Calhoun: Guts And Glory

Jeff Jacobs
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

STORRS — The reality of 40 cold New England winters are behind him. We begin with the Jim Calhoun legend now, and when legend becomes fact, they say, print the legend.

UConn, ranked No. 1 in the nation, was up three against Syracuse with 11 seconds left at the 2006 Big East tournament. During the timeout, there was a debate. Put Craig Austrie on Gerry McNamara? No, UConn would stick with Rashad Anderson. This had been a fierce game against a fierce rival. Syracuse had led by double digits only to have the Huskies rebound for the lead. Yet here was McNamara racing across midcourt and draining a three-pointer from well behind the arc.

Calhoun grew apoplectic. "What geniuses I have for assistant coaches!" he screamed for anyone to hear at Madison Square Garden. "They tell me, 'Don't double McNamara!'"

Well, Syracuse goes on to win in overtime. It's a shocking defeat, a gutting defeat. Drained, Calhoun disappeared behind closed doors. Staff and league officials tried to get him out of the coach's office to meet with the media. He's not coming out. They tell him he needs to talk to his team and go to the podium or else the locker room doors will simply swing open for the media.

Finally, Calhoun emerged. Shirt unbuttoned. Tie askew. He suggested a mop.

Behind him there was vomit all over the floor, all over the wall, all over the place.

Forty years of coaching, 26 years at UConn, yes, that's how bad Jim Calhoun wanted it.

"He's a legend," UConn President Susan Herbst said Thursday at the news conference to announce Calhoun's retirement and Kevin Ollie's hiring as head coach. "And he's our legend."

Three national championships, 873 wins, eight million and 73 stories, he surely is. Few men in sports have wanted to win more. His postgame rants are the stuff of YouTube legend. Nobody in the history of mankind was a worse loser.

"People who know me will determine my character," Calhoun said. "Others will determine my legacy. Character is what I want to be judged on."

Nobody ever said Jim Calhoun wasn't a character.

"Jay Bilas just called Jim one of the greatest coaches in all of sport, which he is," associate coach George Blaney said. "He is remarkable in his ability to get people to do things through persuasion, through will, through expertise. I'm telling you, you can feel it, absolutely feel it when Jim Calhoun is willing people to do something."

You can always feel Jim Calhoun and every single one of his complexities. He is a battler. He is a bully. He is a teacher. He is a philanthropist. He is the one who dared to dream. He is a charmer. And on the day of his retirement, he was magnanimous in spreading credit to everyone from Storrs to the state Capitol.

Yet it is an absolute hatred of losing, the explosive nut in this enigma of a man, the unrelenting will that drove the UConn program to sustained greatness and made Jim Calhoun the most fascinating figure in Connecticut sports history. To be honest, it also is some of what I was looking for in Ollie on this day.

Ollie is his own man. He must be. Yet this also must be a reason why this will be more than a one-season contractual experiment — price tag $384,615 —and a reason why this guy from a continent away from Calhoun's Boston roots is his rightful long-term successor. He doesn't sound the same. He doesn't look the same. We must know if he burns the same inside.

"I was made for this job," Ollie said.

As he went on for 20 minutes, damn if Kevin Ollie didn't carry the day. Passionate about basketball and his family, funny, challenging, appreciative, God-fearing, Ollie won the press conference. Early score: Ollie 1, Rest of the Field 0.

Calhoun didn't cry on this day. Ollie did.

Talking about how he so loves walking his daughter to the school bus stop, how he burned inside through bus rides in the CBA and USBL to carve out 13 years in the NBA, how his wife Stephanie twice rebuffed him before finally going out with him … Ollie choked back tears.

"If you weren't inspired by that presentation," Howie Dickenman said, "I'm not sure what gets you going."

At one point, Ollie apologized to Stephanie for spending only 10 minutes with her on their 14th wedding anniversary Wednesday.

"I love you baby and I'll see you when you come up to bed," Ollie said. "I thank you for that."

Realizing how that sounded, he quickly added, "She was already asleep, folks, it was 2:30."

It was classic. As classic as some of the tales former assistants Tom Moore and Dickenman told about Calhoun's uber-competiveness.

"We were in Pittsburgh, Ted Taigen, our academic adviser, was sitting on the bench right on the baseline," said Moore, now coach at Quinnipiac. "It's a 50-50 call out of bounds. Coach had an angle where he couldn't see it. That's not going to stop him from going over to [referee] Tim Higgins to tell him he's wrong. Well, Tim turns to Ted and goes to Jim, 'He had a good view.' Ted goes, 'Sorry, coach. It was out.' Coach looks at Ted and goes, 'What the [expletive] are you doing on our bench, anyway?'"

UConn lost that night. Moore said that dinner might not have been served on the flight back.

Dickenman, coach at Central Connecticut, re-enacted the story that Ray Allen once told how at halftime of a game during his freshman year, Calhoun had gone off like a bottle rocket. Calhoun went to kick a standing chalkboard and got his foot stuck in it. Howie had to extricate him.

"It was, [expletive]… uh-oh,'" Dickenman said, laughing. "It's like Dave Leitao says, 'Jim Calhoun isn't happy unless he's unhappy.'"

It is that competitive rage that fueled Calhoun for decades. To this day, it's what fascinates me.

"My freshman year, I'm going one-on-one with Chris Smith, back and forth," Ollie said. "I'm like, 'C'mon, coach, everybody knows he can handle the ball.' He kept me going back and forth, back and forth, 10 times. I went home, called my mom and told her I'm ready to leave. This man called me names I don't even know what he's saying. She said get your butt back out there, and I heard the click on the other line."

"That's what made me strong. That's UConn basketball. I love Coach for doing it. I went six years in the NBA without a guaranteed contract. I'm used to rejection. Every time Coach used to yell at me, [Calhoun's wife Pat] gave me a kiss. There were a lot of kisses."

Calhoun said that any foxhole you need to jump in, Ollie is your guy. Dickenman talked about how when the Cavaliers needed someone to mentor a young LeBron James, they traded for Ollie. Ollie looked at his players and said there will be no escalators, only stairs to climb one step at a time.

And then he looked over at Jim Calhoun, the toughest man in the gym, and the worst loser in history, and said, "Every time you told me I was the toughest guy in the gym, I wanted to prove you right."

"I don't mind a one-year deal. It's good that it's difficult. I'm just going to coach like I'll be here until I retire."

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