- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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The two future Hall of Fame coaches, impeccably dressed, moved easily through the festive crowd at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. For the first time, Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma were fighting the same battle, united against a common opponent: cancer.
Over the years, the two driven personalities had jousted on a variety of issues and, more than anything, each been conspicuously unsupportive of the other's incredible success. But on this crisp early October evening, with classy music and elegant food and drink as a backdrop, the two University of Connecticut basketball coaches stood together.
Adversity will do that. Calhoun, after undergoing surgery early last season, is a prostate cancer survivor. Auriemma's father, Donato, died of cancer in 1997.
"All we are really are the voices for those who can't speak, who have no other place to get help," Calhoun said. "We are speaking for those people because we do have a voice and we're, hopefully, going to use that voice tonight to get the message out that we want to fight something that affects almost all of us. This is something that is personal. It has affected our families, and we want to have a voice."
Auriemma seconded the motion.
"I don't think that anyone down the road is going to be able to do it the way we can," he said. "I don't think there is another area of the country where two basketball coaches can get together and generate the kind of support that we can."
It was their first joint charity venture, a gala dubbed Hoops for Hope to benefit Coaches vs. Cancer and the American Cancer Society. More than 600 supporters turned out, paying $250 per ticket just to get in the door -- and that was before the auction started. In the end, Calhoun and Auriemma raised more than $300,0000.
And make no mistake, their personal charisma was the catalyst for all that cash.
They are two of the very best -- ever -- involved in the craft of coaching college basketball. They will both likely carry preseason No. 1 rankings into the 2003-04 campaign.
Calhoun's teams have won 647 games and lost 296 in 31 seasons. His record at UConn is 399-159, with nine appearances in the Sweet 16. The Huskies won the national championship in 1999, defeating Duke 77-74 in the final.
Auriemma's teams are 501-99 and a scintillating 47-11 in NCAA Tournament play. His Huskies won national titles in 1995, 2000, 2002 and 2003. UConn, 76-1 over the last two seasons, is a favorite to equal Tennessee's record of three consecutive championships.
Together, Auriemma and Calhoun have combined to bring Connecticut four national basketball titles in five years.
Toward the end of the gala evening, the men's and women's basketball coaches at UConn drifted apart. Auriemma celebrated the event with a close circle of friends. Calhoun went off to have a cup of coffee with his wife, Pat.
"We're two different people," Calhoun said last week from his office in Storrs, Conn. "I have respect for him and he respects me. I don't think we have to get along necessarily, but we actually do get along.
"We are proud of what we've done to fight cancer."
Auriemma, in a recent cell phone call from his car, concurred.
"It was an awesome thing," he said. "One that was probably long overdue. You know, coach Calhoun has been described as a kinder, gentler Jim. One of the points I made at the event was that there is a kinder, gentler Jim that exists on Oct. 5 or Oct. 6. But come Oct. 18 when practice starts, he turns into the same kind of person the rest of us coaches do."
A charged dynamic
February 26, 1995.
The headline in the Hartford Courant was ominous: "Dynamic Tension Divides UConn's Basketball Coaches."
"Oh, God," former UConn President Harry J. Hartley remembers thinking. "It was the lead story, right across the top of the Sunday morning news section. As a friend of both of them I was so (expletive) frustrated. Both teams are competing for a national championship and here is this story of public and private disputes. I couldn't believe it was on the front page."
In the story, Hartley, a frequent running partner of Calhoun's, used the phrase "dynamic tension" to describe the relationship between the two coaches -- viewed widely as the two most recognized people in the state. "It's a theory of management that says competition can be constructive and useful," he said. "You've got two No. 1 programs, two great coaches who want to be No. 1 in their game. It might help push each one to be the best."
Calhoun's apparent disdain for the emerging women's program -- evident in a steady stream of mildly disparaging and often sarcastic comments -- seemed to fuel that spirited competition.
A few weeks earlier, a story in the Dallas Morning News featured this paragraph:
"When Calhoun tried to get to a practice one Sunday in January after a women's game, he got caught in exiting traffic. After looking at the faces in the crowd, he quipped that Connecticut was going to have to set up a 'day-care center and a senior citizens home' for its women's fans."
Auriemma confronted then-athletic director Lew Perkins with the details of the story.
"My reaction will always remain private," Auriemma told The Courant. "I have a long record in the last 10 years of saying nothing but positive things about what's going on at our university. That's how I handle things."
Calhoun later explained it as a joke. "I would apologize to anybody who was insulted out of disrespect," he said. "But I would be terribly disappointed, terribly disappointed if anybody took it out of disrespect my observations about that crowd that, by the way, were relatively accurate."
Even in apology, Calhoun couldn't resist tweaking the women's program.
Back in 1995, the two coaching offices in the bowels of Gampel Pavilion were only about 100 feet apart, and yet the two men by their own reckoning had only visited each other's offices twice. When Auriemma's team rose to No. 1 in the rankings, Calhoun did not congratulate him. When Calhoun's team followed to the top, there were no congratulations from Auriemma.
Asked to describe his relationship with Calhoun, Auriemma said, "There is no description of it. I don't know him well enough to say that there is (a relationship). In my mind, he has his job to do and he does it as well as anybody I've seen."
Calhoun had a similar assessment. "I don't have a relationship with any coach, only because of my time constraints, conflicting schedules," he said. "If I didn't have respect for what Geno's doing, it would be absolutely ludicrous."
Ten days after The Courant story, Sports Illustrated followed with its own version. The headline: "Dynamic Tension."
Eight years later, Hartley is laughing over the phone. He served as UConn president from 1990-96 and recently retired from the university. The Courant story, he acknowledged was "painfully" accurate.
