Column: Jim Calhoun was college basketball's last warrior

2012-09-13T15:00:00Z Column: Jim Calhoun was college basketball's last warriorBy MARK WHICKER - McClatchy Tribune Writer Herald-Review.com
September 13, 2012 3:00 pm  • 

One of the unfortunate signs of "progress" in college basketball is the overall chumminess of the coaches.

They go on cruises together. They vacation together. Their wives are even buddies. They unite in protest against the inquisitive press, the fly-by-night AAU coaches, the ignorant athletic directors, the agents and the parents and the boosters, and, yeah, the defiant and recalcitrant players.

The real live hatred that festered between Dean Smith and Norm Sloan, or the coldness between John Wooden and Pete Newell, is now drenched in saccharine. Everybody makes the tournament. Everybody makes silly money. And whenever a coach gets around a postgame microphone, he prefaces everything by saying what a "well-coached" team he just played, win or lose.

If you're tired of warm-and-fuzzy in a sport that fades deeper into the woodwork every year, Wednesday was a bad day.

Jim Calhoun will finally surrender to the assaults of cancer, exhaustion, the accumulated seasons and finally a fractured hip.

He will leave Connecticut with 866 victories, 50 NCAA Tournament victories and three NCAA titles, but he won't be the subject of many jocular roasts. That is not a criticism. In fact, that is how it should be. Calhoun was college basketball's last warrior.

Calhoun in person was imposing, tall, with blinding white teeth and a predator's stare. To sit behind his bench was to explore new vistas in vocabulary.

His rage was incessant and quite personal at times and not always directed at the players. Loyal assistant coach George Blaney was usually the ventee, since the other assistants knew better than to make eye contact.

Calhoun also gave thoughtful postgame analyses in which he lavishly praised the players - at least we think he did, since his Boston brogue often required an interpreter. He raised millions of dollars for Connecticut causes and corresponded with players from his past.

But when it came to coaching, he never let go of the whip.

In 2005 the Detroit Pistons were locked in a seven-game war with the Miami Heat and someone asked Rip Hamilton how difficult the games were. "I played for Jim Calhoun for four years," Hamilton said. "I can get through anything."

He also was in and out of the NCAA penalty box, and the 2013 UConn team will be ineligible for the tournament because of academic slippage.

His feuds lasted about as long as your passport does. He had no use for John Calipari after Marcus Camby signed with UMass, out of Hartford. His relationship with women's coach Geno Auriemma was resistant to all global warming.

He grew his own coaching tree. And the soil wasn't the richest. Connecticut was a fairly anonymous program before Calhoun came from Northeastern in 1985.

UConn got into the Big East, won nine regular-season titles and six tournament championships, and won the Final Four the first three times it went ('99, '04, '11).

He was a rare but joyous underdog. The '11 champs had to hustle to even make the tournament. In the '99 Final, UConn was 33-2, but the media was building monuments to Duke, even suggesting the Blue Devils could compete in the NBA. Final score: Connecticut 77, Duke 74.

Hamilton, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Clifford Robinson, Caron Butler and Donyell Marshall all came to the hamlet of Storrs, volunteering to be reduced to puddles at every practice, getting back up and walking confidently into the NBA.

In that sense Calhoun might be the hardest act to follow in the game. North Carolina and Indiana and Duke had at least won before Smith and Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski showed up. Calhoun can legitimately say, "I built it."

His nonstop competitiveness was a marvel and, sometimes, an amusement.

Calhoun had taken notice of the large contract that football coach Randy Edsall had signed. He and Blaney played golf one day with a couple of friends, and Blaney approached his partner on the first tee.

"Jim's pretty good when he gets on a roll," Blaney said. "So if he makes a couple of birdies, just mention Randy's contract."

Sure enough Calhoun birdied the first two holes. He was addressing the ball on the No. 3 tee when the friend said, "Say, George, how about that extension that Edsall signed?"

Calhoun's face reddened and his grip tightened.

"Yeah, wonder what they'll give him if he wins a big bowl game?" he muttered. "Land?"

There went the slice into the right trees.

Jim Calhoun stories will resonate through the Nutmeg State on Thursday, and sometime in that news conference he will demonstrate that "shy" and "retiring" don't belong together. Kind of like "coaching" and "buddies."

Copyright 2015 Herald-Review.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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