Thursday, September 13, 2012

Some Memories of Jim Calhoun

I only caught the last five years of Jim Calhoun’s career, though that was bountiful enough: from two Final Fours and a national championship to the NIT and first-round exits; from Kemba, A.J. and Hasheem, to Nate Miles, Ken Krayeske and Josh Nochimson. A little bit of everything. Like my time covering the Red Sox beforehand, there was (is) never a dull moment covering UConn.

I think I got a somewhat watered down version of Calhoun. No doubt, he could still be as cantankerous as anyone. He still yelled at press conferences from time to time (see: Krayeske), but not with the same fervor as he did at late Register columnist Dave Solomon. He didn’t seem as overly interested and, at times, agitated about what we wrote about him – at least with the local press. He was actually calm at about 95 percent of the practices I attended (the Sunday morning, post-Rutgers practice this past January being a notable exception).

He was really pretty accessible – often taking my calls to his cell phone or returning them in timely fashion. If I stopped by Gampel on a July day and stopped by his office, he usually had time to talk for a few minutes.

My lasting impression of Calhoun will be that he was the worst loser I’ve ever seen in sports. I don’t really mean that negatively. Other than Tiger Woods (whom I’ve never really covered), I’ve never seen someone so irritated and upset – sometimes even immature – after a loss. His sidelines behavior could be embarrassing, and it essentially stemmed from the fact that his team wasn’t winning, or playing hard, or playing well – and, by extension, embarrassing him in front of some 15,000 people.

One of his most embarrassing episodes came during a Dec. 6, 2007 game at Gampel against Northeastern. On the heels of a postseason-less prior year, the Huskies weren’t playing well and were in danger of losing to the Huskies (Calhoun’s alma mater!) and he was pulling tantrums all night until finally being ejected by Wally Rutecki. After the game, he called Rutecki “incompetent.” Not one of his prouder moments.

Calhoun’s insatiable hatred of losing is a huge part of what made him so great. I’m not a big fan of the cliché “he willed his team to win,” but Calhoun really did do that. He willed his team to win.

I think that’s part of the reason why Calhoun doesn’t boast the same type of coaching tree that guys like Dean Smith, Coach K and others have. Sure, he’s had assistants go on to other jobs, but nobody like a Roy Williams (Smith), a Mike Brey (K), etc. I think part of that is because his success isn’t built so much on coaching philosophy and X’s and O’s. Rather, it’s been built on a competitiveness and appetite for victory that can’t be taught or imitated. In that sense (and many others), he’s really pretty similar to Bob Knight, who doesn’t have the most impressive coaching tree, either (Coach K aside).

The first time I really introduced myself to Calhoun was in August, 2007, shortly after I took over the beat. He wasn’t enamored with my predecessor at the Register, and the very first words he said to me after I introduced myself was, “Well, I didn’t like the other guy …”

Straight and to the point, no doubt. You pretty much always know where you stand with Jim Calhoun.

Last night, myself and some other beat guys engaged in a #calhounmemories tweet-fest on Twitter. I don’t have the tenure of guys like Neill Ostrout or Ed Daigneault, so I didn’t have as many stories. But here are two of my favorites, told to me by other people:

*** UConn recruited both Kirk King and Austin Croshere back in the day. It got King, but Croshere went to Providence. Every time UConn played the Friars and Croshere hit a 3-pointer or a big hoop, Calhoun would twirl around to his assistants and scream, “Wrong guy!!!!”

*** At a coaches’ golf tournament a few years ago, Calhoun got what he considered an inconvenient tee time. While on the putting green surrounded by other coaches, Calhoun could apparently be heard muttering, “How many (bleeping) national championships do you have to win to get a good tee time around here!?!?!”

There ain’t two Jim Calhouns, that’s for sure. A true original. He’ll be missed on the sidelines.

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