NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — When Jim Calhoun was 28 and just gaining a foothold in coaching, he figured he already had all the answers.
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“Now I’m 68,” Calhoun said Sunday, with a shot at his third national championship looming, “and I have a lot of questions.”
He’s hardly alone. Uncertainty surrounded Connecticut’s basketball program this season like the dirt cloud following PigPen around in the cartoon strip “Peanuts.” A young team, bad basketball, recruiting violations, a death in Calhoun’s family — all those things conspired to make people wonder whether one of the great coaches of his generation should call it a career.
Now that Calhoun and his team have come out on the other end, cutting a swath through both the Big East and NCAA tournaments with 10 straight wins, some wonder whether another title and a place among the best of any generation might persuade Calhoun to walk away on his terms.
When the issue first was raised, he simply laughed it off.
“You sound like one of our alumni midway through the season when we lost four out of five,” he said. “It may be a legitimate question, I don’t know. I don’t know if I look that bad today. Maybe I do. I didn’t sleep very much last night.”
Calhoun paused and those fierce Irish eyes scanned the room side to side, as though searching for a memory tucked into one of the distant corners.
“I told my wife I would retire when I was 50,” Calhoun began again. “I lied.
“But I was on a plane roughly 10 years ago with Dean Smith, and he said, ‘Don’t ever make a decision on your basketball future right after a season, no matter how great it was, and don’t ever make it after a disappointing season. Give yourself some time, space, and distance and then make a decision.’
“I’ve done that every spring,” he said finally, “for probably the past five, six, seven years.”
The day between a semifinal win and the title game is often when you catch a coach at his most candid. Because the biggest prize is still out there, their competitive drive hasn’t been sated, but in a sense, they’re already playing with house money. They’re funny and self-deprecating. They settle scores, tell stories about hard times and good ones, about mentors who taught them to deal with the expectations that follow the biggest wins and kids who taught them to celebrate the smallest.
Better still, the half-hour or so on a stage together is contagious. It loosens the kids’ lips as well.
“I thought he was mean, just from watching him over the years, growing up,” UConn star Kemba Walker laughed. “But when I met him, you know, it was a whole different story.”
“I definitely thought he was a nice guy,” said teammate Alex Oriakhi, smiling mischievously. “But when you play for him, your thoughts start to change.”
Emboldened by the banter and picking up on the competitive theme, freshman Shabazz Napier chimed in: “If he was young enough, he’d still be out there playing with us. Probably wouldn’t do much, though,” he added, “because people would lock him up.”
Following an investigation into the recruiting of Nate Miles, a prep star who was expelled before ever playing a game for the Huskies, the NCAA slapped the program with a loss of scholarships and sentenced Calhoun to its version of house arrest — a three-game coaching ban next season.
More than once, Calhoun slipped mocking references about NCAA rules and violations into answers about unrelated questions, proving he still felt the sting of that punishment. In a more serious moment, he conceded, “Last year wasn’t the most enjoyable coaching, yet I really liked my kids.
“Bottom line is we can all survive what we need to survive if we know who we are. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you. But I know who I am, and I’m comfortable with what I’ve done.”
What Calhoun has done, first as a local kid taking the reins at Northeastern University in Boston in 1972, then again at Connecticut in 1986, was build programs from the bottom up with little more than sweat equity.
His pitch to recruits shortly after landing on campus at Storrs, Conn., was, “How would you like to play at Georgetown or Syracuse?” It was only after their eyes lit up that Calhoun would add, “just not actually for Georgetown or Syracuse.”
If he’s guilty of the NCAA’s formal judgment — a lack of institutional control — it’s likely because after more than four decades in the business, Calhoun no longer maniacally attends to every detail himself, delegating more of the work and responsibility to assistants. Where he was once THE program, now he’s the leader of one of the most successful and established programs in the country.
If the cost was a hit to his reputation, Calhoun hardly seemed fazed.
“All I aspire to is when you talk about the great programs, that you always include Connecticut. That is almost my everyday goal, to get us to be one of those elite programs. Have we been over the past 20 years? We have the fifth- or sixth-best record over the past 20 years. That’s what I aspire to be,” he said, “fully entrenched as one of the elite programs.
“Is that too much to take on?” Calhoun asked, then answered a question only he could answer. “It’s what I wanted to take on.”
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