Published on September 15th, 2012 | by Bryant West, Columnist0
Jim Calhoun: The NCAA’s Most Underrated Coach
One of the greatest coaches in NCAA history retired on Thursday as Jim Calhoun officially announced his intentions to leave a UConn program that he turned from a conference laughingstock into a national powerhouse.
Not only is Calhoun one of the game’s top coaches, but he’s also the most underappreciated. Three NCAA Tournament Championships, four trips to the Final Four, seven Big East Tournament titles, nine Big East regular season titles and a 618–233 record in 26 years at UConn.
Add those 26 years to his 14 years at Northwestern, and Calhoun holds a 866–369 career record. His squads were 50-19 in the NCAA Tournament.
He’s sent a dearth of talented players onto the NBA, highlighted by future Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen. Other big names include Clifford Robinson, Donyell Marshall, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Hasheem Thabeet and Kemba Walker. 27 of Calhoun’s former players went into the NBA, the CBA or playing careers overseas.
Yet despite all his success on the court, despite all his titles and wins, Calhoun was never as lavished with praise as he should have been. He never reached the “panicle” of the coaching world occupied by Mike Krzyzewski. He’s a member of the 800 win club, joining just seven coaches—Knight, Krzyzewski , Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Jim Phelan, Eddie Sutton and Jim Boeheim—to reach that number. He’s also one of only five coaches to win more than one National Championship—Kryzyewski (4), Rupp (4), Knight (3) and Smith (2).
What makes those numbers even more impressive is when you consider how bad the Huskies were before he took over. None of the coaches in the Two-Title club had half as bad a starting spot as Calhoun found himself in when he took over the UConn squad in 1986.
In his first year, his squad went 9-19. It was his only losing season with the Huskies—the next year, they went 20-14 and won the NIT Tournament. Two years later, they went 31-6 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. It was a turnaround none of his competitors really ever had to deal with.
Calhoun had his fair share of scandals, which certainly diminish his “reputation” amongst the NCAA’s elite coaches. In 1997, UConn was stripped of the 1996 NCAA tournament wins after the NCAA decided that recruits Kirk King and Ricky Moore had received improper benefits. In 2011, he was suspended for the first three Big East games during the 2011-12 season after more recruiting violations surrounding recruit Nate Miles in 2009. His former squad has also been plagued by academic issues in the past few years that threatened their eligibility for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
But to Calhoun’s credit, he lived up to his mistakes. In a perfect world, he would have retired in 2011 after his third NCAA Championship, but he refused to retire in part because he didn’t want his replacement to have to serve his three conference game ban.
And while you can question the complete integrity of all of his career decisions, there can be no doubt of his dedication to the program. He survived three rounds of cancer, coached after spinal surgery last season, and even considered coming back this season after having hip surgery last month. Calhoun was a fighter, and he demanded the same out of his players… at least on the basketball court.
In an ESPN column by Jason King, Calhoun’s former star Ben Gordon remembered back to the 2003 season when his Huskies were in the race for the Big East title. Calhoun had his prostate removed a week earlier, but he still made it to practice, determined to help his squad with the title.
“He showed up at practice and everyone was so excited to see him,” Gordon told King. “You could knew he was in a lot of discomfort, but he never complained… I just remember walking up to him and saying, ‘Coach, you’re one of the toughest people I know.’” UConn did not win the Big East title that season, but a year later they won Calhoun his second NCAA Championship.
Calhoun was always a coach I respected because of his dedication to the game despite his growing age. You could tell that whenever he was at the helm, his squad would fight to the end no matter their talent level. When his teams were good, they had an incredible swagger and confidence around them (that was the main reason I picked UConn to win in my 2011 Bracket—a decision I continue to lord over all my friends.)
From Ray Allen to Donyell Marshall to Rip Hamilton to Kemba Walker, Calhoun put out some monster players and some monster squads in his time. “I never, ever, ever said that I was mistake-free,” Calhoun said. “But I was always trying to do the right thing. It didn’t always work that way, but I was always trying to do the right thing.”
It worked well enough, coach. It worked well enough.