Philadelphia, PA – When the Connecticut men's basketball team had its season end with a loss to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March, its fans were clearly disappointed.
That disappointment was a direct result of the high expectations created by the previous work turned in by UConn's long-time, and highly-successful head coach.
When Jim Calhoun took over the program in 1986, Connecticut was in the midst of four straight losing seasons. Calhoun came to the Storrs after guiding Reggie Lewis and the Northeastern Huskies to the NCAA Tournament. Although he was obviously taking a huge risk moving from a powerful mid-major team to an unheralded Big East Conference club, he embraced the opportunity.
UConn finished 9-19 in his first season, but that was the last time the team would endure a losing ledger on his watch. Calhoun immediately turned the program around, leading it to the NIT title the following year and the NCAA Elite Eight in 1990. Year after year, the Huskies were a team opposing coaches dreaded facing.
Calhoun had all the tools needed to excel as a collegiate coach. He had a keen eye when it came to recruiting, and his players often developed into stars, the kind professional teams dream about. UConn began sending players to the NBA on a regular basis as it morphed into one of the top programs in the nation throughout the 1990s.
The Huskies appeared in seven NCAA Tournaments before making a pair of major leaps in 1999 with the school's first trip to the Final Four, and its first- ever national title. Those accomplishments legitimized Calhoun as one of the elite coaches in the country, but he wasn't about to rest on his laurels.
Five years later, Connecticut took down Georgia Tech to cap off a 33-6 season and put a second national title in the trophy case. Calhoun added a third NCAA Championship in 2011 by coaching the Huskies to 11 straight postseason victories. The win over Butler in the national title tilt made Calhoun, at age 68, the oldest coach ever to win an NCAA Division I men's basketball crown. The wave of momentum that began with his arrival some 25 years earlier, made the program that was once a Big East bottom dweller, the center of the sports world.
"Basketball is a game that has blessed me. It's a game that's consumed me, that's given me so much," Calhoun stated. "Basketball doesn't care what color your skin is. It doesn't care what language you speak or what religion you practice. It doesn't care if you're big or small, fast or slow. It just asks you to play, to compete, to lose with dignity, to win with humility."
Calhoun's success, while certainly plentiful, was accompanied by both personal and work-related conflicts. The program was cited by the NCAA for eight major rules violations in 2010. The citations came after a deep investigation into the recruiting of former player Nate Miles, who was expelled from UConn in October of 2008 before ever playing a game for the Huskies.
Many believed Calhoun would retire after winning his third national championship, but he wanted to return for at least one more season to "make things right". However, health issues caught up with him. Calhoun has overcome cancer on three separate occasions, and missed more than a month last season after severe back pain created a need for spinal surgery.
In addition to accusations of illegal recruiting, Calhoun also faced criticism for his team's performance in the classroom, which led to the NCAA imposing a postseason ban for the team in 2013. Kevin Ollie will endure that penalty this coming season as he steps into his former mentor's shoes.
Calhoun chose Ollie, who spent the last two seasons as a UConn assistant after a lengthy NBA career, to be his successor. Ollie is just one of a slew of guys to have played for Calhoun and still to this day, maintain a close, personal relationship.
Calhoun was known for his tough-love approach to coaching. He took risks in recruiting and helped his players reach their maximum potential. Ray Allen went on to become an NBA superstar after playing at UConn, but he was not an All-America prospect coming out of high school. Richard Hamilton was a consensus NCAA All-American twice while with the Huskies, despite being tagged as just a "skinny shooter" coming into college. Calhoun even took a chance on Caron Butler, offering him a scholarship despite the fact that he was arrested 15 times by the time he had reached age 16.
Allen, Hamilton and Butler are just three of Calhoun's former players that went on to enjoy very successful NBA careers. Additionally, all three have been nothing but positive role models for America's youth.
Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond were picked in the most recent NBA draft, giving Calhoun 29 total players to have earned that distinction.
In 2005, more than 50 of his former players came to support him when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, including eight from his first job at Denham High School. And Calhoun attributed his success and motivation to the men he spent his days instructing.
"If you ask me how I got here and why I coach, there's your answer."
Calhoun has many critics due to the NCAA infractions and his colorful personality. However, like Reggie Jackson once said "They don't boo nobodies".
Jim Calhoun retires with three national titles, 877 career wins, and the respect of those who played for him.