|UConn has turned into a top-10 program in the past 15 years. But can it sustain that without Calhoun? (Getty Images)|
After the hullabaloo of Jim Calhoun's retirement wears off and the party decorations from the 70-year-old's goodbye soirée are tossed in the trash, a realization will have to be made. UConn can only exist as an elite program going off the reputation Calhoun erected for so long. There is big-time work to be done, and new coach Kevin Ollie, standing next to a sierra of earth, just got handed the shovel.
Big-time college sports in 2012 means name recognition alone might get you conversation, even money (just ask Notre Dame), but it won't bring you championships and respect among your competitors (just ask Notre Dame). The slope is slickest at the top, too.
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There's a question out there that needs to be answered, but we're not going to know its elemental truth for at least five years, or more likely something closer to 10: How powerful of a program is UConn men's basketball? Did Jim Calhoun make the University of Connecticut or did the University of Connecticut make Jim Calhoun?
Yes, there remains the obvious possibility it was a marriage of both and man helped institution just as institution made Calhoun into something of a godhead in and around Storrs, Conn. But as we wait to see what UConn becomes going forward (in a conference that's arguably more hindered today than UConn is without Calhoun), never let it drift far from your mind just how unlikely UConn as a national juggernaut is.
Calhoun getting the program to this point -- current 2013 postseason ban aside -- is as impressive as his three national championships.
Because without Calhoun, the team -- and the school -- was practically nothing when it came to athletics and general interest from the state toward UConn. Before Calhoun stepped on campus, UConn had never won more than 23 games in a season (averaged about 15 per year) and had only made it past the first round of the NCAAs four times in 46 years. It was an afterthought, and perhaps that is being too kind.
The school was the definition of niche, and at Calhoun's first press conference there were no grand chimeras of national championships in the coming decades. When Calhoun took over in 1986, he was a gritty, aggressive, proven coach from Northeastern who was looking to boost the profile of the program within the powerful and intimidating Big East. If UConn, at worst, is the No. 2 program in the league right now, consider that standing from where it once sat on the totem pole as Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John's, Villanova, Providence and Seton Hall gained national recognition for winning big. UConn was a founding member of the Big East but essentially amounted to then what Rutgers is today.
The league only got better through the years, though, lifted in part by the ascendance of Connecticut and its stubborn, up-and-coming coach. The NCAA tournament appearances came, and by 1995, UConn was something of a flashy, chic program on the brink of national conversation. Ray Allen helped elevate that, as did this play.
From there, things only got bigger and better for Calhoun, the school, the state. The women's program and Calhoun's bitter non-relationship with Geno Auriemma fueled that as well. I'm not going to continue to riff on what Calhoun eventually did. You know that. You know he's only behind Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolf Rupp and his good friend and fellow cancer defeater Jim Boeheim in all-time wins. He and Boeheim also share the fact they recruited big to bland locales, getting All-Americans to campus regardless of climate or lack of beneficial geography.
But now that gravitas and those accomplishments only do good for the written word, the glossy photos, the framed memories and inevitable, never-ending references to achievements of the past. Calhoun has transitioned from active legend to lingering reminder. He'll still be around the program, and that will do as much good as it will in some ways hinder Connecticut. His shadow will remain at the school for as long as he lives and still decades after he dies.
With his exodus, I ask again, is this, in its DNA, an elite program? Or is it an elite program all because of what Calhoun managed to do for the past two decades? Without him, does it fall apart and does UConn devolve back into a nondescript team that occasionally makes NCAA tournament runs? I find this one of the most fascinating situations in college sports.
Asking Ollie, or if there is someone who replaces Ollie in the near future, to replicate what Calhoun did isn't unrealistic -- it's asinine. But expectations within a fan base like UConn's don't diminish just because their deity just walked away from his life's work. The pressure will still be there, at least for the foreseeable future.
Right now this team that would be on the precipice of a forgettable season if not for the reason that it's the first without Calhoun. It will be an average basketball team. There will be no postseason. There will most likely be no first-round draft picks on the floor. There will only be an awkward transitional phase of a program moving forward without fully letting go of who put them in this spot to begin with -- and I'm talking as much good as I am bad right now.
Ollie is Calhoun's guy. In the end, Calhoun got his way -- again. Funny how this all worked out just as he wanted it. It had to be this way, I'm sure. But is this what's best for UConn's future? Let's imagine it again, because it's so hard to: What is UConn without Jim Calhoun? Is it immediately moving -- and quickly -- in the right direction? Is it even in the right conference? Things haven't been this unclear in Storrs since a 46-year-old, dark-haired, hard-accented man from Braintree, Mass., sat down on May 15, 1986, and took his first questions from the Connecticut media.
On Thursday that era officially ends, and it comes full circle with the next episode of UConn basketball arriving with as much uncertainty as the one Calhoun started 9,617 days ago.