Monday, August 6, 2012

No He Won’t Back Down

By Peter F. Burns

As soon as reports came out that Jim Calhoun was on his way to the hospital because of a biking accident, many people tweeted that the UConn coach should retire. Those who didn’t make this stand, asked whether this latest health obstacle would mean the end to Calhoun’s coaching career.

The answer to both questions is simple: No.

Everything in Calhoun’s past suggests that he will come back and UConn will remain a power. UConn men’s basketball doesn’t need to return to power, because it’s already one of the top five programs in the country. Calhoun is the reason for that.

Calhoun has been knocked down before. His first season, the Huskies were 9-19, Calhoun’s only losing season at UConn. The coach told his wife Pat that he wanted out of Storrs, but he wouldn’t leave until the job was done. He promised that UConn wouldn’t experience another season like this under him, and he lived up to his word.

After a disappointing 1992-1993 season, one that ended in the first round of the NIT, Calhoun promised his players that UConn wouldn’t have a disappointing season like this again. In the next three seasons, UConn made the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight once. After 1999-2000 and 2000-2001, two mediocre seasons by Calhoun’s standards, the UConn Phoenix rose again – an Elite Eight appearance in 2002, a Sweet 16 appearance in 2003, and the NCAA title in 2004.

Calhoun came back from off-the-court illnesses as well. He survived prostate cancer in 2003 and returned early to guide UConn to the Big East Conference Tournament finals, a division title, and the Sweet 16. Calhoun also beat skin cancer twice.

Calhoun also fell off his bike in his charity race in 2009. He waited for a replacement bike and finished the race. After the reached the finished line, Calhoun collapsed. He wanted to drive himself to the hospital, but Ray Allen, among others, convinced him to take the ambulance. Calhoun finished the race despite five broken ribs.

In 2010, he missed seven games because of an undisclosed illness. UConn played better when he returned, but missed the NCAA tournament. In 2011, the NCAA announced that it would suspend Calhoun for three games for illegally recruiting Nate Miles. Calhoun showed the NCAA by winning its tournament that season. In 2012, back injuries forced Calhoun to miss eight games. Against Doctor’s orders, Calhoun coached five days after he underwent spinal stenosis.

Jim Calhoun won’t back down. He didn’t back down from the impossible challenges that the Big East, Storrs, and the UConn athletic department presented in his early career. He didn’t back down when people complained that he couldn’t win an NCAA title. He didn’t back down from cancer. He didn’t back down from broken ribs. He didn’t back down from the NCAA. He won’t back down from a broken hip.

Jim Calhoun will retire when he’s ready to do so. He is still the best coach in the game. In the last four seasons, his teams have advanced to two Final Fours and won the NCAA tournament in 2011. That part of the resume alone is better than those compiled by most coaches.

People who call on Calhoun to retire either don’t like the coach and/or want UConn’s dominance to go away. Calhoun should retire under three conditions: 1. His team underperforms on a consistent basis. That hasn’t happened. 2. Calhoun physically can’t perform as a coach. 3. Calhoun doesn’t want to coach anymore.

The likeliest scenario of those three is that Calhoun will decide when to retire. What’s for sure is that he won’t back down, he’ll fight to return, and UConn will be on top when he leaves.

College teams resemble their coaches. UConn basketball has embodied Calhoun's resilience.  The Huskies have come back to win when games, the season, and even the Calhoun Era have seemed over. 

PETER F. BURNS, JR., was born and raised in Connecticut and educated at UConn. In 2002 the University of Connecticut Alumni Association named him as its outstanding young alumnus of the year. He is a professor of political science at Loyola University New Orleans. Author of Shock the World:UConn Basketball in the Calhoun Era (NUP) available this October.

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