"It got so bad with both teams practicing at Gampel," Hartley said, "that when one team was supposed to be leaving at 4 p.m., and the other one was coming on, (assistant director of athletics) Ron Dubois had to referee. It was petty little things like that. The players were aware.
"It was like who's going to be the No. 1 dog? My attitude was let them fight like hell to be No. 1 -- UConn is the net beneficiary. Jim's wife, Patty, always told me that Jim was at his best when he had to compete with someone. He needs to compete. I think for a while that someone was Geno. He needed someone to oppose for the moment."
No one knows the two men better than Howie Dickenman, who is heading into his eighth season at Central Connecticut, where he is 112-92. Dickenman came to UConn in 1982 and was the only coach invited to remain when Calhoun arrived in 1986. Dickenman was Calhoun's top assistant for 10 years before leaving for Central Connecticut in 1996-97.
Dickenman also happens to be the godfather of Auriemma's son, Michael.
"Animosity?" Dickenman asked. "That's a tough, tough word. No, that never existed.
"You know what it is? It's one person who's keying on his program and another guy who's keying on his program. I know some other programs where the men and women's coaches don't even talk to each other.
"Maybe they don't go to dinner every month or go to each other's games very often, but Jim and Geno co-exist. That's the word I'd use."
Auriemma considered Dickenman's choice of words.
"That's a good way to describe it," Auriemma said at length. "We all have to do what we're best at. He does what he's best at, competing at the highest level in men's basketball. And I'm good at what I do in women's basketball. Together we need to do more things to bring attention to causes. Other than that, I would say we're in basketball heaven. I mean, there's no other place you'd rather be."
Finding a comfort level
According to former UConn athletic director Lew Perkins, his old boss, Connecticut President Phil Austin, used to say Perkins was "the highest-paid diaper changer in college athletics."
Perkins, who left Connecticut earlier this year to take the athletic director's job at Kansas, laughed as he told the story.
"Taking away the facetious side, they are two great coaches -- and two good friends," Perkins said. "They were united and, deep down, they liked the role they were playing."
Perkins ought to know. For 13 years, he was the reigning authority in UConn athletics.
A few years ago, according to Hartley, Calhoun and Auriemma visited Perkins in his office at Storrs.
"They got together and pushed for the renovation of Gampel," Hartley said. "It was something like $6 million and the funding was not in place. It was a tough call for Lew, but because they were united, he got it done."
Perkins, who (strenuously) declined to confirm the story, did note that Calhoun has changed over the years.
"I don't know if Jim has calmed down; I'd say it differently," Perkins said. "Jim is comfortable with Jim. The demons are gone. He's is one of the most successful basketball coaches in the country and I think he's comfortable with himself having proven that."
The NCAA championship in 1999 was Calhoun's first, and it matched the banner that Auriemma's team won in 1995. And while the UConn women have won three of the past four national titles, Calhoun's achievement -- the men's game is far deeper than the women's, making it impossible to dominate like the UConn and Tennessee women's programs -- places him alongside Auriemma in elite company.
"If Jim had not won in '99, in many ways he'd be No. 2," Hartley said. "Everyone realizes it's harder (on the men's side). The championship was a very big thing."
Those who know him well say that Calhoun's bout with prostate cancer last season -- he returned 16 days after successful surgery -- has mellowed him to a degree.
"The grand kids, the cancer scare ... things come together to create a sense that life's too short to be worrying about anything but your family," Auriemma said.
"Listen, I've gotten worse. I used to be a good guy, now I'm the bad guy. I'm probably a little harder on myself than I should be. My players think I probably beat myself up too much. I've created a certain standard of play that is difficult to reach day in day out, year in and year out. I probably should lighten up."
Nevertheless, Auriemma's friends say he has met Calhoun halfway.
"I just think there's more of an understanding of what all of us do," Auriemma told Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs late in the 2002 season. "There's a better appreciation in all areas. I probably watched more of his practices this year than I have in a long, long time. Maybe ever. He and (assistant) George (Blaney) have been in our practices more so than ever.
"It's probably because less people are bugging him about 'When are you going to make the Final Four? When are you going to win the national championship? The women beat Syracuse by 30, why can't you?' Since that's all gone away, there's no need to do anything other than appreciate what we're all trying to do."
One of the early sources of conflict was probably the two men's personalities. Both are confident, bordering on cocky. Some might even call it arrogance. They are, in a number of ways, the same man with differing biographical details.
"I've had to work hard to be really good," Calhoun said in 1995. "That's probably what Geno and I share. I think both guys have a certain degree of (similarity) in what they've done. Both guys are assertive in their approach to what they do."
And now, both men have been touched deeply by cancer.
"Back when we wrote that (1995) story it was all fairly new, the coaches were learning to co-exist," said Hartford Courant sports editor Jeff Otterbein. "Women's basketball was taking on a whole new energy in this state and the men's game needed to share some space. But as the years have passed, they have both reached out to their audiences, they have both won national titles.
"They have continued to grow and have been dealt life's curveballs, all of which helped lead to the point where (they) joined forces in the fight against cancer. You get those two in a room anywhere in this state and people will listen, react and support a cause."
When Auriemma was invited to Jim Boeheim's annual black-tie charity in 2002, he was impressed. He broached the subject with Calhoun, a regular at Boeheim's charity event. In five minutes, they decided to expend the effort required to make it happen.
"I was there," Central Connecticut's Dickenman said of the gala. "It was great to see them working together, not a drop of animosity. There was a warm feeling amongst everyone -- men's fans and women's fans, too. People were kissing and hugging, all for a great, great cause.
"It was a wonderful evening."
It had been a long time coming.
"I think now there's a feeling that success is good for everyone," Auriemma said. "And I get the sense that everybody's enjoying their role. We're all in this thing to win national championships."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
UConn coaches Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun have found a way to co-exist and appreciate the other.