STORRS – Who says you can’t teach an Old Dog new tricks?
Jim Calhoun, the man who put UConn on the national map way back when in 1988, put a great big exclamation point on the most recent game of his quarter-century coaching career in Storrs. On April 4, the men’s basketball team won a third national championship, a title as improbable as was the team’s NIT crown 23 years ago.
In a 21st century American culture where youth is worshiped and “senior citizens” are often put out to pasture, Calhoun, who turns 69 in five weeks, assessed situations and adapted, adopted new techniques as needed, discarded plays when they became archaic, and fearlessly incorporated state-of-the art methodology both on and off the court if he thought it would improve his team’s chances of winning.
Monday night in Houston, he beat a coach half his age for his third national title in the past 13 seasons. Like a vintage 1942 Bordeaux or a highly polished ’55 Impala, Jim Calhoun seems to be getting better with age.
Monday’s game was “retro”
Even the final score was a retro one in this day of lightning quick two guards and ever-taller dunker-meisters. The 53-41 win was a throwback game that deserved those old-tyme tight shorts.
This was an old-fashioned game won by a set-in-his-ways coach who isn’t so stubborn that he won’t take advantage of a new wrinkle when he sees one – even if it’s in the medicine chest mirror during a morning shave.
That Calhoun could come to Connecticut and transform the Storrs section in the small town of Mansfield into a college basketball mecca was once described by a national sportswriter as “nothing short of miraculous.”
Indeed, the Huskies seem to have been divinely inspired over the past few weeks, rattling off an 11-game tournament winning streak that climaxed with the convincing win over Butler, thereby vaulting Calhoun into the company of hoop royalty.
The Head Husky is now only the fifth coach in NCAA history with a trio of national championships, a fraternity where first names are superfluous: Knight, Krzyzewski, Rupp, Wooden …. and Calhoun.
“It may be the happiest moment of my life,” said the ecstatic Connecticut coach, although that statement may come under some scrutiny when he gets home and wife, Pat, reminds him of their wedding day in 1966, not to mention a couple of trips to the hospital that resulted in sons James and Jeffrey.
Then again, a loving soulmate will likely be more than forgiving of her “old man” who has done nothing but coach basketball his entire married life, starting in 1966 as an assistant at his alma mater, AIC, located, prophetically enough, in Springfield, Mass., only a couple miles from the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Wending his way through high school coaching positions, Calhoun soon found himself in Boston, head coach of Northeastern.
Like a good tenant, he left the place in better condition than he found it, in 14 years guiding those Huskies (Jim obviously has an affinity for the Alaskan breed!) from a Division II also-ran to a competitive mid-major.
Who knows what may have happened had Calhoun not left Boston for Storrs in 1986, leaving behind a formidable legacy at Northeastern along with budding Celtics star, senior Reggie Lewis.
We’ll never know how far the Calhoun-Lewis combo might have taken Northeastern that season if the coach had postponed his move to UConn for one more year.
Given his track record, who’s to say they might not have made it to the Final Four and perhaps Calhoun then gets scooped up by a program richer than Connecticut’s was at that time in the mid-1980s.
Early winning streak
It didn’t take long for Calhoun to put UConn into the national spotlight, turning an invitation to the NIT in his second season in Storrs into an improbable five-game winning streak to win the NIT crown. Then again, Calhoun loves improbable five-game winning streaks – something the Big East found out a few weeks ago.
But he loves improbable six-game winning streaks even more – especially when they improbably end in a national championship.
One can certainly see why this 2011 championship has made this often grumpy old man the happiest he’s ever been. In 1999, despite being almost a 10-point underdog to Duke in the final, the Richard Hamilton-led squad had been the top seed in the West and had actually spent more time at the top of the polls that season than Duke had.
In 2004, the Huskies were loaded with future NBA players, including Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, a Top Ten team throughout the season, so they weren’t exactly wearing glass slippers when they beat Duke in the semi-final and Georgia Tech in the championship game.
Polls be damned
But this NCAA championship was special – you know Calhoun is still savoring it even as you read this – and will continue to savor it, and rightfully so, throughout his retirement.
Having missed out on an NCAA bid a year ago, Connecticut was consigned to the trash heap in pre-season polls this season.
Add to that -
- being only a year removed from a leave of absence for health reasons,
- an embarrassing NCAA-imposed three-game suspension next year for “failing to maintain an atmosphere of compliance within his program,”
- missing a late-season game to attend his sister-in-law’s funeral
- and a creepy accusation in the middle of the Final Four by the former player whose recruitment led to the NCAA penalties, who claimed that he might just have knowledge that Calhoun lied to the NCAA – but because he’s broke, he’d have to be paid to extract the gory details. In other words, Nate Miles will chirp for food.
Add all of those distractions to the inherent aches and pains endured by anyone who will soon be referred to as a septuagenarian, and it makes this April’s feat quite sweet.
Grumpy Old Man
Having spent his entire 46-year coaching career either in Connecticut or his native Massachusetts, Calhoun’s New England ties and sometimes gruff demeanor have earned him the nickname of the “Cranky Yankee.”
So maybe James Camble Calhoun is, after all, a grumpy old man who would fit right in as a resident of the New England village once occupied by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
But he’s also an outstanding family man, a former three-sport high school star, a philanthropist, a molder of young men, a faithful Christian, a developer of NBA all stars, a Good Samaritan and one of a handful of college coaches with more than 800 wins.
Yeah, Coach Jim Calhoun is a Grumpy Old Man, but ask any Connecticut fan and they’ll be quick to tell you they’re very happy that he is their Cranky Yankee.
With the 2011 title firmly ensconced in his natty suit jacket, Calhoun is now the oldest person ever to win a national championship and the first Social Security recipient to do so since 66-year-old Phog Allen coached Kansas to a crown in the final year of Truman’s presidency.
Okay, okay. Before Ken Krayeske gets his shorts in a twit again, federal law precludes Calhoun from receiving social security benefits because of his seven-figure salary.
But when he does decide to retire and starts collecting the monthly check, we all know what his answer will be if some Washington bureaucrat suggests he return part of his check to help with the national debt:
“Not one dime back.”
Posted April 5, 2011