In this age of the college basketball-coaching carousel, where a coach bolts at the mere smell of money, you can associate only a handful of coaches with a certain program. Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Tom Izzo at Michigan State are three who have been in the spotlight during this year’s NCAA tournament, however one name has been curiously absent: Jim Calhoun.
In a final four that features 2 long serving coaches the absence of Calhoun and his Uconn team looms large after a surprising regular season that ended with his team just two games over .500. This record and surprising exit from the second round of the NIT show that the team clearly struggled. But, struggle is something that Jim Calhoun is as used to as victory.
A native of Braintree, Massachusetts, Calhoun was a top athlete in high school, and was a scholarship basketball player at Lowell State when he took a 20-month leave of absence to help his mother support his family of 5 siblings. Calhoun then embarked on a series on odd jobs including granite cutting and headstone engraving. Calhoun would eventually return to college basketball, this time at American International College at Springfield, Massachusetts. Calhoun would end his academic career as the 4th leading scorer in school history and graduating with a degree in sociology.
The first head coaching post that Calhoun accepted was at Lyme-Old Lyme High School in Old Lyme, Connecticut. After a 1-17 season Calhoun took a position at Dedham High School in 1971. He would achieve his first coaching success winning a Massachusetts High School Bay State Championship in 1972, capping a perfect season.
Calhoun would become the head coach at Northeastern University in Boston in 1971, his first college coaching post. Over the next 14 seasons, Northeastern would reach the NCAA tournament 5 times and get promoted from Division II to Division 1. Calhoun is still the winningest coach in the history of the college.
In 1986 Calhoun was hired as the head coach at the University of Connecticut. Since that appointment he has won the NIT and two national championships.
Calhoun is currently 4th on the list for most Elite Eight appearances by a coach, has amassed over 800 career victories, is a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and is able to compete with his university’s successful women’s basketball program. Calhoun has also coached 23 players to careers in professional basketball including the first overall pick of the 2004 NBA draft Emeka Okafor.
Off of the court, Calhoun is a father and grandfather, a biking enthusiast, Prostate Cancer survivor and avid philanthropist. After all is said and done, Calhoun’s legacy may be the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at UConn. The Center has strong meaning to both Calhoun and his wife Pat, as both have both lost parents to heart disease. Calhoun is also a supporter in the fight against juvenile diabetes acting as the honorary chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International. Calhoun is also active in the Children’s Miracle Network and Ronald McDonald House charities.
With all of the success at UConn there has also been disappointment and controversy. The 1996 Elite Eight team was vilified in the press for possessing low academic scores, and graduating only 33% of his team with college degrees. The most recent study reported in 2009 by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics at the University of Central Florida showed that still, only 33% of Calhoun’s players graduate with degrees. This shows little improvement from the last testing scores and has provided fodder for Calhoun’s detractors.
Calhoun came under fire at a press conference this past season when a journalist asked if Calhoun thought he should take a pay cut to aid the state during economic difficulties. Calhoun told the journalist he would not and that the journalist should “shut up.” Calhoun supporters argued that the amount of work that has been done by Calhoun to benefit the community, and money brought into the school, have justified his salary.
The past February, Calhoun took a medical leave of absence due to undisclosed health problems. During this time the Huskies struggled, going 6-5. This prompted conference rival Jim Boeheim to comment on the team without Calhoun after Syracuse beat the Huskies. “Jim Calhoun is one of the best coaches to ever coach college basketball. I don’t mean now. I mean period. Him not being there is a tremendous loss,” Boeheim said to Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant.
After a month absence, Calhoun would return and spend the rest of the season fielding questions about his health and assumed retirement, taking the focus off of his team’s on court troubles. The Huskies would eventually finish the season losing 5 of their last 6 games, dropping them to twelfth in the conference and unranked nationally.
Fans will recall that the last time nationally known coach took a leave of absence was Lute Olson at the University of Arizona. Olson’s leave of absence and retirement has resulted in three subpar years at Arizona. One could argue that this will be the fate of Jim Calhoun in the near future.
The comparison can be made, but you can be assured that Calhoun will be back, and reloaded. Currently, scout.com lists Connecticut as having commitments from 4 star recruits Jeremy Lamb, Michael Bradley and Roscoe Lamb with other top prospects still waiting for the deadline. Combine that with a team only losing 6 players to graduation, a deep NCAA tournament run is not out of the question in 2011.
In contrast to the cocksure strut that Geno Auriemma has when he strolls the sidelines for the women’s team, Calhoun seems to possess a work like precision that represents his New England upbringing. According to two time NBA all-star, Caron Butler who played under Calhoun from 2000-2002, Calhoun is “confident” and “totally committed to doing everything they can to help us as players to do what we need to do for our team” Butler said.
So as we see the usual suspects coaching this weekend’s Final Four we can only imagine Calhoun relaxing in his Massachusetts home watching his contemporaries play for a national championship and silently smiling, knowing that he will be back there. He works too hard not to be.