HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun compares himself to an old car — once shiny, new and well-liked by everyone, he's had his share of dings to his reputation during the later part of his 39-year coaching career.
"The shine will wear off the car...and you'll get some nicks and dents and bumps," Calhoun said Monday. "And hopefully when it's all said and done, they'll look back and see what the heck you did for your kids, for your university, for your community."
This week, the Hall of Fame coach, who already has two national titles on his resume, will take his program to a fourth Final Four, after a year that saw many critics calling for his job.
Those calls came after the Huskies failed to make the tournament in 2010, and the NCAA issued a report that found several major recruiting violations in the UConn program.
The criticism grew loud again in February after UConn finished this regular season with losses in four of its last five games. The losing streak came as the NCAA hit the team with sanctions that included a three-game conference suspension for Calhoun for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance in the program — a suspension he will serve if he returns next season.
"I think that affected him," said Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman, a longtime friend, who coached under Calhoun for 10 seasons. "Up until that point — he's been coaching for 39 years — his reputation had been sparkling. To have it tarnished a bit, that hurt him."
But over the last three weeks, Calhoun has steered his Huskies on an amazing run — five wins in five days to secure a Big East championship, and four more wins to earn a trip to the Final Four.
"I felt like I was in the corner because the sweat equity that we all have — my players, my coaches, the university — has put into UConn basketball over the past 25 years is pretty deep and rich. And to have people over a couple-of-months period dismiss us, I took that personally," Calhoun said after the win over Arizona on Sunday. "If I take something personally, I'm going to do everything humanly possible to make sure that your perception is wrong. These kids allowed that to happen."
Calhoun is 68 years old and has survived several bouts with cancer and other health issues. There are many who now wonder if this will be his last season, an opportunity to go out on top, no matter how the team finishes in Houston.
"Any legacy stuff I can look at later," he said Monday. "Right now, I just can't wait to get this team to the Final Four to have them see something that they've never experienced in their life, even though they've been through some great things."
Dickenman said it's that drive to teach and see his players succeed that he believes will keep the coach in Storrs next year and beyond. And Kentucky coach John Calipari, who will face UConn in the Final Four on Saturday, said he would be stunned if Calhoun announces his retirement.
"It's what he does, he coaches," he said. "He gets kids better. He wins."
Calhoun says has come to accept that there will be a public perception of him that he doesn't agree with, or even recognize, and he's come to terms with the idea that he can't please everyone.
"If I please my God and my family, then that's very important to me," he said. "And then please my players. Please my players and my university — then I'm fine. You have to develop that. If you don't, it's going to make coaching long-term wise, very difficult."