- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
STORRS, Conn. -- When he was a young coach at Northeastern, Jim Calhoun admired and looked up to North Carolina's legendary Dean Smith.
And that's exactly who he is modeling his exit strategy after.
Smith stepped down as UNC coach on Oct. 9, 1997, setting up the program for longtime assistant Bill Guthridge on the eve of practice starting. There was no time for a search. The program was passed on from one Carolina coach to another.
"Dean Smith waited until the fall because he said you have to wait until everything settles down, wait until everything is behind you," Calhoun said during a wide-ranging interview with ESPN on Tuesday. "That's exactly what I'm doing. It's not a mystery."
Calhoun, who turned 70 last month, said he has two years left on his UConn contract and expects to be at the university in some capacity until that time is up.
"I expect to be at UConn," he said. "I'll have a whistle around my neck or I'll be helping the university and the basketball program. I've never thought about it any other way. Everyone else does. I've been here for 25 seasons and I'd like to make it 26 and go from there."
Calhoun, who is No. 6 all time in wins (873) and No. 3 in games coaches (1,253), said he contemplated walking away after the Huskies won the 2011 national title in Houston.
"I could have walked off into the sunset like Al McGuire," Calhoun said, referring to the late Marquette coach who retired after winning the title in 1977. "I could have after losing in the first round [this March]. I thought about those things."
Calhoun said he has had a number of conversations with UConn president Susan Herbst and AD Warde Manuel about a succession plan. A number of sources have told ESPN.com that assistant Kevin Ollie -- with his demeanor, long NBA career, ties to UConn's pro players and overall charitable nature since returning to Connecticut -- is the favorite.
On Tuesday, many of those sources reiterated that it's likely to be Ollie, but nothing formal will be announced soon. Manuel hasn't been on the job long, so having him make such a monumental decision at this early stage wouldn't be politically prudent.
At Syracuse, Jim Boeheim has a plan with former player and assistant Mike Hopkins as the coach-in-waiting. Larry Brown was recently hired at SMU with a coach-in-waiting in Tim Jankovich. But both of those are private schools where there are no state hurdles when it comes to hiring. Smith had a plan at UNC, but it wasn't public until he retired and Guthridge was named.
"There's been talk of it and there continues to be talk about it," Calhoun said. "We have great candidates on the staff, and Kevin is a great candidate. Glen Miller has been a coach for 17 years. Karl Hobbs took George Washington to No. 5 in the country. Kevin is the name people keep talking about, but it's a university decision. Have we discussed it? I would be less than candid if I didn't say we have."
Calhoun is also expected to shuffle his staff responsibilities this summer for recruiting purposes, switching the job titles of Hobbs and longtime associate head coach George Blaney. Hobbs has been in an operations position -- technically a non-coaching position -- since he rejoined the staff last year after being fired at GW. It makes sense to get Hobbs out on the road again, after his successful stint as a UConn recruiter in the late '90s.
As for Calhoun, he is making plans to be on the road to evaluate players yet again this July, at his usual stops in Indianapolis, Orlando and North Augusta, S.C.
So the three-time national champion and Hall of Famer is showing no signs of stepping down and is clearly preparing for next season as if he's going to be coaching, despite an NCAA ban from the postseason due to a poor APR score and a Big East bylaw making the Huskies ineligible for the conference tournament as well.
The Huskies lost two players to the NBA draft, likely lottery picks Andre Drummond (a freshman) and Jeremy Lamb (a sophomore), along with rising senior Alex Oriakhi, who transferred to Missouri and is eligible immediately under NCAA rules because his remaining eligibility matched the length of the ban.
Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley followed Oriakhi out the door, too. Smith went to UNLV to play small forward and is seeking a waiver to play immediately. Bradley needed to be closer to his Tennessee home due to an ill relative and transferred to Western Kentucky.
The team is depleted, but Calhoun said he is nevertheless gearing up for the season. He is cancer-free, but still goes for quarterly checkups. The back injury (a bone chip pressing on a nerve) that forced him to have surgery in February is no longer a cause of immense pain. He said he is now dealing with the normal aches and pains in the morning but is ready to go once he's up. He biked 25 miles on Monday.
"If the urge and desire and the passion is there to give the kids everything I have, then I'll be there to start practice," Calhoun said. "We've added a couple of players. We've had some on unofficial visits. It's been this way for five or six years."
