After 26 years, three national titles and 873 total career wins, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun is, at long last, calling it a day.
There have been a few times in the past few seasons when it made sense for Calhoun to retire, when folks like your humble author looked at his situation -- maybe he was going through health problems, or suffering a sudden recruiting dry spell, or being penalized by the NCAA, or winning his third national title in immensely unlikely fashion -- and thought "Yep. It's time." And each and every time Calhoun would prove us wrong.
He did that a lot. He turned a little-known Yankee Conference regional entity and struggling Big East also-ran into a national brand with a fervent statewide fan base. He toppled the 1999 Duke Blue Devils, college hoops royalty, to win his first national title. He did it again in 2004. Seven years later, in 2011, when few thought Kemba Walker and Co. had any chance to one day cut down the nets, Calhoun completed his legacy. Along the way, he was always himself -- brash, defiant, irascible, playful, intimidating, all of it.
Calhoun's legacy, his larger curve of success and recent NCAA troubles, will be discussed widely in the coming days, before and after he announces his retirement at a news conference Thursday. In the meantime, here's a look back at some of the marquee moments -- and best quotes -- of his career.
10. The hiring, 1986: In 1979, UConn was one of seven founding members of the Big East Conference. But before Calhoun took the job, the Huskies averaged a mere 15 wins a season. At his introductory news conference, Calhoun was asked if UConn could -- gasp -- one day become a national power. His response? "It's doable." Yes, yes it was.
9. "Not a dime back!", 2009: In a 2009 postgame news conference, a freelance reporter writing about Connecticut's statewide budget shortfall asked Calhoun if he, the highest-paid public employee in the state, should give up part of his salary. Things did not end well for that freelance reporter.
8. "The Shot," 1990: Four years after his hiring, Calhoun had the Huskies in their first NCAA tournament in more than a decade, when, with one second remaining and the Huskies trailing 70-69, UConn's Scott Burrell heaved a full-court pass. It found UConn forward Tate George, who turned, released, and swished a shot just before the buzzer, stunning Clemson and giving Calhoun his first marquee moment at the program. (YouTube it. He looks young.)
7. The first national title, 1999: UConn was very good in 1999 -- it went 34-2, featured Richard Hamilton (who averaged 21.5 points per game) and Khalid El-Amin and won the Big East regular season and tournament titles -- but it nonetheless entered its national title game matchup with an Elton Brand-led Duke team as a considerable underdog. No matter: UConn took down the Blue Devils in a 77-74 thriller, one that cemented Calhoun's status as one of the nation's elite coaches.
6. Six overtimes with Syracuse, 2009: We all have those sports moments that are stamped into our memories forever; I'll never forget where I was when I watched Connecticut and Syracuse battle for six consecutive overtimes -- six overtimes! -- in the 2009 Big East tournament. The Sporting News called it the "game of the decade." Though he later learned to accept the game's remarkable place in history, immediately afterward ("Never have I been involved in a greater test of what an athlete has inside," he said days later), at his postgame news conference, Calhoun was his usually defiant, hypercompetitive self:
"I'm not exhausted. The players are probably exhausted. I'm not -- I could practice right now. Foul shooting, probably. I'm sure in the summertime I'll look back and say what a historic battle it was. Right now it's a loss."
5. The (in)famous Ryan Gomes quote, 2004: After the eventual national champion Huskies lost to Providence on Jan. 24, 2004, thanks in large part to Waterbury, Conn., native Ryan Gomes' 26 points and 12 rebounds, Calhoun was asked -- not for the first time -- if he had missed Gomes' star potential when passing on him during recruitment. Calhoun unleashed a legendary, and actually self-effacing, verbal fusillade:
"It's the dumbest [bleeping] question I've ever heard. I've explained it 1,000 times. I [fouled] up. I didn't take Ryan Gomes. Does that make you happy? Jesus Christ almighty. ... It took 18 months to sell the kid to Providence. It's been written about. It's been talked about. Don't shake your [bleeping] head. You asked a question. I'm telling you how I feel about it. I took Emeka Okafor and Caron Butler. They're not bad. I can't take every player. We have 13 scholarships. ... And if you want me to say I [fouled] up, I [fouled] up. Write it. ... You want me to say I [fouled] up? For the fifth time, I [fouled] up. So put it five times."
4. The second national title, 2004: If Calhoun's first national title placed him in the game's highest current coaching echelon, his second national title -- in which Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon began the season ranked No. 1, and finished it that way, too -- placed Calhoun in the broader historical pantheon. Along the way, UConn toppled another very good Duke team in the Final Four before dominating Georgia Tech in the championship.
3. The Indiana upset, 2008: The 2007-08 season was a relatively average one, by Calhoun's standards; the Huskies finished 24-9 but were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Still, Calhoun experienced one of the most fulfilling moments of his career on Jan. 26, 2008, when his team -- which was missing Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins thanks to suspensions -- rallied to upset then-No. 7-ranked Indiana 68-63. After the game, Calhoun explained the perspiration on his clothing, and came as close as a guy like him ever could to tears:
"This sweat that you see wasn't the game. The sweat was me hugging every single one of those kids. Quite frankly, they deserved more than a hug from me. They deserve a hug from the state of Connecticut. They deserve a hug from the university. They deserve a hug from our fans. ... To do what we did is certainly the greatest win I've had since the national championship team [in 2004] beat Georgia Tech. It could even beat the Duke game when we came back from down seven [in the 2004 national semifinal]. It takes a lot to really, really win me over, because I always look for that perfect game. But when you have a perfect heart and perfect effort, you can't ask any more of the kids. ... I'm not going to break down and cry. That's not who I am. But the pride I feel in them, the hugs I gave to them are why athletic competition brings out things in people that are very, very special."
2. The third national title, 2011: Before the 2011 season, no one expected all that much from UConn. The Huskies went just 18-16 in 2010, and lost three talented seniors (Stanley Robinson, Jerome Dyson, and Gavin Edwards) in the offseason. And then, from the first tip of the Maui Invitational in November, something funny happened: Kemba Walker became a bona fide star, while the rest of an unheralded group -- including forward Alex Oriakhi and silky wingman Jeremy Lamb -- emerged as the perfect complements to Walker's do-everything leap. UConn faltered mid-season, and Calhoun was saddled by the Nate Miles recruiting scandal.
But his team never lost a single tournament game -- not in Maui, not in the Big East, and not in the NCAA tournament -- as Calhoun earned his third national title and the deserving coronation to his career. After the game, longtime UConn assistant George Blaney called his friend "One of the greatest coaches that ever was." After a career of almost nonstop success, Calhoun's legacy didn't need the validation of a third title. But he saved his best coaching job for last.
1. Hall of Fame induction, 2004: After his second national title, Calhoun was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He called his speech he gave the "hardest speech I've ever written," because the Hall of Fame was the "greatest honor I've ever received." In that speech, in that unmistakable Boston accent, Calhoun -- a gifted coach, an occasional bully, with a record of success and a recent history of NCAA trouble, and everything else that he was and is to Connecticut and the sport -- eloquently described why we all love this game all too well:
"Basketball is a game that has blessed me. It's a game that's consumed me, that's given me so much. Basketball doesn't care what color your skin is. It doesn't care what language you speak or what religion you practice. It doesn't care if you're big or small, fast or slow. It simply asks you to play, to compete, to lose with dignity, to win with humility, to make your teammates look good, and to respect your opponent.
"The game asks that you work to improve, that you put something into it, and that you also give something back to it. The game is universal. It is a language that unites all of us."