Demeanor. It's not something we've talked about much when it comes to UConn basketball. We've focused, and rightfully so, on front court size and tournament bans. We've talked about the reasoning behind giving a coach an eight month contract and what the future holds for the program.
All of those things are important. In fact, they are the most important things facing UConn basketball right now.
But when the ball was tipped for the first official game of the season last Friday, my eyes were on the bench. Why? Because it was assuredly going to be a completely different show than it has been the last two decades.
Look, I worship at the altar of Jim Calhoun. I make no apologies for that. He had me hooked in 1990 as a 12-year-old and never let me loose. The man built a basketball giant in Storrs. He won three nationals titles, went to four Final Fours and dominated the beastly Big East for 20 years. They don't make them like Jim Calhoun anymore.
Yet, Calhoun had a, how shall we say it....unique way of coaching. Let's face it, if you played for Calhoun I'm sure there were times you felt like guys wallowing away in some cage down in Gitmo had it easy. After a loss, you were probably right.
One of my favorite pastimes was to attend early-season games at the morgue better known as the XL Center. You didn't need a calculator to add up the number of people attending, and barely needed two hands to keep track of those showing any kind of emotion. That might seem like a reason to be depressed, especially for a rabid fan like myself
raised on games at Gampel, but, in actuality, it was the perfect setting for an enjoyable night.
See, in those situations you could hear EVERYTHING, and NO ONE was louder than Calhoun. You could hear him yelling at players, at his coaches, at the refs. Hell, you could hear him talking to some people in the crowd. He was a show.
One of my favorite memories was a game against Quinnipiac several years ago when, after Tony Robertson made his second dumb mistake in the span of two possessions, Calhoun called a time out. Somehow, between the end of the play and the time out being called, Calhoun ended up with the ball in his hands. The refs, seeing flames snorting from the Calhoun's nostrils, retreated as Calhoun called Robertson over to him the way you would a dog who just crapped on the kitchen floor. As Robertson, head drooping, walked toward Calhoun, the coach was already muttering whatever angry message he had for the young guard, and when it appeared he was about to hand the ball back to Robertson, Calhoun snarled "YOU DON'T DESERVE THIS!" and chucked a no-look pass to one of the refs standing about 30 feet away. It was odd, it was uncomfortable, and it was hysterical.
For more than two decades, that was the bench demeanor we fans and the players came to expect. It was a loud, cantankerous, and at times nasty way of coaching. It was so predicatable most fans could tell when a player was coming out of a game, sometimes even before they did.
The most common Calhoun move was to insert Player X into the game, have Player X make a boneheaded play or fail to hustle, scream at Player X as he made his way down the court, then immediately remove Player X at the next timeout. Many times, this would play out in less than a minute.
However, that combative attitude produced the only aspect of Jim Calhoun's coaching style that ever bothered me: the quick hook. Now, as he is a Hall of Famer, Calhoun usually did this in games that were not really in doubt against opponents with little chance of competing. When it came time to play the better teams, his rotations were a little more set. Yet, even in those instances Calhoun could resort to use the hook out of frustration. He was so emotionally invested in the games that any mistake evoked an immediate emotional reaction. And I think that, at times, that produced erratic play.
It also undoubtedly had different effects on different players. Some thrived under that pressure. Some folded. Even those who came to UConn thinking they "knew" what to expect found out quickly they really didn't. There were many freshman who seemed to walk around with a glazed look on their face during the first few weeks of the season, wondering why the warm, funny Irish man who recruited them was suddenly an inch away from their nose calling them things that would make an HBO censor blush.
That is gone now.
I've only watched Kevin Ollie coach one game now (well, really, one half of a game) and as I previously wrote, I was pretty damn impressed. His team closed a game out against a superior opponent as if they were a veteran squad of battle-tested winners used to close finishes. There was nothing about his first game that did anything but inspire confidence. And he did it in very different fashion from his mentor, Calhoun. He did it with a lot more sugar and a whole lot less vinegar. Calhoun was the old-school coach: a drill sergeant who barked out orders and expected immediate results. Ollie is cut from a different cloth, and while the demand for excellence will assuredly be the same it seems clear by his words and actions that the UConn sideline will be more encouraging than punishing.
The easy analysis is to say that will be a good thing. After all, aren't we constantly told that accolades produce better results than insults? Affirmation is so 21st century.
Part of me thinks that might be the case. Today's young player seemed less and less likely to respond to Calhoun than had their older counterparts of the 1990s. Even as Calhoun was doing the best coaching job of his career by leading the Kemba Walker Huskies to a Big East and National title, I was already wondering whether there was an egg timer on Calhoun's coaching style. It just seems to be a thing of the past.
Perhaps Ollie's slap on the butt approach will yield more consistent results moving forward than Calhoun's figurative smack across the face. Maybe the modern athlete is better designed to respond to the new coach, not the old style. Maybe that change in bench demeanor is a positive. For one night at least, it seems to have been.
Here's my fear. What happens when things start to go bad? What happens when the team is playing like four drunk elephants walking through a mud swamp? Calhoun had a way of willing his teams to play better. His passion and even his anger, which created an almost organized chaos on the bench, seemed to entice his players to give that little extra something. When a timeout was needed and a scolding necessary, Calhoun was unmatched in delivering it. Almost always, the players responded. The reprimand worked. Will Ollie's way be effective long-term? Will sugar prove just as useful as vinegar? Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Ollie, a feisty player himself, will have moments where he lambastes his team for poor play. I have no doubt we'll see an angry Ollie at some point. But will he be able to conjure up such enormous will to win that it infects the players around him? Will his pleads for better performance offer the same results as Calhoun's angry demands?
Demeanor. It will forever be different on the UConn sideline. Last Friday, it seemed that the results will be the same, no matter what. It remains to be seen if that stays true all year long.