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One-on-One with... Jim Calhoun



I first covered UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun after I joined the staff of The New Haven Register in the fall of 1992. My beat was high school sports, but I crossed paths with him enough to glean that even in private moments, Calhoun was every bit the charming (but antagonistic), brilliant (yet hardheaded) man that the public perceived him to be. Over the years there have been many times when Calhoun was not thrilled with something I said or wrote, but he never quit talking to me. That was the best part about covering Calhoun: The man always had something to say.

I drove to Storrs last week to get a glimpse of Calhoun in Winter. He retired in September after 45 years on the sideline, but I found him to be the same man I first met 20 years ago—still acerbic (but considerate), confrontational (yet humble in his own way) and thoroughly at peace with who he is and how he coached.

Seth Davis: The ACC just voted to decide which school should replace Maryland [which will play in the Big Ten in 2014]. It came down to Louisville and Connecticut, and ACC presidents went with Louisville. Everyone knows UConn wants to get into the ACC, but the league is basically saying, You're not good enough to join our club. That's got to royally piss you off.

Jim Calhoun: I'm not angry at the ACC; everybody makes a judgment. Everything seems to be driven by football—we just beat Louisville in football, by the way. But they do have a better stadium, and to some degree, they're more of a football crowd than we are. It's difficult territory because I think we put $208 million into football. I just think we have to keep our options open but then stabilize where we are, because I don't believe this is all over. I think you're going to have four to five megaconferences and they're gonna feed off each other.

So it's a new era. Is it better than the old one?

In a certain way I miss the old one. There was nothing greater than going to Georgetown, Syracuse at the Dome, some of the great wars that we've had over the years. There was an intimacy because we were purely basketball. You settled problems with a phone call.

The first time I met John Thompson was at training camp down in Camp Millbrook with the Celtics. I was down there as a free agent and got an opportunity to try out for them, and John was my roommate for two days. You had those kinds of relationships back then.

I didn't realize you tried out for the Celtics.

Yeah. I was a 6'5" shooter—a small-college All-America—and I was scoring 23, 24 points a game [for American International]. We had a really good team.

People talk about the younger generation of coaches today. They're not friends like you guys were. They're more competitive, especially in recruiting. They're killing each other.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches wanted me to come this year to speak [to their convention] at the Final Four in New Orleans. I wanted to say to them, There used to be only about 150 of us. Now there's 350 of us and we're like cowboys. We're kind of out there by ourselves.

A number of years ago I was on a plane to Charlotte with Dean Smith. It was near the end of his coaching career, and I asked him, "What would drive you out?" And he said, "It's never the kids, never the game, but all the other stuff that's going on." Life has changed. We're in a gotcha society.

How are you liking retirement? What's life like?

I'm doing all different kinds of things. [Working with] Junior Achievement or at the hospital [to help raise money for UConn's cancer center]. I'll try to get to practice today. And I love that. I usually talk to Kevin [Ollie, UConn's coach] before and after practice when I'm there.

Are you worried about interfering?

It's why I don't go up in the stands. I sit on the baseline at home games. I might get upset if somebody says something about Kevin. I'm very protective of him.

What do you miss most?

The relationships you have with the kids. There are very few [people] beyond my children, my grandchildren and obviously my family that I've ever had that kind of relationship with.

So when game night comes, are you thinking Man, I wish I were out there! or Thank the Lord that I don't have to deal with this stress anymore?

Neither. I coached Division I basketball for 40 years. I had three bouts with cancer, a broken hip and back problems all within a short time. The university and I admitted that we made some mistakes, and the NCAA came in and—I didn't think they mistreated us, but I thought that they held us to a higher standard. The final breakdown is that a former manager of ours gave $3,500 in goods and services to [recruit Nate Miles].

You know how complicated the concept of a legacy can be. A lot of people have a sense that, I know he did a lot of great stuff, but I'm not sure he's totally clean. What is your answer to that?

I understand that, but my question to you would be, Why do I need an explanation for what I've done for my roughly 45-year career, counting high school? Why do I need to answer to people because there was $3,500 given by a former manager to a prospective student? That happened, O.K.? We were blamed as a basketball program for that. By the way, the NCAA was here for two years. In two years they found no other evidence [of wrongdoing]. If you remember correctly, [the NCAA] said I didn't create an atmosphere of compliance. So what rule did I break? Well, they had me secondarily—leaving a couple of tickets for guys I didn't think were AAU coaches any longer. O.K., I'm the head coach. I should have known more.

But then a couple of assistant coaches lost their jobs.

But only one of the assistant coaches, Beau Archibald, who's in China right now, was ever [penalized]. Think about this. Andre [LaFleur] is coaching at Providence. Pat Sellers is at Hofstra. There was no question that Beau, who was the director of operations, made phone calls, I thought legal phone calls.

What do you think of this new rule that any violation committed by an assistant gets attached to the head coach? Is that going to be called the Jim Calhoun rule? Not everybody gets a rule named after them.

Well, I don't want to have a rule named after me. Everything that I've done—coaching, administrating, charity [work]—I've done with good intentions. Has everything always worked out the way I wanted it to? I could give you a game, a practice, whatever it may be that I [said or did something] that I wish I could take back. Never once have I wanted a player to have the power over me that I "got him there."

