NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — The old guy can still teach.
Down at the other end of the sideline from 68-year-old Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun on Monday night in the national championship game was the hottest prospect in the business, not to mention one of the youngest. Calhoun has been a head coach for 39 years, five more than Brad Stevens has been alive. But with his level-headed demeanor and state-of-the-art statistical analysis, Stevens was closing the gap in a hurry.
In just four seasons at Butler, he reached the Final Four not once — a feat that took Calhoun 13 years in his second job, at UConn — but twice. Yet by the time the confetti cleared to reveal a scoreboard that read Connecticut 53, Butler 41, Stevens was the first one to concede he found himself on the student’s end of a very painful, very old-fashioned lesson.
“Credit UConn for defending the way they do,” he said, “because I thought they challenged shots better than any team we’ve played all year.”
Afterward, Calhoun was as gracious as could be, especially for a guy crossing the threshold into greatness. He became the oldest to win a national title and his third championship lifted Calhoun out of a crowd of seven others who’d won twice and into a tie with Bob Knight. Just down the road await Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp, with four, and likely out of reach, John Wooden with 10.
“Discount the score. Butler gave us everything we could handle,” Calhoun began. “It was a tough, physical game. We were up 10 points and it seemed like we were only up one. Brad’s done an incredible job.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say that right off the bat. They were a magnificent opponent,” he added. “We just happened to be a little better tonight.”
Shooting your age is an accomplishment — in golf, something Calhoun has come close to doing on more than one occasion.
In basketball, not so much.
Butler wound up 12 of 64 for the game, a shade under 19 percent. As it turned out, Connecticut wasn’t stellar in that department, either, a slightly better 19 for 55 (34.5 percent). But those numbers were far from the ones that mattered. Connecticut used its bruising style and superior length to score 26 points in the paint; Butler managed exactly two.
The way the Huskies managed that had little to do with schemes and everything to do with hustle. Whenever Calhoun calls it quits — after a season marred by inconsistent play, youthful mistakes, an NCAA investigation and a death in the family, many speculated this might be it — he won’t be remembered as an innovator, the way Knight, Krzyzewski and Wooden are, or even as a tyrant and control freak, the way Rupp is. But he has few peers when it comes to convincing young men to grab hold of a rope and pull in the same direction.
His team trailing 22-19 at halftime, Calhoun walked into the locker room and practically blistered the paint on the walls.
“His main focus was me,” Shabazz Napier said. “The team looks to me as a spark, and he gave me the opportunity to start in the second half. He told me, ‘We run with you, you’re the spark plug.’ … I put my head down and he told me to pick my head up. I just felt my attitude change. There’s no way in hell I wasn’t going to go out there and play as hard as I could.”
Calhoun never sets a foot on the floor, but he worked the sideline like a cop on a busy beat or like Joe Cocker performing in concert. He leaned in one direction or the other every time one of his kids put up a shot, as if body language would help them go in. When they didn’t, he jerked back his head or crossed his arms over his chest, spun on his heels and tried to walk off the disappointment.
You don’t even want to know what he said. Calhoun admitted the day before the game he invited two nuns along as guests, telling them the guy they were likely to see at the game wasn’t really him. How much longer he’s willing to play that character is anybody’s guess.
“We’re on top, I guess, at least momentarily. Recruiting starts in another day or two. So,” he paused, “it begins again.”
A moment later, he promised not make any rash decisions.
“It’s going to be what I feel passionately, whether I can give the kids everything humanly possible. If I can, I’ll coach as long as I can keep on doing it. If I decide that I don’t, then I’ll move on to something else.”
Barely a month ago, more than a few people thought Calhoun was already there. Then Kemba Walker put the team on his back, carried them to five straight wins in the Big East tournament and all the way to Houston.
“Coach Calhoun, he’s been through a lot this whole year. … But you know, I think we helped him overcome everything,” Walker said afterward.
“I think,” he added, “we made his year.”
Guys like Walker made his career, but Calhoun did more than his share for theirs, too. The remarkable thing is how much they’re still teaching each other.
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