Connecticut had a national championship hangover last season, and Calhoun being gone for 11 games (eight because of his back and three because of an NCAA suspension) and freshman guard Ryan Boatright dealing with NCAA eligibility issues that took him out of nine games led to an "unfulfilled season," Calhoun said. The Huskies finished 8-10 in the Big East and 20-14 overall after losing to Iowa State in their first NCAA tournament game.
Calhoun said he returned for the final regular-season game against Pitt, despite being on the operating table less than a week earlier to remove the bone chip, because he has always said that if he can coach, he will.
"I made a commitment to myself, to my team, that if I can I'll coach," Calhoun said. "That's why I'm all or nothing. I'm not going to go through a year where I'm not 100 percent committed to helping this team. When I make a commitment, I make a commitment. I love the game. I love watching the development. That's who I am."
Calhoun said he doesn't see himself as having two years remaining on his contract, but rather a lifetime contract to serve in some capacity at Connecticut.
"They want me here at UConn," he said. "If I can't give that kind of passion . It's not a part-time job. If I'm not a 100 percent full-go, then that's why I would stop coaching. When I get to September or October, I have to know I'm fully committed. There's no turning back."
The APR ban is the sorest subject for Calhoun, more so than the NCAA's three-game suspension. UConn still contends that the APR should have been judged on the previous two years, not four. If that had occurred, the program would not be dealing with the ban. (On Wednesday, nine other schools joined UConn on the banned-by-the-APR list, but the Huskies are the only team from the Big Six.)
"We didn't do a good job with it, we took our eye off the ball, but the program is in good shape," Calhoun said. "We're one year removed from a national championship and we went to the NCAA tournament. The APR makes a lot of sense, but the implementation in the short term doesn't. We found out in October [that UConn would be banned for 2013]. It came quick."
Calhoun said he doesn't understand why, with modern technology, the grades can't be computed on the most recent two years to have penalties that are for the current players, not those who are no longer in the program in a high-turnover era.
"We can't assess over two years? We can," Calhoun said.
The bulk of the NCAA violations -- the phone calls and text messages (not the illicit contact) to and from former booster/manager Josh Nochimson, who was tied to one-time signee Nate Miles -- are no longer an issue with the NCAA lifting restrictions on texting and calling.
"It happened, and those are things that we can't do much about now," Calhoun said. "OK, it got our attention. We didn't do a good job on that. But it's tough to come after us for winning or for achievement or for [former Husky] Ray Allen running up and down at 35 or 36."
No surprise, but he also doesn't agree with the Big East's decision to ban from the conference tournament a team that can't make the NCAAs, saying it's different than a one-bid league understandably taking that approach.
"We'll find eight or nine teams to make the tournament [regardless]," Calhoun said.
Nevertheless, Calhoun said he'll have no issue motivating his team, despite the allure of the postseason being absent.
"We have 18 Big East trophies," he said. "Let's just go out and play. You can get drafted off a team that doesn't make the NCAA tournament or is not allowed. Nothing changes for the season except the cream on top of the sundae. I would be thrilled if we could [win the Big East regular-season title], but I don't know if we're good enough to do it."
Calhoun said he does know this much: He is convinced the program will be fine under Herbst and Manuel. He points to the practice facility that will soon be built next to Gampel Pavilion as another example of UConn investing in athletics.
But Calhoun says he isn't thinking about his legacy. All he wants is to have a program like Duke and North Carolina, where the players have strong relationships with their coaches and come back consistently to the school to work out and visit.
That's been the case during his career, as he continues to have a strong bond with a number of former players, many of whom are still in the NBA.
"All of the things about those programs say a sense of excellence," Calhoun said. "I'm going to protect our family. UConn continues to be a close family basketball-wise. A real program is made up of the people. And we have incredible loyalty. When a former player comes back for our [annual charity] event in August, I have a great sense of pride."
So how will Calhoun know that he's going to coach next season?
"People call me 'Coach' all the time, and if they call me Jim that would feel different," he said. "I feel like I can coach. I feel like I can give this group of young guys my very best.
"Last year, I missed 11 games. I wasn't there. I want to make sure I have that feeling again. I want to know that I have that feeling that I can give everything I have humanly possible to this basketball team. If I can, I'll see you on the 15th or 16th of October."
Now in his 70s -- with 40 seasons and 873 wins in his rearview mirror -- Connecticut's Jim Calhoun sat down with ESPN.com to discuss his career, his health, his team and his succession plan for the program he built into a national power.