To fully appreciate what Jim Calhoun pulled off during 26 seasons as coach at Connecticut, it's worth pondering the wasteland that was elite college basketball in New England during most of the 20th century. Only one team, Holy Cross in 1947, won an NCAA title, and then thanks to a New Yorker named Bob Cousy. After that, only two schools even reached a Final Four: Providence, with one-offs in 1973 and '87; and Massachusetts, with a run of wins in 1996 that the NCAA soon expunged for rules violations.
Then came Calhoun. From his arrival in Storrs in 1986 until he announced his retirement last week at 70, the former gravedigger from Braintree, Mass., won three NCAA crowns over three decades, each in a different way. His first came in 1999 with a forward, Rip Hamilton, who ran around screens. The second, in 2004, came thanks to Emeka Okafor, a classic low-post center. In 2011, UConn ruled ruggedly from the backcourt with tone-setting guard Kemba Walker. Calhoun, a working-class guy who went 1--17 in his second season, as coach of Westport (Mass.) High, realized that the best way to avoid experiencing that again was to never forget the "working" part of his pedigree. His first Huskies title team delivered the perfect expression of its coach's personality, going a fearless 11--0 on the road.
Calhoun could have used a cantilevered epaulet for the chip on his shoulder. And his skin wasn't thin; it was translucent. But combativeness and insecurity fed his drive to win. "No matter what the record said, he felt he had to prove something," says Dee Rowe, who coached at UConn from 1969 to 77. "So he was always coming out of his corner. I know he appreciated the love, but sometimes I wondered if he really wanted to be loved—whether he worried it might be judged as a sign of weakness."
But insecurity looks better when you consider the alternative, which can morph easily into complacency—something Calhoun gave the widest possible berth. "Jim dared to dream," Rowe says. "He dared to pursue excellence. What he's done is simply miraculous, because he did it in Storrs, where you don't have restaurants or movie theaters or clothing stores. No one had ever done it before, and no one will ever do it again."
It would be easy to remember Calhoun for the recruiting violations and academic shortcomings that marred the end of his 873-win career. But don't forget how he engaged the breadth of the world. He read books. (Literary agent and UConn fan Esther Newberg made sure Calhoun's office was well-stocked with the best and the latest.) He didn't just watch movies; he talked about them to a fare-thee-well. (Yeah, Coach, The Cider House Rules was good—but, uh, about Ray Allen....) Whether counseling a player to work through the bitterness he felt toward a father who had left his mother, or helping another make the transition from a close-knit, inner-city Muslim family to what must be the only unlovely college town in New England, Calhoun kindled to a part of his job he clearly loved.
If Bill Clinton, in Toni Morrison's famous phrase, was our first black president, Calhoun was a kind of black white coach. An unlikely one, to be sure, coming from greater Boston, a city with a complicated racial history. But Calhoun forged uncommon bonds with the young black men who played for him. Like Clinton, as a teenager he had been thrust prematurely into the role of male head of household. Like Clinton, he had a natural appetite for his chosen arena. Like Clinton, he had gifts that, with the passage of time, figure to outweigh the messes on his watch.
College basketball began as an intensely sectionalist sport. That top programs can pop up anywhere—and that America comes together every March over NCAA office pools—is thanks to many factors, Calhoun's work at UConn among them. Sports give us cool personalities, and they give us hot ones. Calhoun was a hot one. And that's why news of his leaving hits like the chill in the air in New England with the basketball season coming on.
LIKE BILL CLINTON, HE HAD GIFTS THAT IN TIME WILL OUTWEIGH THE MESSES ON HIS WATCH.