Commentary

Could this be Calhoun's swan song?

Updated: March 30, 2009, 12:54 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The beginning of the end of Jim Calhoun's 23-year reign at Connecticut is under way. Or should be. Calhoun needs this like he needs a wedgie.

His UConn team beat Purdue Thursday evening to advance to the Elite Eight -- Calhoun's eighth -- in a game that will be remembered for, well, not much. Whistles were swallowed whole for much of the 40 minutes, giving it the feel of a Big East-Big Ten football game. It was as exciting as watching a bruise heal.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Chris Morrison/US PresswireWith a win over Purdue, Jim Calhoun guided UConn to its eighth Elite Eight appearance in his 23-year run as the Huskies' head coach.
But a win, even one with acne, is still a win. This latest victory moves Calhoun another step closer to a third national championship and, who knows, maybe closer to retirement.

"I don't know," said Calhoun later. "I'm going to have to think about it."

His program, the one he built from basketball rubble, is under siege by the NCAA for alleged major recruiting violations. These are the kind of inquiries that can age you in dog years -- and Calhoun turns 67 in May.

Calhoun has always coached not with a chip, but with a two-by-four on his shoulder. He's a grinder's grinder. Thursday evening, as the West Regional's No. 1 seed won 72-60, Calhoun was his typical, gum-chewing, arms-folded, exasperated self. He leads the world in hitching his pants and "Whattya doing out there?" expressions.

But he's never coached under these circumstances -- not with the NCAA attached to his pants leg like a Chihuahua … not with critics sniping about his salary or his postgame "Shut ups," … not with the near certainty of losing four of his five starters, including junior All-American center Hasheem Thabeet.

The man is a survivor, you have to give him that. Cancer survivor. Big East Conference survivor. Survivor of 1,145 games in a cutthroat business. Right now, basketball is his escape. But for how long?

"You know, there's a great saying: that clear skies don't feel thunder," Calhoun said. "But I'm not blind. I'm not immune to the world. And nobody likes to have things questioned about how they do business. So there's no doubt that after I talked to my athletic director for a half an hour this morning I couldn't wait to go to our team breakfast and get back to what I do."

Calhoun has two wives: he married Pat in 1966 and married UConn in 1986. Pat has occasionally tried to nudge him toward retirement, but this time, Calhoun said, "I'll give it thought."

The cancer caused him to reassess. The NCAA might cause him to turn in his office key.

"I may need the kids and I may need the competition," Calhoun said. "But the other stuff? [Former North Carolina coach] Dean Smith told me on a plane flight -- I met him in Charlotte and we were going up to a Hall of Fame meeting -- that at 67 he could coach basketball until he was 77. What he couldn't do was handle the rest of the [stuff]."

I think the best thing to do right now is wait until the season is over. Right now, I feel like I can coach forever. If we lose on Saturday, I'll feel like I want to give up coaching. That's the thing.

--Jim Calhoun

Calhoun drove 110 miles round-trip for his cancer treatments. It gave him time to think about his mortality and his future, things he had never entirely considered. He has Pat, two sons, six grandchildren. And, remember, Calhoun's own dad died when Calhoun was only 15.

"Honestly, after 37 years as a Division I head coach … no, I don't need it fiscally," Calhoun said. "I don't need some of the hassles that just automatically come with the position, with a public position.

"I think the best thing to do right now is wait until the season is over. Right now, I feel like I can coach forever. If we lose on Saturday, I'll feel like I want to give up coaching. That's the thing."

Those who know him well say that Calhoun is conflicted about walking away from a game and a program he adores. Those Big East victories and championships -- an imperative for Calhoun -- remain important, but are they as important? Does the quest for a third national title (only John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski have won more) overrule all else?

It has been a trying offseason and season for Calhoun. The list: cancer treatments, a season-ending injury to guard Jerome Dyson, the infamous salary postgame drama, missing UConn's opening-round tournament game because of dehydration. And now this NCAA investigation.

Calhoun has those two Final Four titles, 804 career wins and Hall of Fame status in his suit pocket. He needs more of this "stuff," why exactly?

But his players still provide the gravitational pull. Will that pull be enough to counteract that NCAA investigation? Will that pull be enough to convince Calhoun to return for a 38th season, win or lose in this tournament?

"Do I really need that?" said Calhoun of his players. "That I may really need. To look at life through the eyes of 19-, 20-year-old people, or Hasheem when he first comes to this country, or [former UConn star] Doron Sheffer. I was always fascinated watching the world through his eyes. So do I need that? That's the decision I'm going to have to make."

Clear skies today. But soon, maybe sooner than Calhoun wants to admit, he'll feel that thunder.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's Podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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