Depending on which way you read the tea leaves, the decision by new Connecticut president Susan Herbst to assess the athletic department is either just another day at the office or a tempest in a teapot.
It is, according to Jim Calhoun, the former.
Little happens on the Storrs campus that doesn’t involve Calhoun. He is bigger than life in college basketball and even bigger than that in his corner of New England. And so it is no surprise, really, that the coach is at the center of what is becoming a she said/he implied argument.
On the one side is Herbst, who announced her evaluation of the athletic department not long after a report said she was trying to buy out the contract of athletic director Jeff Hathaway. The president insisted through a statement that, “I will be reviewing all divisions of the university over time, but with great urgency, to make sure that we are serving this state in the best way possible.’’
On the other is Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs, long a thorn in Calhoun’s side, who wrote Tuesday that, ‘“This is a story about money and reprisal,’’ giving voice to what plenty of others are thinking. Namely, that his review is really about the future of Hathaway, long Calhoun’s foil.
The two have had, at best, a contentious relationship. This is not necessarily unusual among bosses and their employees, especially in the high-powered, big-ego world of college athletics. The simmering pot boiled over during the recent NCAA investigation of UConn. Hathaway did little to bolster his coach’s position, saying that he had never seen Calhoun push so hard for a recruit as he did for Nate Miles, the player in the middle of the NCAA mess.
But Calhoun insists that anyone who believes he is pulling Herbst’s puppet strings, hoping to get Hathaway ousted, is reading things all wrong.
“I do. I 100 percent do think that’s unfair,’’ the coach said before heading into the Milk House to watch recruits in Orlando. “I have nothing against anybody. Jeff and I, our relationship hasn’t always been all that it should have been. When he came back [in 2003], he seemed to have changed somewhat and they say when you move over six inches to the head coach’s chair, things change. But I don’t want to see anybody lose a job.’’
Calhoun said that he believes Herbst when she says athletics is simply the next department in line to be evaluated. Already, he pointed out, the medical center has undergone significant changes -- long-time dean Dr. Cato Laurencin has stepped down and moved back to research.
Of course, what happens at the medical center may not be as interesting or as newsworthy as what happens in the athletics department, especially not one coming off a national title.
The Huskies were dogged by questions about the NCAA investigation during their improbable NCAA title run -- forced to face the music from the very first day of practice until they cut the nets down in Houston. The issue seemed to be officially put to bed when the NCAA levied its penalties, including a three-game Big East suspension of Calhoun, and the usually combative coach chose not to appeal.
But with this latest brouhaha, the cloud of turmoil threatens again. If Hathaway is ousted following a season where his men’s basketball team won a title, his women’s basketball team was the best in the country (NCAA tourney results notwithstanding), his football team played in its first BCS game, and its baseball team rolled to a super regional, plenty will believe Calhoun pulled the plug.
And more, some will wonder if the powerful coach isn’t too powerful.
It’s an untenable situation for Calhoun. No matter what he says, people will believe what they believe.
“Professionally you’re not always going to get along with people, but I don’t want to see anyone out of work,’’ Calhoun said. “I believe in Susan Herbst and what she’s doing. She’s young, energetic. She has great ideas. She gets it. She wants to make sure why we’ve had problems in the past, fiscally and otherwise, and point us to the future. That’s all I’m focusing on.’’