Commentary

Classic Calhoun cements his legend

Originally Published: April 5, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- The night of Jim Calhoun's third national championship ended the same way every game ends. Calhoun sat at a podium. He leaned into his microphone. He talked about college basketball.

He enthusiastically broke down X's and O's like a 25-year-old assistant at a clinic. He praised his players with the glint in his eyes of a proud father. He described his love of hard-fought basketball, even in games as ugly as Connecticut's 53-41 win over Butler on Monday night. He chastised media members for taking "hurtful" "cheap shots" at him when the NCAA doled out its punishment in late February for failing to control violations within his program.

He was brash and defiant, loyal and loving, funny and combative.

He was, in other words, classic Calhoun, as determined to prevail over any detractors -- perceived or real -- as the first moment of the first day of his career as a coach.

This day, of course, was different. On Monday, Calhoun won the title that indisputably cements his place among the greatest coaches in the sport's history.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Bob Donnan/US PresswireJim Calhoun's third national title places him among the all-time greats in college basketball.

On Monday, then, Calhoun got the last word.

"My dad told me something a long time ago: You're known by the company you keep," Calhoun said. "This is awfully sweet company."

The company Calhoun now keeps is a who's who of the sport's all-time greats, a college coaching Mount Rushmore. The scrappy Boston Irish kid who inherited Connecticut in 1986, when its days as a little-known Yankee Conference power were still fresh in the memory, is now one of only five men -- John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp and Bob Knight being the others -- to win three NCAA titles in his career.

"He's one of the greatest coaches that ever was," said UConn assistant George Blaney, who has served under Calhoun for the past 10 seasons. "He was before he won this third title, but this third title just validates everything. The wins, the titles -- there's no issue about it. He's one of the all-time greats."

Affirming a spot among your profession's most revered and respected coaches? Calhoun used the word "sweet" more than once Monday night, but he did so most often when discussing this season in particular -- in short, the most gratifying and cathartic run of Calhoun's 39-year career.

"I needed this team," Calhoun said. "I needed them every day for 109 practice sessions. This is as sweet a ride as I've ever been on in my career."

It was also no doubt one of his toughest -- personally and professionally.

Twelve months ago, a talented, underachieving Huskies team missed the NCAA tournament. Many questioned whether Calhoun should have retired before the 2009-10 season -- whether the apparent stall in recruiting, his off-and-on health issues and an ongoing investigation into the recruitment of former player Nate Miles had spelled the end of Calhoun's 20-year run as one of the most successful coaches in college basketball.

Calhoun didn't go anywhere. He stuck around to coach an 18-16 team that lost its two most talented players: guard Jerome Dyson and forward Stanley Robinson. Why? At Big East media day in October, Calhoun told the media "the worst thing you can do is come after me," that he was "much better coming out of a corner."

He was right: His team stormed through the Maui Invitational on the strength of a sudden star turn from guard Kemba Walker. In January, Connecticut beat the Texas Longhorns in Austin. On the court, at least, Huskies basketball was back. Off it, Calhoun was surrounded by misery.

On Feb. 22, after a two-year investigation into the recruitment of Miles, Calhoun was cited by the NCAA for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program. The NCAA's punishment was a slap on the wrist -- he was suspended for the first three games of the 2011-12 Big East season -- but it stung Calhoun more for what it said, what other people could say, about his reputation and legacy.

Then, just two days later, Calhoun missed his team's game versus Marquette to deal with the death of his wife's sister, Eileen (McDevitt) Fucile.

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker & Jim Calhoun
(AP Photo/Eric GayKemba Walker was just the latest star to develop under Calhoun.

Throughout, Calhoun -- outwardly prickly, always fiery, the guy ready to scrap his way out of any corner -- formed a bond with his players that sustained him.

"Every day these guys made him feel better," Blaney said. "He enjoyed this team more than any team he's ever coached."

As Calhoun added: "The gift of trust, the gift of faith they had in me, their inability to ever give in, that's what I got into 40-some years ago when I became a high school teacher and coach. I couldn't ask for a better gift. It reaffirms everything I believe I've done in my profession."

Indeed, what Calhoun has done in his profession -- aided by this third national title -- is matched by only a few in the history of the game. His 855 wins rank him fourth all-time behind only Knight, Krzyzewski and conference rival Jim Boeheim, whom Calhoun trails by one win. His three national titles since 1999 are the most of any coach in that span. His construction of Connecticut from the ground up -- from a small, niche Northeastern school to one of college hoops' biggest brand names -- is a rise rivaled in the past 30 years by only Duke and Coach K.

In a career that good, every year is impressive, but perhaps none more so than this one. The 2010-11 Huskies, while plenty talented in their own right, weren't a vintage Calhoun steamroller. For much of the season, the Huskies appeared to be a one-man show -- a team driven solely by its star, Walker. Over the course of five months, though, the young players surrounding Walker -- freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier, as well as sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi -- morphed from inexperienced, inconsistent talents to a multifaceted team confident in its ability to carry Walker as much as he carried them.

To wit, Walker shot 5-of-19 from the field against Butler. He went 0-of-4 from beyond the arc. But his team's tough-nosed interior defense won the Huskies a national title anyway.

Make no mistake: This was Calhoun's finest coaching job, and it came in his most difficult season ever. Calhoun lost family members. He was tainted as just another one of college basketball's slickster coaches, as willing to bend recruiting rules as any of the sport's corrupt car salesmen. He was criticized, and fairly so.

Calhoun took all of that in, felt all of it acutely, created enemies -- real or perceived -- and used them to fuel the title run that forever sealed his legacy as one of the game's all-time icons.

"My legacy, if it ever comes down to who I am, what I am, all I've ever asked anyone to do was talk about my players," Calhoun said. "Talk to the hundreds and hundreds of guys that played for me. Talk to Jimmy Boeheim and the people I've coached against for a long period of time, talk to people from our league, then maybe you'll find out more about me.

"Then, if you want to look at my legacy number-wise, that's OK too," Calhoun said.

Smart, biting, defiant, brash, controversial, oft-criticized and successful.

Yep. Classic Calhoun.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.

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