Calhoun can't escape chaotic season
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Nothing looked amiss. A smattering of fans filled the stands, many wearing their Connecticut pride on their T-shirts. Jim Calhoun stood at center court, arms crossed, watching his Huskies go through shooting drills during their open-to-the-public practice.
It was a typical day in the NCAA tournament, a nothing-to-see-here, ho-hum pregame practice session.
Except that the practice was perhaps the only bit of normalcy for the Huskies in a day full of upheaval.
Connecticut's day officially started at 5:30 a.m. PT when Calhoun and his athletic director, Jeff Hathaway, shared an uncomfortable telephone conversation. At midnight they had learned that Yahoo! Sports would post a story that claimed former recruit Nate Miles received lodging, transportation, meals and representation from a former student-manager turned agent from 2006 through 2008 and alleged that the coaching staff made more than 1,500 phone contacts with Miles, his family and the agent, all NCAA violations.
By the time the Huskies took the court at the University of Phoenix Stadium, the story had the college basketball community buzzing.
Once again UConn was at the center of the storm.
Rarely uncomfortable in the limelight, Calhoun seemed anxious as he addressed the media, constantly trying to redirect questions about the allegations to the Huskies' game against Purdue and all but filibustering through his responses about the recruiting story.
As he strode to the podium, he clutched a paper in his hands. He had jotted down a collection of thoughts that amounted to a 529-word rambling opening statement.
What was perhaps most interesting from his 15-minute session on the podium is not what Calhoun said but what he didn't say: The feisty coach, who went toe-to-toe with a reporter over his salary last month, never once refuted the story's claims.
"Right now all I know is there were words written about us and someone is looking into it,'' Calhoun said. "I'm not looking into it. Someone else is. I never read it. I've just been given pieces of it.''
Certainly that isn't an admission of guilt, but veteran Calhoun watchers agree that if there were any chance that he had the slightest inkling that the report was erroneous, he would have come at Yahoo! Sports full bore.
Instead he offered nothing other than a backhanded jab as he tried to quantify where the story came from, first calling it a newspaper story and then deciding it was a "blog story, I guess, that appeared on something that I probably can't get ahold of.''
Calhoun offered a three-pronged defense: that the university is checking into the allegations, that no current athletes were involved in the investigation (Miles was kicked out in October after violating a restraining order) and that Miles was cleared by the NCAA prior to enrolling.
"The university worked very closely with our compliance people, with an outside agency -- legal agency and with the NCAA eligibility center,'' Calhoun said. "And it was determined that the student-athlete was fully eligible for his freshman year, ready to go and passed all those various tests that they ask you to pass.''
That, however, seems little more than a convenient red herring. The report never calls into question Miles' eligibility, but instead the fact that he received gifts and extra benefits from Josh Nochimson, a former student-manager who was at once acting as both an agent and a Connecticut booster when he plied Miles with benefits.
Even if the NCAA initially cleared Miles, that doesn't prevent it from investigating him if more information becomes available. According to ESPN.com, Nochimson also may have been involved with Australian Ater Majok and his appearance at a Kentucky all-star tournament. Majok is currently enrolled at UConn as a partial qualifier.
Calhoun refused to characterize his relationship with Nochimson, saying only that he was "a good kid, worked hard.''
What Calhoun did want to do was make a bad situation go away.
When asked about Miles he reiterated that he wasn't worried about something that he couldn't control and then steered his response back to Purdue; outside the locker room Calhoun answered a few questions for a handful of reporters before he was pulled to the court for practice by sports information director Kyle Muncy. As he walked away Calhoun threw up his hands as if to say, "That's all I have to say.''
His players echoed his sentiments, arguing that there was no distraction because this had nothing to do with them -- "We really don't know anything about it, have nothing to say about it,'' A.J. Price said -- but at least one coach here said it is impossible for this situation not to seep into the team's psyche, that whatever Calhoun might say publicly, privately it had to be "eating him up inside.''
In 23 years at Connecticut, Calhoun has had only one other serious run-in with the NCAA. In 1996, the school's three NCAA tournament games were vacated after it was revealed that Ricky Moore and Kirk King had received plane tickets home.
This is just the latest distraction in a season of sideshows at Connecticut. The season started with Calhoun battling skin cancer for the second time, then continued into the fall with the dismissal of Miles after he violated a restraining order, the semester suspension of Stanley Robinson, who worked at a nearby scrap metal company while he got his affairs back in order, and the saga of Majok, who the Huskies had hoped would be eligible this year.
It hit a stride of normalcy on the court in January, when the Huskies won 13 games in a row to ascend to the No. 1 ranking, but then twisted into a heap again when Jerome Dyson went down with a season-ending knee surgery.
Calhoun then found himself at center stage in late February when a freelance journalist questioned his status as the state's top-paid employee during a time of such dire economics. Calhoun went on a full-bore tirade, lecturing about how much money his basketball program made for the university, and ultimately told the reporter to "shut up.'' The rant drew enough attention that even Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell chimed in, calling Calhoun's behavior "embarrassing.''
Then in the span of one week, the Huskies lost the Big East regular-season crown with a loss at Pittsburgh and a shot at the conference tourney crown when they dropped a six-overtime thriller to Syracuse in the Big East quarterfinals.
The chaos appeared to have culminated last weekend when UConn played its first-round NCAA tournament game without Calhoun, who was hospitalized with dehydration.
Apparently the summit -- or is it the nadir? -- still hasn't been reached.
"I have been through a couple of things in my life,'' said Calhoun, who has beaten prostate and skin cancer. "I have learned how to stand up to those. All I know is go forward, stand up and be counted. That's exactly what I plan to do. That's what I know how to do. We've got to go forward. We can't dwell on anything that was said, not said, make any evaluation of it except let other people who can at this particular point in time look into what they need to look into.''
One thing is certain: This day may have looked normal from the outside. On the inside, it was anything but.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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