Commentary

Calhoun never fit in a convenient box

Originally Published: September 12, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Sept. 13 is not a convenient time for a legendary basketball coach to call it quits, at least not for the administration left scrambling to fill the sizable crater that housed the legend.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireJim Calhoun coached Connecticut to three national championships and four Final Four appearances in his 26 years at the school.

That's why Sept. 13 is a perfect day for Jim Calhoun to announce his retirement. He has never been about convenience or ease. He spent 40 years in college basketball, few of them easy, most of them with his fists figuratively in front of his face.

He never fit in a convenient box. He is a curmudgeon, although not necessarily a lovable one; irascible but not always irrational, old school but never irrelevant; an icon, but an imperfect one.

Calhoun is the kind of man whose value came in his complexity, in both his public acts of defiance and his private acts of compliance. I once called Calhoun out in a column for claiming he knew nothing about things going on right under his nose.

Two weeks after I wrote that 2010 column, at Big East media day, Calhoun stopped me. He didn't like what I had written and he told me why -- mostly because I didn't call him. He was right. I should have called him. We had a discussion, politely and professionally agreeing to disagree in the end.

Then I boldly asked him to shoot a little video with me, and as the camera rolled, he smirked.

"I don't think we should be talking like this, should we?'' he said.

And then we did the video.

I gained more respect for and understanding of Jim Calhoun in that day than I did watching him loft any of his three national championship trophies. He was pointed without being vicious, upfront with his complaint, yet willing to concede that there were two sides to that particular story.

And that really is the essence of the man.

Calhoun can be combative, prickly and at times downright difficult to like. He ambles on his aching hip into the locker room of retirement with his share of detractors and critics. Frankly, not everyone will be sorry to see him go.

But whether you liked him or loathed him, you had to respect him.

I personally enjoyed the crusty New Englander. He was blunt, often to his own detriment, and his news conference filibusters gave more than one stenographer carpal tunnel syndrome. But you always knew where you stood with him and you always knew where he stood.

And usually he stood his ground, defiantly.

In a state that serves mostly as a thoroughfare between New York and Boston, Storrs, Conn., is barely a rest stop. There is a campus, and that's about it. No real town, no real epicenter. When I made my first visit there, I asked someone in the athletic department where I could eat in town. He suggested I eat long before I got off at that exit.

Yet Calhoun breathed life into UConn, building a national program out of a wide expanse of nothing. You can't do that without offending a few people, and you can't do that if you care about offending a few people.

Fortunately, all of that is part of Calhoun's DNA. He is Southie through and through, his R's about as hard as his personality. He plows where he should tiptoe, retaliates where maybe he ought to concede and practically bullied UConn from outlier to Big East power.

It is a towering achievement, solidified by Calhoun's deserved induction into the Hall of Fame.

A Job-like litany of health issues -- two bike crashes, cancer and back surgery -- have spawned plenty of Calhoun retirement questions before, but each time, the now-70-year-old pushed on.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun, Kevin Ollie
Evan Habeeb/US PRESSWIREJim Calhoun is still around the program, but it's Kevin Ollie runs the show now.

It was always apparent he would retire on his terms and in his time and now, apparently, with his own successor picked out. Assistant Kevin Ollie, according to ESPN.com's Andy Katz, will take over for Calhoun, just as he wished.

Of course, the problem with such defiance is there is always a danger of overstaying your welcome. Calhoun, like the powerful and combatant before him, will not slip easily into retirement, following in the muddied footsteps of guys such as John Chaney and Joe Paterno.

His transgressions are not anywhere in the vicinity of either. Chaney retired not long after "Goongate," in which the coach intentionally sent a little-used player into a game to "send a message."

Paterno, of course, was implicated in the greatest college athletics scandal of all time.

Calhoun walks away with the more everyday stain of NCAA punishment and academic frailty hovering over his program and his legacy. UConn cannot play in the postseason this year because of its academic progress rate failures, and Calhoun himself sat three games last season because of NCAA violations.

But still the comparisons are there to be made. Before their falls -- epic and otherwise -- the men were revered for the successes they constructed on the foundation of their own willpower.

By the time their careers ended, those crowning achievements were tainted by their mistakes.

The NCAA violations are what prompted my critical column. Calhoun insisted he knew nothing about the sideways recruitment of Nate Miles, that he was as ignorant to the shenanigans in his program as the general public.

I found that hard to believe and wrote it. Calhoun found it hard to believe that I found it hard to believe and explained it.

I haven't changed my mind, and I'm fairly certain he hasn't changed his, either.

And that's just fine by me. I didn't always agree with the man but I always respected him.

Dana O'Neil | email

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