— HOUSTON - Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun insists he’s still the same grumpy, sarcastic guy he always has been during his coaching career.
So don’t let that smiling, more mild-mannered man on the UConn bench give you the impression he has changed. And definitely don’t debate the matter with the 68-year-old coach, because he wins arguments with more frequency than Big East Conference championships.
But if you happen to draw the assumption that Calhoun has found a fountain of youth with this UConn team, you might be right. He has a special bond with Kemba Walker, his All-American point guard, a wizard who delights in big-time plays and then flashes a smile of pure enjoyment from playing the game. He has nurtured a troop of freshmen who have exceeded expectations and chosen the perfect time to play beyond their years.
When practice started back in October, no one knew if this UConn team would be worthy of a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Big East coaches and writers predicted a finish in the second-half of the mega-league and that’s where they ended up.
That seems a little irrelevant now that these young pups have taken Calhoun to his fourth Final Four. And now that they are here, you’d better believe the Hall of Fame coach doesn’t want to go home without a third national championship trophy.
“I don’t think any team has given me as much joy as this team has,” Calhoun said before Kemba and the Kids left Storrs and traveled to Houston. “This team has given us an incredible year … for our university and the fan base. They’ve been a lovable team and given everything they possibly had.”
Perhaps more than any other team in his 25 seasons at UConn, this group has taken on Calhoun’s personality.
From the day his father died when Calhoun was just a teenager and he was left to take care of the family left behind, this stubborn Irishman from Boston has always been a battler. He has never backed down from a fight and his teams have always reflected that. The 2010-11 Huskies just took it to a different level.
“Being with him these few months, I understand who he is,” freshman guard Shabazz Napier said. “I feel we don’t [back] down from any fight. We’re willing to battle any time and that’s the type of person he is. He’s a strong person and he won’t let anyone poke you around. He’s got your back and the same thing for us. No matter what goes on, we always have his back.”
That may be the reason Calhoun loves this team so much. The man loves a challenge but the past two years have been extraordinary in that regard. As the Huskies were advancing to the Final Four in 2009, news broke of NCAA violations involving the recruitment of Nate Miles, who signed and enrolled at UConn but never played. The case hovered over the program like a cloud of gloom until recent weeks when the NCAA finally announced its penalties.
Calhoun will serve a three-game suspension at the start of the Big East season next year, so the story isn’t going away completely soon enough. The coach who won his first four Final Four games, lost in the semifinals in 2009 and never did enjoy the trip to Detroit. The other day he blamed the cold temperatures. In reality, it was the constant barrage of questions about the violations, his integrity and the state of the UConn program. He accused a few long time friends in the media of betraying him when they questioned his ethics.
In the aftermath, there were controversies tied to his salary, his contract extension, a leave of absence for unspecified medical reasons and lots of criticism for the way he challenged the NCAA decision — even though many felt the penalties were barely more than a slap on the wrist.
On the personal side, the death of a close friend and the death of a sister-in-law deeply impacted a man who values family and the limited number of close friendships he admittedly treasures.
Is it any surprise the man found solace in his team? Basketball has been Jim Calhoun’s life and always will be. And even though he complains about the preseason annuals that snubbed his team in tournament predictions, he loves it when those things happen. That’s the easiest way to prove people wrong.
And he has. Again.
Calhoun often tells the story of a friend who once said he didn’t mind fighting Calhoun in an open space. “But I hate to put you in a corner,” the friend said.
When this season began, Calhoun felt cornered. He reacted the only way he knows how.
“I took it personally,” Calhoun said.
That’s bad news for the rest of Division I basketball, but good news for Calhoun’s players.
“He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever, ever witnessed,” sophomore center Alex Oriakhi said. “A lot of people may not agree with the way he coaches, but you can’t disagree with how bad he wants to win. That’s just something we feed off of. This team wants to win so bad, every game. We’ve been playing our hearts out and he coaches his heart out. We know it’s tough love and if we aren’t playing our best we’re going to hear it.”
Calhoun’s heart was hurting after the Huskies lost their final regular season game, a 70-67 setback to Notre Dame at Gampel Pavilion on March 5. It was the fourth loss in five games for the Huskies, who had started the season on a magic carpet ride at the Maui Invitational and now seemed to be on a path to self-destruction.
But Calhoun intervened with a three-hour practice that turned the season around for UConn.
“I was so fired up that I was at [Gampel] at 8 a.m. for a 10 a.m. practice,” Calhoun said. “I thought we put our shoulders down at the end of the Notre Dame game, and we never did that all season. We were a young team, 21-9 wasn’t a bad ending. We were going to the NCAA Tournament. But damn it, we weren’t going to put our shoulders down. We were going to play. We went right back to going after each other, right back to playing basketball.”
The rest is history. Five wins in five days at the Big East tournament. Never been done before. Then everyone thought the Huskies would be tired and exit the NCAA field quickly. Four more wins later and UConn is on the verge of one of the improbable runs in March Madness history.
Oriakhi says Calhoun believed in his players before they believed in themselves.
“It was semi-hard collectively and almost impossible, with a few of them, individually,” Calhoun said of the task of convincing his players. “I think when you see great ability in people, it’s your responsibility to try and bring that out in them. That was my thrust all year. I got incredible response back from these guys, so it was a lot easier.”
If Calhoun gets the same response for two more games, UConn will be national champions for the third time since 1999. This one might be the most joyous, most unexpected of all. So don’t think for a minute that the Huskies are satisfied just getting to the Final Four.
There’s more to accomplish.
“I think it would be the greatest achievement ever at this school,” Walker said. “We are overachievers. Winning the Big East championship and the national championship, it would probably be the best run in UConn history.”