Legendary Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun bid a fond farewell to the basketball program he's built from the ground up in the past 26 years, but he -- as well as UConn athletic director Warde Manuel and new coach Kevin Ollie -- made it clear that farewell will be far from final.
Yes, as of a few minutes ago, Calhoun is officially retired. He won't be astride Gampel Pavilion sidelines on game days next season, or in any of the seasons that follow. But as the Huskies transition into a new era, the 70-year-old made it clear it's not in him to leave the game behind.
"I knew this day was coming," Calhoun said. "But I'd like to be a part of it in a whole different way."
Calhoun assured that his retirement was the first step in a full transition to the Ollie era. But he also pledged to remain involved with players and the team in ways the title "head coach" typically forbids.
"I would never tell Kevin or any of our staff what to do," Calhoun said, as chuckles rose up from fellow coaches, family members and fans in the audience. "But if they sought my advice I would clearly give my advice -- I've been known to do that on various occasions.
"But more importantly, I think for me, our family is a close family. I'm available to Kevin 24 hours a day, I'm available to the staff, and I'll be available to the guys."
Calhoun said he considered himself "one of the luckiest guys on the planet" for being able to retire in relative good health, and said his recent hip injury suffered while bicycling didn't directly cause him to make his decision now. Rather, the bike injury gave him a two-week period when he could do little else but reflect (and be waited on by his wife, Pat Calhoun, he was quick to point out), a period he said helped him realize now was the perfect time to pass the reins to Ollie, whom Calhoun said embodied "everything about this university."
Ollie, a former UConn player and 13-year NBA journeyman who has spent the past three years on the Huskies' bench, may need all the help he can get from his mentor -- "my second father," as he called him -- in the months ahead. Manuel refused to sign Ollie to a long-term deal, instead preferring a one-season trial run to see "quantitatively but also qualitatively what Kevin is like as a coach."
It won't be an easy year: Thanks to UConn's academic woes and the NCAA's stricter Academic Progress Rate punishment, the Huskies -- who lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2012 and lost Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond to the NBA draft, as well as forwards Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith to transfer -- are ineligible for postseason competition in 2012-13.
Ollie was emotional in his introduction, thanking his young family and former teammates and coaches and the players with whom he is about to embark on a challenging journey. He also thanked the fans, the "UConn family," promised diligence in the face of challenges ahead and said he wasn't bothered in the least by the lack of a long-term commitment from the university.
"I played the first six years in the NBA without a guaranteed contract, so this is easy," he said. "Whether it's two months, three months, I'm not going to stop until they tell me to stop.
"As I embark on this journey, we're going to take the stairs and not the escalator," Ollie said. "The escalator's for cowards. It's going to be one step at a time, but we're going to get there. ... It's not about X's and O's and winning and losing -- it's about these guys becoming special people. When they leave here, judge me on that. Judge me on that. And the wins and losses will come."
Few things in college sports are more challenging then transitioning away from a legendary tenure. Other powerful basketball schools -- most notably (and recently) Indiana and North Carolina -- have seen pristine programs struggle to maintain excellence for years after the departure of monolithic coaches Bob Knight and Dean Smith.
But Calhoun made it clear he'll never truly lose his passion for the game, or for what he's built in nearly three decades in Storrs. Rest assured, he'll be there every step of the way.
"To me, the gym is a place of comfort, of competition, to seek excellence, a place to grow," Calhoun said. "I'll miss the gym greatly. But I can't and I won't get away from basketball.
"I've already told the guys, I don't want to hear about playing time," Calhoun said. "Talk to Coach Ollie about playing time. But what I do want to hear -- I can look at you in sort of a different way. The personal involvement will still be there. The passion from game to game won't be. Therefore I can objectively look at [players] from a whole different set of circumstances. I'll see them more individually. I'll have more time for them.
"And I will be at practice," he said.
(Stay tuned for more on Calhoun's retirement and the UConn transition from ESPN's Andy Katz.)