All that means now is that he has the distinction of being the oldest man ever to lead a college basketball team to the national championship. Perhaps the best part of that little piece of trivia is the fact he could hug and kiss his grandchildren during the net cutting ceremony at Reliant Stadium Monday night.
Over the past nine days, since the UConn Huskies qualified for a fourth Final Four under Calhoun, he has been asked over and over about his legacy. He gave a variety of answers, all of which basically indicated he didn’t want to think about it. In reality, he probably didn’t want to take a definitive stance until he knew the conclusion to this Final Four.
The end really was that important.
The Huskies submitted their final piece of evidence with a 53-41 victory over Butler before a crowd of 70,376. It wasn’t pretty, but it was exactly the kind of basketball game that defines UConn’s Hall of Fame coach.
Rough. Tough. Good defense. Horrible shooting. It was rock ‘em, sock ‘em basketball played with bare knuckles and some blood, most significantly from Butler’s Matt Howard, who had to leave the game in the second half when a gash was opened on his leg.
“When I saw the kid Howard hurt, I didn’t like that,” Calhoun said. “I’m serious. I didn’t like that, because he gave so much during that game.
“Both teams were matching that. To me, that’s beauty. That’s what this game should be about. … It was two teams that weren’t going to give into each other and finally our superiority took over. But, damn, I loved it in the fact of the fight and the competitiveness between the two teams.”
Add a fifth face to college coaching’s Mt. Rushmore because Jim Calhoun is only the fifth coach to win three national championships.
Step back and consider that for just a moment.
John Wooden won 10 at UCLA and they called him the Wizard of Westwood. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp have four titles attached to their names. And now Calhoun has tied The General Bob Knight with three.
And Calhoun, who took over at UConn in 1986 when the Huskies were perennial bottom feeders in a much smaller Big East Conference, has done this in just four trips to the Final Four. Wooden went to 12. Coach K has gone 11 times, Rupp six and Knight five.
The only blemish on Calhoun’s Final Four record is a semifinal loss to Michigan State in 2009. At 6-1, Calhoun and the Huskies have a .857 winning percentage at the Final Four. That remarkable number now ranks first in NCAA history (based on a minimum three games), ahead of North Carolina State (5-1) and San Francisco (5-1).
What about that legacy now, Coach?
“Well, up until the last few years, I used to think that other people write your legacy,” Calhoun said. “I guess I’ve seen some things with some of my fellow coaches like [Ohio State football coach] Jim Tressel and other folks. I really wonder what your legacy does become. Do facts really write them or do other people think they can, by some supposition, define what the facts are or aren’t?”
That is a difficult question to answer with Calhoun because he has so many images, so many reputations.
Coach big-time basketball for 39 years and your life becomes an open book. Calhoun certainly has been examined and evaluated during his 25 seasons in Storrs. But UConn’s drive to this championship had an incredible number of storylines. The nation saw Kemba Walker and a bunch of kids, freshmen players who grew up in the last month as the Huskies rolled off 11 consecutive wins.
Those who watched Monday night saw Calhoun at his best after Butler took a 22-19 lead at halftime. The Huskies and Bulldogs set the game back about 60 years with their first half shooting. Butler was at 22.2 percent, the Huskies just a little better at 29.
“It was my kind of game,” Calhoun said. But he made adjustments at halftime to make sure UConn would take the trophy home.
“If I told you what I told the kids at halftime, I would probably make one of those YouTube things again when somebody asked me about my salary,” Calhoun joked.
First, he had the Huskies make switches in order to chase Butler off the 3-point line. The Bulldogs made five threes in the first half and were 4-for-19 in the second, but Butler missed so many other shots because UConn simply wore them down.
Then, in the closing minutes, Calhoun said his assistants urged him to make a plea to the players.
“You’re too good for this,” Calhoun said. “If they beat us, that’s fine, but we’re not playing full speed. We look awful on offense because we’re walking into screens and we’re just not doing the things we’re capable of doing.”
Walker, who quite simply had one of the great seasons in college basketball history, was 5-for-19 from the floor and finished with 16 points. He had two turnovers and no assists. He played just 37 minutes instead of his usual 40. But after carrying this team for so long, Walker let his supporting cast take over. Jeremy Lamb scored all 12 of his points in the second half. Alex Oriakhi, the sophomore who keeps getting better, had 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“We ended up being a good overall team,” Lamb said. “Kemba just led us really.”
Walker hugged the national championship trophy and had a look of disbelief on his face during the ceremony. “I feel like I’m dreaming,” he said. “I really do think we were a team of destiny,” he said, admitting that his teammates had his back on this enormous night.
Those are the X’s and O’s. But Calhoun’s story is much more than that. And this championship means more than that.
The man has defeated cancer three times during his UConn tenure. He has been shadowed by an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations since that 2009 Final Four when the details of the Nate Miles case were reported. Just when Calhoun and the university thought that had been put to rest with the NCAA sanctions announced near the end of the regular season, the New York Times talked to Miles and published a report on the eve of these national semifinals.
The story was one-sided and unbalanced with its statements from Miles, who refused to speak to NCAA officials during a two-year investigation. The entire UConn staff felt it was a cheap shot with intentional timing. That’s hard to argue.
Less publicized was the personal tragedy that he faced this season. His college roommate died of cancer. The family dog died. And at the same time the NCAA announced sanctions, which includes a three-game suspension for Calhoun next season at the start of the Big East season, his sister-in-law lost her battle with breast cancer — a disease she had been fighting since 1999, just before Calhoun beat Duke for his first championship ring.
Pat Calhoun, the coach’s wife of almost 45 years, couldn’t stop crying as she watched her husband’s team cut down the nets. She said this had been the toughest year they had ever endured during his coaching career — and she has been there every step of the way. She wore her sister’s bracelet Monday night, squeezing it tight through every second of the tense game. It has been only five weeks since her death and she was missed at this family reunion.
“This one means so much to our family, not just our basketball family,” Pat Calhoun said. “I wanted this so much for them. I don’t know where this journey takes us. I don’t think we’ll have another Final Four in our book, but I always think like that.”
People can speculate all they want about Calhoun’s future. Retirement really doesn’t seem like an option. Right after the game, he started talking about the players UConn brings back next season. He would love for Walker to stay, but that won’t happen unless the NBA labor situation results in a missed season.
The point is Calhoun sounded very excited about next season. He will do his usual spring evaluation but don’t expect him to say he’s retiring just because he wants to go out on top.
“I never want Jim to retire,” his wife said, “unless he wants to retire.”
That’s a decision they will make together, possibly with some input from his two sons, his daughters-in-law, and even the grandchildren.
Don’t forget the grandchildren.
“It’s going to be what I feel passionately. Can I give the kids everything humanly possible that I can?” Calhoun said. “If I can, I’ll coach as long as I can keep on doing it. If I decide that I can’t, then I’ll move on to something else, because I do have an incredible life with my family and friends.”
And now he has that third national championship. The end result really did matter.