Calhoun's style was tough to beat
His prostate had been removed just one week earlier, but Jim Calhoun wasn't about to follow doctor's orders. The Connecticut Huskies were in the thick of the 2003 Big East title race, and the Hall of Fame coach was convinced he needed to get back on the court.
"He showed up at practice and everyone was so excited to see him," former UConn star Ben Gordon said Thursday. "You could knew he was in a lot of discomfort, but he never complained.
"I just remember walking up to him and saying, 'Coach, you're one of the toughest people I know.'"
There isn't a better way to sum up the career of the 70-year-old Calhoun, who retired Thursday after 40 seasons, 873 wins and three national titles. Calhoun spent the past 26 seasons at Connecticut, where he won nine Big East championships.
Along with his gaudy resume, Calhoun will always be remembered for his ability to flourish in the face of adversity.
He fought back from cancer in 2003 and 2008 and took a leave of absence in 2010 because of health reasons. Spinal stenosis forced Calhoun to miss 12 games last season but, less than a week after undergoing back surgery, he was back on the court to coach the final game of the Big East season.
He was the toughest coach in the nation's toughest league, and people took notice.
"He's got great perseverance, not just in his coaching, but in his personal life," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
"As a coach, you want your team to embody your personality and your passion. His teams did that. They embodied who he was as a man. That's probably the best compliment you could give to a coach as it relates to his players -- that they played the game and competed like he competed in every area of his life."
Indeed, a trademark of most every Calhoun-coached squad was the grit and fire with which the Huskies competed and the physicality they almost always exhibited -- especially in the paint. Calhoun's players didn't just beat you. They beat you up.
Jamie Dixon remembers studying Connecticut game tapes when he arrived at Pittsburgh as an assistant under Ben Howland in 1999.
"It was after Connecticut had won their first national championship," said Dixon, who became the Panthers' head coach in 2003. "We didn't know too much about the conference or the East, so we looked at how Connecticut did things. We tried to gain knowledge by watching what kind of team they were putting on the floor.
"We recognized that they'd be a pretty good team to emulate."
Over the past several years, Dixon said Pittsburgh's players have considered Connecticut to be their biggest rival. It's impossible, he said, to view the Huskies with anything but respect. Much of that can be attributed to Calhoun.
Dixon noted that two of Calhoun's three national championships came during seasons in which the Huskies didn't even win their own league title. That includes a 2010-11 squad that finished ninth in the Big East.
"How rare is that?" Dixon said. "It just shows you that he could get his guys ready to play when it mattered most. You knew what you were going to get with his teams. You knew they were going to fight and battle.
"Even if they started out slow, you knew they were going to make a run. There were times when he'd get mad and bench five guys, then those same give guys would come back in a few minutes later and make a run on you."
Calhoun's former players said his tough-love approach wasn't for everyone, but those who embraced it were better for it.
"The one thing I've always said is that, if you decide to play for Calhoun, he's either going to make or break you," Gordon said. "He demanded the very best out of you. That was something I needed as a college kid. As long as you had thick skin and rolled with the punches, you'd be OK."
Twenty-seven of Calhoun's players went on to careers in the NBA, the CBA or overseas.
"I'm happy and I'm sad," fellow Hall of Famer and former NBA coach Larry Brown said of Calhoun's retirement. "I love Jim. I was so lucky to have coached some of his kids in the NBA.
"Everyone I coached that played for Connecticut played the right way. They played hard and respected the game -- and they respected coaching. And believe me, they all loved him.
"I hope he's [retiring] for the right reasons. I hate to see him leave the game. I hope nothing is wrong. He made our game better. He'll be missed."
As shocked as he was at the news, Gordon said he knows Calhoun wouldn't retire unless it was truly his time to go.
"Personally I never thought Coach would retire," Gordon said. "Before I ever signed with Connecticut, there were rumors that he may retire soon. While I was there, those rumors lingered. And I've been hearing them ever since I left. You never quite believe it until you see it.
"Anyone who knows Coach Calhoun knows how much passion he has for the game. He poured his heart and his whole life into being the head coach at the University of Connecticut and establishing greatness in the program. He's had a great career. Being in the Hall of Fame and winning three championships there really wasn't much left for him to accomplish."
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