- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Some coaches take their lumps like chastised schoolchildren, throw up their hands in a mea culpa and plead for forgiveness.
Bruce Pearl has ably swan-dived on his sword, tearfully apologetic in the face of possible NCAA infractions and publicly contrite in the wake of Mike Slive’s eight-game conference suspension.
That’s not Jim Calhoun.
He is not one to take his medicine quietly or cede his position easily. He has spent 25 years at Connecticut tilting at windmills and fighting all comers, fiercely protecting his program and more, his own reputation.
He does not act to please others, but he does care that others perceive him appropriately.
At Big East media day in October, he recalled walking across the court at the Final Four in Detroit two years ago.
News of possible violations and an NCAA investigation, the first of his career, had only recently broken.
As he took the court with his team, he heard students and fans hissing, "cheater, cheater" at him.
“I may be a lot of things, profane, but that word [cheater] I’m not,’’ Calhoun said then. “I’m a lot of things. You can like or dislike me, but that I’m not.’’
Whether or not he agrees with the characterization, the NCAA’s punishment of him on Tuesday puts teeth behind the taunt.
By singling him out for penalty, suspending Calhoun for the first three games of next year’s Big East season because of a recruiting violation, the Committee on Infractions has sent a clear and concise message to the coach: You are culpable in this.
On the surface it might not seem like much. Calhoun will only miss 1/6 of the 18-game marathon that is the Big East slate.
He has missed games before, more than three in fact with various health concerns. That was, if not of his choosing, at least of his own making.
But this is a benching, a benching of a man whose reputation means a great deal to him.
Plenty of coaches have been smacked with NCAA violations and kept on keeping on, simply smearing Teflon on their hand-tailored suits.
Calhoun isn’t any coach. He is on the Mount Rushmore of hoops, a man whose face is synonymous with his program. Only four currently active coaches already are members of the Naismith Hall of Fame: Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Calhoun.
That is the rarefied air in which Calhoun travels.
And now he is the only one of the four to be held personally accountable for an NCAA infraction.
There will be no asterisks next to his achievements. The two national championships still stand. His spot in the Hall is safe.
There will, however, be an asterisk next to his character and a smear on his legacy. More nasty whispers, more insinuations about what he did know, didn’t know and should have known.
It is the rare man who stays above the fray in this business, yet it is also the nature of the business that once charged, always guilty.
Unfair? Perhaps. But sports tends to be a land of second chances, just not necessarily the land of second opinions.
And that will hurt Calhoun, sting deeply in fact. Connecticut could play DePaul, South Florida and Providence in those three games and Calhoun would still chafe at not being there. It will be a painful reminder of what he has called the lowest point of his career.
Will it be enough to make him quit? Of course not. If anything, this could fuel the competitive fire for another decade.
But it is a dig at a prideful man, who despite singular success still views himself as a scrappy kid from Boston.
“I’m a natural underdog,’’ Calhoun said in October. “And if I’m not an underdog, I’ll make myself the underdog, somehow or other.’’
There is no doubt the committee could have done more and was, in fact, perplexing in its rationale not to during Tuesday’s conference call.
Dennis Thomas, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner who served as COI chair over this case, said on the one hand that “the head coach is responsible for all that goes on in his program’’ and “has a responsibility to monitor and to know what’s going on with his assistant coaches and operations director.’’
More specifically, he said that Calhoun should have known about manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson’s involvement with Nate Miles.
Yet when it came to doling out punishment -- three games for Calhoun versus a show-cause penalty for former director of operations Beau Archibald -- Thomas also said, “We think the penalty is appropriate. Obviously the head coach should be aware, but he cannot be aware of everything that goes on within his program.’’
If that seems like convenient double talk, it’s probably because it is. It is bureaucratic doublespeak at its NCAA best.
This fight, already endless and spanning more than two years, is far from over.
Calhoun made that clear in the statement he released after the findings.
“I am very disappointed with the NCAA’s decision in this case,’’ Calhoun said in a statement. “My lawyer and I are evaluating my options and will make a decision which way to proceed.’’
An appeal is likely.
Calhoun biting his tongue less so.
He once argued with a man who thought his salary was too high.
Don’t think for a minute he won’t defend his own reputation until the bitter end.