Jim Calhoun is gone.
For many, probably even most people outside Connecticut, that comes as great news. Coach Calhoun put little to no effort into winning people over.
That irked some people. A lot of people. He was not warm. He was not welcoming. He was not “the ol’ ball coach.” He was not interested in giving the right quote, shaking the right hand or smiling at the right camera. He never tried to say the right thing, and at times that got him in trouble.
We all remember the “not a dime back” speech. UConn fans recall the “Ryan Gomes” rant (NSFW). Forty years worth of referees are somewhere celebrating the departure of one of their biggest adversaries (to put it politely).
For people outside Connecticut, those examples of Jim Calhoun’s curmudgeonly nature are accurate illustrations of what he really is: a loud, miserable, abusive old man.
For people who are more familiar with Calhoun’s UConn program than just watching an occasional game on ESPN2 or seeing highlights on the overnight SportsCenter, those instances represent why we loved him, why we embraced him. He cared more about teaching boys how to be men and winning basketball games (or, simply put, doing his job) than how talking pinheads and wannabe pundits portrayed him.
It is impossible to put into words how little Jim Calhoun cares what you and I think of him. And people like Calhoun, who value achievement over the approval of others, drive us crazy. “Why is he so mean to his players?” “Why is he always yelling?” “How come he never just encourages his team?” What those questions really mean is, “Why doesn’t he do it how I think he should do it?”
Jim Calhoun came to Storrs, Connecticut and did his job.
He did his job better than almost everyone else does their job. He won and won and as soon as he was done defeating cancer three times, he won some more. He took a nonexistent, never-was of a program and created a juggernaut.
Like it or not, Calhoun and UConn are one of the most successful programs in the history of college basketball. And that drives people crazy because Calhoun is the antithesis of Mike Krzyzewski, or any other coach that thinks smiling for the camera is as important as actually being a basketball coach.
We want guys who put effort into appeasing us—guys who say what we want to hear. It’s why Derek Jeter is a “class act.” He hasn’t had an original thought or opinion since he was called up to the big leagues. He says what he’s “supposed” to say after every game, every day, year after year. It’s why Coach K is the face of our Olympic team. It’s why Bill Belichick is looked at as a scumbag, but Tony Dungy is considered mentor.
Coach Calhoun did his job, and then some. On top of being a Hall of Fame coach, he has been a leading fundraiser and community activist in Connecticut for more than a quarter century. Because of his generous giving, an entire cardiology center at a major state hospital bears his name and that of his wife, Pat. Every year he hosts a charity bike ride, which will continue next year as Coach passes 70 years of age.
Every two years, Calhoun hosts a UConn alumni game (again, for charity) at which dozens of former players—who come, literally, from all over the world—show up and play like giddy kids let out for recess. They do so because they love their coach.
And that affection is the true indicator of Calhoun’s greatness.
Put aside the 873 victories (sixth all-time). Ask former UConn star Caron Butler—a young man who grew up fatherless and spent much of his childhood in juvenile facilities—what Calhoun means to him. See how Butler mentions basketball only after gushing about how Calhoun became a father figure to him. How Calhoun taught him to be a man. How Butler tears up when talking about how hard it was to leave UConn after two seasons because Calhoun and the UConn program had changed his life.
I’ve never heard of a scumbag having such a positive, lasting impact on so many young men. And, really, what more is there for a basketball coach to accomplish?
Jim Calhoun was a college basketball coach. He retired with 873 career victories and three national championships. He put 27 players into the NBA. He transformed a basketball program, a university campus and the lives of countless young men.
Success can be measured by the positive impact we have on our surroundings. The state of Connecticut and the UConn family were fortunate enough to witness one of the most successful careers of all time.
Thank you, Coach Calhoun.