Jim Calhoun on indefinite medical leave
STORRS, Conn. -- University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, who missed three games earlier this season because of NCAA sanctions, is taking an indefinite medical leave of absence because of back problems.
The Hall of Fame coach of the defending national champions, who turns 70 in May, has been suffering for several months from spinal stenosis, a spinal condition that causes him severe pain and hampers mobility.
O'Neil: UConn at Crossroads
The unexpected news that Jim Calhoun is taking a leave of absence puts the onus directly where it should have been all along: on the players, writes Dana O'Neil. Blog
"I had back pain like never before last summer, thought it was back spasms," he told The Associated Press on Friday. "I saw a neurologist and he told me about scoliosis, stenosis and other things and that there could be things like a bone spur and that I could probably need something done at some point. I went for the physical therapy and it worked, but it started to lock up sometimes recently and it was worse."
George Blaney, the team's associate head coach, said Calhoun began feeling pain in his legs and rear end during this week's road trip to Georgetown.
"When we got off the plane, he really had trouble getting in the car and going home," he said.
Blaney will lead the team in Calhoun's absence. The Huskies (14-7, 4-5 Big East) have lost four games in a row and fell out of the Top 25 for the first time in 28 weeks. They host Seton Hall on Saturday before traveling to Louisville on Monday.
The school confirmed that Calhoun will miss at least those two games.
Calhoun has been bedridden the past two days as his family and doctors decide the correct course of action, a source told ESPN.com's Andy Katz.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spine, normally associated with aging and sometimes with arthritis. If physical therapy and medicines aren't effective, surgery may be considered, although some people's symptoms may not improve after an operation.
Calhoun talked to the staff Friday and reiterated that he wants to beat this injury and return, but he will listen to his doctors and heed their advice.
"The bottom line is I'm going to need some work done," Calhoun told the AP. "In January the shooting pains were getting worse and after one plane ride I couldn't even get up. I tried to hide it. I'm taking medicine right now for the pain and they are waiting for things to quiet down and I'll meet with the doctor next week. I told (university president) Susan (Herbst) about it and said I could make it through the season, that there were only 3½ weeks left. But it's just so bad, even getting through practice. Now I'm going to see what the next step is. The bottom line is I'm hurting."
Calhoun has had a history of health problems. He is a three-time cancer survivor, overcoming prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer twice, most recently in 2008.
"I don't know anybody tougher," Blaney said. "He doesn't use Novocain when he goes to the dentist. He's a tough guy and usually 'No' spurs him on."
Calhoun has missed 21 games during his career at UConn, 17 for medical reasons. He has had to leave another 11 games with health problems. His last extended medical leave came in 2010, when he missed seven games with stress-related issues.
Former GW coach Karl Hobbs, who has been an administrative assistant, is likely to have coaching duties during Calhoun's absence, according to the school.
The staff has former head coaches in Hobbs, Glen Miller and interim head coach Blaney.
Assistant Kevin Ollie is privately being groomed to replace Calhoun, multiple sources told ESPN.com's Katz.
Blaney said Calhoun missed practice on Thursday and could not get out of bed Friday morning. Blaney informed the team just before Friday afternoon's practice.
"We wish we could be there to help him, and he wishes he could be there to help us," said guard Shabazz Napier, a team captain. "Sometimes you have to go on a journey without your captain and we're going to do whatever we got to do to fulfill his dreams and fulfill ours at the same time."
Napier and forward Alex Oriakhi called a players-only meeting to discuss the team's recent slump, and talk through any issues players were having with one another.
"It's tough," said freshman center Andre Drummond. "We've had a couple of downfalls, a couple of roadblocks throughout the way, but that's life. That's one of the things you've got to get through. That's what we're doing right now. We're fighting through it and we're not going down without a fight."
Calhoun is No. 6 on the all-time wins list with 867. He has won three national championships at Connecticut and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005. He coached the team to its fourth Final Four and third national title last April.
The subject of Calhoun's tenure is not new. He said last month he decided to not retire after last year's national championship in large part because he wanted to see through the NCAA sanctions leveled on him and his program for recruiting violations. The NCAA required Calhoun to sit out wins over South Florida and St. John's and a loss to Seton Hall for violations that included a finding that the coach had failed to maintain "an atmosphere of compliance" in the program.
He told reporters that the idea of bringing closure to that issue was a "major, major factor" in his decision to come back this season.
In August, Calhoun said through the assistant director of athletics that he informed Herbst he would coach during the coming season.
In June, he said he felt good, worked out and spent a lot of time riding his bike. Each year, he rides between 25 and 50 miles at his annual Jim Calhoun Cancer Challenge Ride and Walk. In 2009, he broke several ribs and was hospitalized after falling during the charity event.
Connecticut has gone 9-9 in games that Blaney has coached, including 2-1 during Calhoun's recent suspension.
Guard Ryan Boatright, who has missed nine games this season while the NCAA investigated his eligibility, said he thinks the team will rally under Blaney. He said both coaches are able to motivate the team, but their styles are much different.
"There's not as much yelling," he said. "Obviously the cuss words are down to a (lower) level. It's a difference."
Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz and The Associated Press was used in this report.