Jim Calhoun Retires as the Most Underrated Coach in Basketball History

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Jim Calhoun Retires as the Most Underrated Coach in Basketball History
Jim O'Connor-US PRESSWIRE

As reported by multiple sources, including Andy Katz of ESPN.com, Jim Calhoun is expected to announce his retirement at a news conference Thursday afternoon after 26 seasons as the University of Connecticut's head basketball coach.

The UConn coach walks away as one of the most underrated coaches in the history of basketball.

Calhoun has arguably done more for a Division I basketball program than any coach since John Wooden, and many casual sports fans don’t even know his name.

After coaching Northeastern University for 14 seasons, he took over a UConn program in 1986 that was coming off four consecutive losing seasons. The Huskies were the doormats of a Big East Conference that was top-heavy with national powerhouses like Georgetown, Syracuse and St. John’s.

UConn did not have a rich basketball tradition for the new coach to draw upon, nor was the school known for its academic excellence. Undeterred by such obstacles, the obstinate coach believed in his methods and was confident he could turn UConn basketball around.

Calhoun was a fighter—he survived three bouts with cancer—who demanded excellence from himself and his players and worked tirelessly to draw it out of them.

After compiling a losing record in his first season, the Huskies won the NIT tournament in 1988. Two years later, they burst onto the national scene in the NCAA tournament with a remarkable buzzer-beater by Tate George, followed by an epic overtime loss to Duke in the Elite Eight.

With 800 wins and multiple national championship, Calhoun is in elite company. (photo via Newsobserver.com)

During Calhoun’s 26 years at Connecticut, he compiled a resume comparable to that of the greatest coaches of his generation, which includes nine Big East regular-season titles, seven Big East tournament championships and three national championships—1999, 2004 and 2011.

Twenty-seven of his UConn players went on to play in the NBA.

Calhoun retires with 873 career victories, joining Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Jim Phelan, Mike Krzyzewski, Eddie Sutton and Jim Boeheim as the only Division I men’s basketball coaches with 800 wins.

He is one of the five members of that club to have also won multiple national championships. Rupp won four, the last of which was in 1958. Krzyzewski (4), Knight (3), Calhoun (3) and Smith (2) are the only four coaches to accomplish both feats in the past 50 years, but Calhoun has not received nearly the amount of national recognition as the other three.

When you consider the four coaches' respective universities, Calhoun’s accomplishments are that much more outstanding.

Smith and Knight inherited storied programs at the University of North Carolina and Indiana University, respectively. Coach K took over a Duke program that had advanced to the Final Four numerous times in the 1960s, and his recruiting pitches were buoyed by the allure of attending an elite academic institution.

Smith, Krzyzewski and Knight all coached in “basketball towns,” where the residents fanatically supported the local teams and produced a surplus of homegrown talent to choose from.

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UConn did not come with such perks. Calhoun built his program from the ground up.

The geographic, academic and historic differences between UConn and those other universities also contributed to a disparity in the publicity received by Calhoun and the other elite coaches in the game.

The fans and tradition at Indiana, Duke and North Carolina generated substantial buzz around the schools, leading to greater media coverage of the programs, players and coaches.

The other reason for Calhoun’s lack of exposure is Calhoun himself.

He could usually be seen pacing the sideline with a scowl on his face, scolding his players and berating officials.

Couple that with his unwillingness to smile during postgame interviews and his unmistakable Massachusetts accent—which can be hard on the ears—and you can be sure the former UConn coach will not be replacing Coach K as the spokesman for American Express anytime soon.

Calhoun’s players have always responded to his tough love, because they understood that the loyalty that he requested from them would be reciprocated. He groomed Kevin Ollie, one of his former players, to be his replacement.

He created a family atmosphere in Storrs, Connecticut, where many of his former players return to mentor the current students. Scores of former Huskies were in attendance when their coach was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.

After Coach Calhoun won his historic 800th game in February 2009, he reflected on a lesson his father had taught him when he was a teenager. “You’re always going to be judged by the company you keep,” Calhoun said. “Looking around at that list, I’m really happy to be in that company.”

With names like Rupp, Krzyzewski, Knight and Smith, he should be.

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