "We're having the discussions we need to have about moving forward ..."
Then, picking up the crutch he needs to get around with his fractured hip, he walked out to his car and drove off. It was hard to imagine it ending this way, that this would be the last time that Calhoun, 70, walked off the court at UConn as head coach, but he had at last made that tough decision, even though he was not ready to say so publicly. That will come at a press conference Thursday at 2 p.m. at which Calhoun will announce his retirement after 40 seasons (26 at UConn), and Kevin Ollie, who played for Calhoun in the early to mid '90s, will be named his successor.
Ollie, who played for 13 years in the NBA before rejoining Calhoun as an assistant coach two years ago, will not have the interim label — meaning that Calhoun more or less prevailed in his last battle as head coach. Calhoun wanted Ollie to succeed him and have some security, although details of Ollie's contract are unclear. Karl Hobbs, director of basketball administration, has been promoted to an assistant. Hobbs, a former head coach at George Washington, was an assistant at UConn when Ollie was a point guard. Ollie, 39, was a two-time captain for the Huskies and graduated in 1995.
Calhoun will go out with 873 career wins, No. 6 all-time. He is No. 3 in games coached with 1,253. He has 17 Big East trophies, either from the regular season or tournament. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. And he will remain involved with the program in some capacity.
The unusual timing of Calhoun's decision could affect UConn, at least in the short term. The Huskies have had a difficult time recruiting this spring and summer, the coaching uncertainty playing a part as several highly regarded players crossed UConn off their lists. UConn did land Kentan Facey, a 6-foot-9 center, and Terrence Samuel, a 6-4 guard, both from the New York area, both of whom have said they would be comfortable playing for Ollie. However, neither has signed a letter of intent yet, so that will be one of Ollie's early tasks, securing those commitments.
The press conference Thursday will probably draw reporters from throughout the country, rushing to Connecticut for the occasion, and that, in itself, is an apt indicator of what Calhoun did for UConn. "To do what he did in Storrs, Connecticut — it's a miracle," said Dee Rowe, UConn's coach from 1969-77.
The Huskies were a notable New England program, but after joining the new Big East Conference, they were often near the bottom of the league, and considered out of their league. Calhoun, who had coached at Northeastern, was hired to replace Dom Perno in May 1986, with Calhoun disregarding the advice of friends who had told him he couldn't win at UConn.
The Huskies were 9-19 in his first season, but that would be his only losing season at UConn. The Huskies surged to the NIT title in 1988, and two years later reached the NCAA Elite Eight on Tate George's miracle shot against Clemson. That 1989-90 season is still known as the Dream Season, but under Calhoun much bigger dreams were to be realized. UConn knocked on the door to the Final Four several more times, and finally made it in 1999, beating Duke for the national title. The Huskies went on to win two more, in 2004 and 2011, with Walker leading a miracle run of 11 wins in a row in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. By then, UConn men's basketball had come to dominate the sports conversation in Connecticut year-round, and drew coverage from national media outlets on a nearly day-to-day basis.
"The passion with which I coach," Calhoun once said, "I've never not left it on the floor. Have there been games where I haven't been so good? Without question. Have I ever made a mistake? I hope I feel like I have."
Along the way, there were problems. Calhoun's fiery nature led to confrontations with officials, reporters and sometimes school officials. He drew an NCAA suspension for infractions stemming from the recruiting of Nate Miles in 2008. And in recent years, UConn's academic performance fell below new NCAA standards, resulting in postseason ineligibility for 2013.
"As an institution and I, personally, took our eye off the ball and we made mistakes," he has said. "There's a lot of reasons. No one is saying we didn't make mistakes."
Calhoun has overcome cancer on three separate occasions, and come back from other health problems. Last season, he missed more than a month with back pain, eventually having spinal surgery. After UConn's loss to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March, Calhoun left the door open to possible retirement, but he remained fully engaged in the job throughout the spring and summer, doing more traveling for recruiting than in recent years.
In midsummer, talk began to circulate that Calhoun was seriously considering a retirement in the fall, so that UConn athletic director Warde Manuel would have little choice but to give Ollie the job. Complicating matters, Calhoun, an avid cyclist, fractured his hip on Aug. 4, hours before his charity basketball game. Still, he set a goal of returning to the office in time for the start of classes and made it on Aug. 30, addressing the team, admonishing players to "get ready for the grind" of the coming season. Players, assistant coaches and staff members have been divided for weeks on what Calhoun might do, believing one day that he was certain to continue to coach, and on other days that he had had enough.
"He's around way too much to not be coaching," sophomore Ryan Boatright said this week.
But Calhoun, Manuel and UConn President Susan Herbst had been holding discussions in recent weeks to find a way to move forward and please all sides. Manuel seemed to favor naming OIlie only interim coach, keeping his options open to conduct a national search next spring, although there was some concern that this option would make recruiting difficult.
Ollie will be surrounded by experienced head coaches, including George Blaney, Glen Miller and Hobbs, and Calhoun figures to be a frequent presence in the office as a retiree.
Calhoun has two years left on his contract, but he will get a severance package that could include a one-time payment of $1 million, or five years at $300,000 a year.
Calhoun, who has maintained homes in Pomfret and Madison, has been increasingly involved in charities, including the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiac Center at UConn Health Center, Autism Speaks and cancer research. He runs a holiday food drive in Hartford each November.
Calhoun will be best remembered for putting Connecticut on the national sports map, and sending dozens of players on to the NBA with his "tough love."
Those sentiments have been echoed by numerous players, from Ray Allen, a likely future Hall of Famer who played at UConn in the 1990s, to Walker, now with the Charlotte Bobcats.
In May, just before he turned 70, Calhoun sat for a long interview with The Courant, and discussed his life, long career, his methods and the legacy he hoped to leave behind. He lost his father at age 15 and had to leave college to work at menial jobs for a time, but he returned to earn a degree at American International College in Springfield. He first coached at Old Lyme High, working his way to college ranks at Northeastern in 1972. Through his years at UConn, although he came to earn millions, he fashioned himself in the image of the blue-collar brawler, and what he fought for the hardest was entry for UConn into the pantheon of elite college basketball schools. With three national titles, few would dispute that he led the Huskies to that promised land.
"I want people to say, 'The five best programs in the history of basketball are North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, Kentucky and — they have a tough time saying it sometimes — Connecticut. We are one of those teams. I want that legacy very badly for UConn. The passion of the people here, there is always a very thin line between love and hate, depending on the day, the recruit kid who didn't play as well as they thought. But the worst thing to have, as when I came here, was apathy."