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Not on the bench, but still in the program

Some thoughts on Jim Calhoun and the Kevin Ollie era.


Porter here. It's kind of a slow day today as we look ahead to the tipoff of the Paradise Jam tomorrow, and we thought it'd be nice to write a bit more about Jim Calhoun. He may not be the coach, but he's still an important part of the program. Jeff King's thoughts are below. Enjoy.

For me, the fact that the UConn Mens' Basketball team played their season opener in Europe in a military hangar was surreal enough that the fact that Jim Calhoun wasn't the coach of this team didn't really sink in. It probably won't sink in during some of the powder-puff early season schedule games either. I know it will sink in at some point, probably somewhere in the heart of the Big East schedule, right around the same time it sinks in that the season will definitely end against Providence on March 9th because the post-season sanctions are going to stick.

This is uncharted terrority in many ways. Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb are in the NBA, while Alex Oriakhi, who started for us in a national championship game, plays at Missouri (now an SEC team) along with a team of misfit transfers. UConn will be lead by young but experienced guards with a chips on their shoulders (remember, Ryan Boatright was inexplicably benched last year due to NCAA investigations, on top of the team's APR probation this year). They still have three players who started in the opening win over Michigan State with experience playing in title games - Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander. And whatever happens with Kevin Ollie this year he deserves a bit of a reprieve because there will be no way to measure his success in the post-season vs. Calhoun -- they won't be there even if UConn runs the table. This team is playing for respect and playing for their coach.

But the Huskies' old skipper, Jim Calhoun, won't be far away. He made the trip to Germany and did some commentary on the radio broadcast (he was surprisingly more easily understood than he was in most his post-game press conferences). Calhoun has said he'll be there for Ollie in whatever role the new coach requires. Having watched his demeanor in the first two pre-season games, it appears Calhoun is settling into the role of coach emeritus very well. He appears to have created a healthy separation from the sideline duties without disappearing from the program. Perhaps his time away from the program during his coaching tenure due to cancer and other ailments prepared him well.

As a UConn grad, a lifetime Connecticut resident and a decade-long career in the Connecticut sports media (formerly referred to as "the Horde" before Connecticut's print media started to dwindle) I have plenty of stories about Calhoun (as any UConn student or CT Sportswriter would have). The tales paint the story of a very complex and competitive man with a geniune care for the UConn Mens' basketball program and a desire for privacy.

When the UConn Men won their first title in 1999, I was sports editor of a weekly paper which had a high school basketball team coach by a former UConn player, Steve Emt, in our coverage area. Emt was a walk-on member of the Big East Regular Season Champion 1993-4 team that featured Ray Allen and Donyell Marshall. Emt was criticially injured in a car accident after his graduation leaving him paralyzed. The accident occurred while Calhoun was on his yearly family vacation in Myrtle Beach, but when Calhoun returned, one of his first visits was to visit Emt in a health care facility. Emt told Calhoun that his Big East championship jacket was destroyed in the accident and Calhoun returned to visit him again with his own jacket for Emt. Calhoun mostly did this in secret and did not want the story to come out (which it didn't until after the National Title). You could also see flashes of Calhoun's kindness toward the members of his program was demonstrated when he left a piece of the net on the rim for a team manager who died during the title run and his constant emphasis of the team as "a family".

Calhoun had a not-so-friendly side as well which fortunately for us will live forever on YouTube. His tirade against Ken Krayeske, who questioned Calhoun's salary after a game, is classic Calhoun. And did you catch his subtle nudge at Geno Aureimma at last year's Midnight Madness? If not, check it out. It's awkwardly hilarious.

As an undergrad, Calhoun spoke to my tour group about UConn. I didn't think much of it at the time, but after talking to other students I realized it was unusual. You just wouldn't see Calhoun around campus outside of Gampel very often. Calhoun had his student managers manning the doors at Gampel to tell you it was a closed practiced (which added more time walking back to the dorms for Hilltop Campus residence). That experience was a bit different from that of my future wife, who had the "pleasure" of sharing the same academic advisor with most of the basketball team. During one of her scheduling sessions with the advisor, Calhoun burst into the room and said to the advisor "We need to talk now,"as if he wasn't advising another student. Five minutes later the advisor returned to the room and apologized (not Calhoun). Most of my fellow students steered clear of Calhoun and let him do his job.

In fact, my only one-on-one time with Calhoun occurred during my undergrad years (they declined to let me interview Calhoun about the Steve Emt story, rightfully so; they were overbooked after the title and I had a short deadline). Walking back from class I walked by Calhoun's parking spot (which was clearly labeled on the alley between Memorial Stadium and Gampel.). Calhoun walked out of Gampel and he and I were the only ones there, our paths bisecting. I wanted to say something like "my uncle was that 1,000 point player who graduated from Old Lyme before you coached there" or "my childhood neighbor coached against you twice as a high school coach and beat you both times" or "what you did for Steve Emt was pretty amazing." Or maybe just a simple "thanks for years of great basketball, turning this school into a basketball power and giving me a lifetime of wonderful UConn memories." He looked tired and looked like he didn't want to talk. All I did was raise my head and nod. He nodded back, as if to say "You're Welcome," then turned his focus back to his car and we both continued on our ways.

Probably every UConn fan, student or Connecticut resident has some story about Calhoun. With the success he has built at UConn, he's just as much the face of the program as Jonathan the Husky. At some point this year, maybe during the stretch of the schedule with Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse, we'll all come to the realization this is no longer a Jim Calhoun-coached team. However, UConn will always be a Jim Calhoun-program.