There's no other way to put it: Connecticut was completely irrelevant on the national scene before Jim Calhoun arrived in 1986.
UConn was a fledgling program that was still trying to find its way among the iconic powers and faces of the Big East.
Jim Calhoun raising an NCAA championship trophy has become a familiar sight in Connecticut over the years.
John Thompson at Georgetown. Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s. Rollie Massimino at Villanova. All three competed at the 1985 Final Four. And at the time, Jim Boeheim had already established himself at Syracuse. The Orange had the history, the fan base and the lure of being a destination for recruits.
UConn had none of the above.
And now it has three national championships.
That's all Calhoun, who is so incredibly synonymous with the university. When you consider the plethora of NBA talent that has come through Storrs, the four Final Four appearances, 800-plus wins and Calhoun's toughness -- and at times villainous presence – all those things make him almost impossible to replace.
His overall legacy in the state has to include his philanthropic work as well. It’s genuine and can’t be dismissed. He has raised millions of dollars for various causes -- notably cancer, a heart health center and autism. Boeheim owns a city. Calhoun’s name dominates a state.
Replacing that presence -- whether that’s in 2012, 2013 or when his contract is up in 2014 – will become one of the toughest tasks for new athletic director Warde Manuel and president Susan Herbst. I have gone on record as stating that Calhoun wants assistant coach Kevin Ollie to be his replacement. Ollie would make more sense than anyone else. He is the link to UConn’s early surge to national relevance. He is a longtime NBA journeyman who has a direct link to NBA talent.
Ollie can recruit and has strong connections and he continues to build on relationships in the profession. Is he green and untested as a head coach? Yes. But so were countless others. With a good staff, he could flourish.
But it won't be easy. Connecticut is in a unique spot in an ever-changing landscape in college athletics. What becomes of the ever-fluid Big East? Will the Huskies land in the ACC if the league decides to expand to 16 teams? How will this season's NCAA postseason ban affect the perception of the program in the future?
Calhoun has battled multiple bouts with cancer, broken ribs, stomach ailments and a severe back injury. He has been dinged by the NCAA and was suspended for three games last season. He is defiant, and cantankerous at times, but no one coaches with as much passion for his adopted home as Calhoun. The Huskies won’t get someone like him again.
Whoever the replacement is will face incredible pressure to maintain the program’s excellence. The UConn job includes the inherent obstacles of coaching in a remote corner of a state that’s not fertile recruiting ground. It demands familiarity, patience and passion for the school and league.