To be clear, Jim Calhoun was a great basketball coach. He was a great defensive teacher and his 2-2-1 press sets have dismantled opposing coaches for years. He was also a great recruiter.
Calhoun built something elite out of nothing, which is more than most folks can say, regardless of their chosen profession. And for this, he should be commended and admired.
But let’s be really clear: Jim Calhoun’s exit had little to do with his health or his lack of energy or his it’s-time-to-move-on spiel.
The fact is, Jim Calhoun took a molehill, built it into a mountain, threw a couple sticks of dynamite into the foothills and decided to walk away with his program teetering on the edge of the last remaining cliff. He cheated and got caught. He became the first major college coach to oversee a program that failed to meet the NCAA’s new academic (APR) requirements.
It’s a pretty significant leap to say Calhoun is leaving UConn in worse shape than he found it when he arrived from Northeastern all those years ago, but it’s clearly necessary to view his career with a wide lens. When you read all the glowing accolades and watch the tear-jerking tributes on ESPN over the next few weeks, just keep a couple things in mind:
1. While Calhoun’s transgressions have only recently come to light, at least one occurred as far back as the mid-'90s, before the Huskies won their first NCAA title. UConn vacated wins from the 1996 season, which predated the Rip Hamilton squad that took home the hardware.
2. Not meeting the NCAA’s “rigorous” new academic standards is a shocking failure. Contrary to what many people believe, the requirements have nothing to do with actually graduating players (god forbid).
The only requirements are to keep players eligible and on campus, and are taken off of a four-year sample. This was a pattern of academic failures; it was no fluke. In addition, the school’s never-ending appeals (and tacit advocacy of Calhoun’s actions) were an embarrassment for the administration, alumni and the team itself.
3. Calhoun told friends he wanted to go out in the same manner as Dean Smith, waiting until the brink of a new season, ensuring his prodigy would have a smooth transition.
For the record, Dean Smith handed the reins to his longtime partner Bill Guthridge, and dumped a Final Four-caliber team into his three-decade assistant’s lap. Calhoun barely got Kevin Ollie a one-year trial and he left the cupboard of talent completely barren for that one year—almost ensuring Ollie gets run out of town after the Huskies finish under .500 this season.
4. If you hate the idea of diploma mills, you shouldn’t be a Calhoun fan. He’s almost single-handedly kept them in business. Stashing kids at the likes of St. Thomas More, Bridgton Academy, MCI and others for years.
Is Calhoun an angel? No. Is he a villain compared to other coaches around the country? Certainly not.
In the wake of developing recruiting and eligibility issues at the likes of Harvard and Duke, it’s become clear that no program is immune to the long arm of the NCAA. Increasingly, fans (and opposing coaches) look to label certain programs as “clean” or “dirty,” and as we learn more and more every day, that sort of black and white categorization is incredibly antiquated.
Coaches try to win within the rules, and sometimes outside the rules. At times, they are personally the culprit, and at other times they mistakenly trust those within their circle to act within the rules.
Whatever the source of Jim Calhoun’s transgressions, his career is on par with the greats of college basketball. But as they reflect on his career, college hoops fans should keep their eyes open and understand the entire narrative of Jim Calhoun is to grasp his impression on the college basketball landscape, both on and off the court.