You can't coach a guy you bought.

Exactly. Particularly with my style, I don't think I could coach a guy under those circumstances.

Driving up here, I tried to imagine what it must have felt like for you at 15 to lose your dad to a heart attack. And how that must have changed your life and the way you look at the world.

I thought it was totally unfair. My dad [James] was my hero. My mom [Kathleen] was an incredible person. But he ran everything financially, and afterward we went from one extreme—first TV owners on the block—to a place where things weren't great.

Everybody talks about how you lived your life with a chip on your shoulder. I don't mean to be an armchair psychologist here, but it's not hard to connect those dots: The world isn't fair, and if you want to get somewhere you've got to ...

You've gotta work. I leave this job not owing anybody anything. That's why I asked you, Do I owe an explanation for 45 years? I don't even like talking that way. But do I need an explanation, or does the body of work—and I'm not talking about wins.... Do I need an explanation when you see and talk to our players? If you're a point guard and you say I'm not giving you enough time, well guess what: We've got a two-and-a-half-hour goddam practice today and if you show me you're better than him, you'll play a lot more in the game.

Five years from now, what will your life be like?

When I broke my hip on Aug. 4, for a month I was pretty banged up. So I did a lot of reflecting. If I can continue to help and be involved in basketball, that will be very important to me. To continue to be involved at the university, that will be very important to me. If I can continue to be involved with the charities and still have some relevance in the state, it's important that I'll be able to maintain that. That's why I'll probably do a radio show, to use my voice to continue to do things.

Now that you're retired, are you getting along better with Geno Auriemma?

Geno and I got along the first three or four years we got here. Then I found out that his kids were in Little League and my kids were in college. And that starts separating you to some degree. Secondly, his lifestyle. He would maybe go over to the local hotel or bar with his guys like many other coaches do. I don't. I go out with friends or family, so we're different in that regard. And then there was a particular point where a couple of things were said that shouldn't have been by both parties. So it had nothing to do with basketball. I think he's a good father. I think he's a terrific coach for women.

So this idea that the town ain't big enough for the both of you ...

My competition is Mike [Krzyzewski], my competition is Roy [Williams], Jimmy [Boeheim]. Geno's probably going to end up as the greatest women's basketball coach. That's not really in my realm, world or field.

Who's the best coach you ever went up against?

I almost never think about other coaches when I'm coaching, except Mike Krzyzewski, because I know I'm not quitting and he's not quitting. I don't care what the score is, he ain't gonna give up. A referee told me one time that if you go to basketball heaven, you at least need to go to hell one time, and that's working a Jim Calhoun--Mike Krzyzewski game. "Some guys want some of the calls," he said. "Some guys want the majority of the calls. You two want every single call." But Mike does it better than I do.

You guys are pretty good friends.

One of the fun days I had last summer was when I was out recruiting, sitting in a place, and the first three guys there were me, Mike and Jimmy Boeheim. And Mike being Mike, he says, "Now we can say any f------ thing we want. It's just the three of us." I loved it. We were upstairs on a little balcony looking down, and we just talked. Then a couple of guys gathered around us and we shut down. But it was really cool. Mike's been incredible about my cancer, my broken hip. Incredible.

It seems like you have peace of mind.

I've had conversations with former players where I told them, "I rode you too hard when you were here." And they say, "Yeah, you rode me to the NBA." I've had that answer a few times. During the time they were here, I'm sure the kids felt what I was saying to them was hurtful. It was intended to be hurtful in that I wanted them to wake up, to stand up. I like what an AAU coach once told me: "That kid's gonna be a great player once he gets by you."

What are you reading now?

Right now I'm reading Eisenhower, which is a fascinating book. I've always pictured Dwight David Eisenhower as a staunch West Point guy. It's fascinating reading because it's the exact opposite of what I imagined. He might have kept us out of at least three nuclear disasters.

You read a lot. Have you ever tried writing a short story?

I've had people offer me the chance to do those kinds of things. But everybody says I'm an open book, and I don't think they really know what they speak of. I think I'm a little more complex than people realize. I get letters from friends saying you've won so much, you've proved so much, you don't have to keep proving. But there's no on and off button. I really wish there were at times.

But then again, I see other coaches saying, "My team won't play hard." What do you mean they won't play hard? If you only allow them to play one way, and that's hard, they'll play hard. I don't think anybody can say that about a Jim Calhoun team, not one game but over a period of time, that we didn't play hard.

Your best and worst qualities come from the same place, right?

That's right. For me, that's passion, that's caring. That's caring too much. Being disappointed in a player. There's sometimes when it's not really in them. "I've told everyone what a great player you are. How can you play like this? How can you not care?" It doesn't mean I didn't make a mistake, but I don't apologize for passion.

Why do I need an explanation for people based on what I've done for my 45-year career?

I've told former players, "I rode you too hard." And they say, "Yeah, you rode me to the NBA."


To read about Calhoun's all-nighter with Bill Clinton, download the SI digital edition, available free to subscribers at


Photographs by STEPHEN WILKES