|Calhoun celebrates with his team in Tampa in 1999 after Connecticut's first national title. (Getty Images)|
The ideal time would have been while celebrating on the podium following his third national championship about 18 months ago at Reliant Stadium in Houston, but this was as perfect a scenario as just about any for UConn coach Jim Calhoun to say goodbye and call it quits.
Calhoun turned 70 in May. Physically, he's not the same man he was a decade ago, even a few years back prior to the bout with skin cancer in 2008, the broken ribs in 2009, the medical leave in 2010 and again last season due to back issues. There are more wrinkles, along with a more slender frame.
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Jim Calhoun is hardly walking away gracefully. And I don't mean that literally. That's not a joke about his hip. Read More >>
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I've always said I anticipated Calhoun's career concluding with him being carried off the court, not by his players and with his fists pumped high, but instead being carried off on a stretcher. That's how stubborn, how hard-headed Calhoun has been throughout the years. He's a street fighter, someone who doesn't just welcome a battle -- but yearns for it. A guy who has always maintained he'll go out on his own terms.
I'll take Calhoun in most battles, but not against Father Time.
There was no sense in him coming back for another go-around, anyway. This UConn team doesn't resemble the Husky teams that have come through Storrs for the last couple of decades. The talent level is more comparable to that of, say, a Seton Hall or Rutgers rather than a typical Calhoun outfit. Then toss in the fact that this team isn't even eligible for the NCAA tournament due to a poor academic performance and the situation was right for him to call it quits.
Calhoun is walking away on his own power. Well, maybe not quite -- since he's on crutches and still recovering from his latest health issue, a bike fall that resulted in a broken hip. A 70-year-old suffering a broken hip is no joke -- and Calhoun came to realize that over the last few weeks since undergoing surgery. He'll make it official at a news conference Thursday at 2 p.m. ET.
"I'm not sure physically he would have been able to do it," one source close to Calhoun said on Wednesday night. "And he knew that."
Sure, he's a guy who has taken shots as his career wound into its twilight. There were the NCAA sanctions -- which included Calhoun being suspended for a trio of league games -- due to the program's involvement with former manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson. There was the postseason ban this season.
But Calhoun will ultimately be remembered for taking a program that was irrelevant and turning it into a national powerhouse. There were three national titles -- in 1999, 2004 and 2011. It became a factory, churning out NBA players and victories, with the one constant over the past 26 seasons being Calhoun.
There were the heated interactions with his players, running to midcourt to scream obscenities following a mistake, the postgame news conference tirades with reporters and the constant bullying. We got into it at times after he read a less-than-flattering story I had written about either he or one of his players, but then he moved on. It was pure entertainment to watch him coach, not to see him diagram plans in the huddle -- but instead to hear the constant flurry of profanities that would run out of his mouth at a dizzying pace.
I've never seen a worse loser in any sport at any level, but there was also the softer side of Calhoun that few witnessed, when he'd walk down the hallway either in Storrs or the Hartford Civic Center and one of his grandchildren would jump into his arms. It was like a switch flipped and Calhoun was humanized from the relentless dictator to the family man.
Now Calhoun can enjoy the rest of his life -- as Lute Olson is doing out in Arizona.
He's already a Hall-of-Famer and has done more than anyone -- himself included -- could have ever anticipated in the tiny, wooded town of Storrs. Many of his players despised him while they were on campus, but grew to appreciate his tough love after they left. He won 618 games at UConn to go along with another 255 in 14 seasons at Northeastern. That's 873 in all, which puts him sixth on the all-time list behind only Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim, Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp, He went to four Final Fours, won a record seven Big East tournaments and nine league regular-season titles.
But the time had come for Calhoun to turn the program over to someone else. There was a new president and athletic director. As much as Calhoun wanted to stay on to build more equity in order to hand the reigns to former player and assistant Kevin Ollie, who will lead the program this season and be evaluated after the year, he understood his body and even his mind could no longer handle the day-to-day rigors of coaching.
The plan, though, until the recent bike accident -- was to do it for at least another year. You don't spend the majority of July sitting in bleachers jumping from city to city showing your mug to a bunch of teenagers unless you fully intend to walk the sidelines again. But that all changed in early August when he tumbled to the ground in a heap while on a routine bike ride.
Honestly, it may have been a blessing in disguise. There was no reason for Calhoun to coach this team, one that would have struggled to make the NCAA tournament -- even if it was eligible to play in March and April. He told me in July while we sat and talked for nearly two hours in Indianapolis that he was excited about this season, the challenge to see if this thin group could learn to play for pride instead of the ultimate prize.
But the excitement would have quickly turned to frustration because this group isn't UConn-good. Sure, there are a couple talented guys -- Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and maybe DeAndre Daniels. But this group doesn't hold a candle to the teams that have drawn capacity crowds into Gampel Pavilion over the last couple of decades.
This team may not have gone 9-19, as was the case in Calhoun's first season with the program, but it would have endured a similar campaign of irrelevance. And who knows, after another season of wear and tear on his body, whether Calhoun would have even been able to limp to his retirement announcement.