Where Does Jim Calhoun Rank Historically?Posted by nvr1983 on April 7th, 2011
We realize that Jim Calhoun hasn’t decided to retire yet and there is still a pretty good chance that he will come back for at least one more season given his frequently stated desire to always look for a fight. Still we think that it is reasonable to suggest that even if he doesn’t retire during this off-season he will be retiring in the near future given his age (he will turn 69 in May) and well-documented medical history. So we ask the question that has been on the minds of many journalists during the past few days: where does he rank historically?
By almost any measure (ignoring the opinions of some rival fans) Calhoun would be considered a top 10 coach all-time putting him into a category that includes such luminaries as John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight, Phog Allen, and others. That much is obvious, but once you get into that group the measures used to differentiate those coaches gets more subtle. Certainly a coach would need to have longevity and a consistent record of putting winning teams on the floor, which could be measured by the career wins. A good bar to set there would probably be 600 wins. If you want to argue for a higher standard be careful because the legendary John Wooden “only” had 664 career wins, a number that many current number-crunching analysts would deem paltry compared to others in this group. Winning championships is certainly important, but as this season clearly demonstrated it doesn’t necessarily reflect having the best team, which Northern Arizona coach Mike Adrus indicated with his vote in the final coaches’ poll. Still at some point that is what the sport boils down to. When we look back at this season we will remember UConn’s tournament run more than Pittsburgh‘s excellent regular season. Setting the bar at 2 NCAA titles narrows the group down to 13, but includes individuals like Billy Donovan, who picked up his championships in back-to-back years, and would have a hard time making a list of top 10 active coaches much less top 10 all-time. It also leaves much to be desired when you consider that highly successful coaches like Jim Boeheim and John Thompson only have one championship each despite having a much bigger historical impact on college basketball than Donovan (at least to this point). The next factor would probably be a coach’s impact on the program and the game, which is a more nebulous concept and consequently impossible to quantify. Still all other things being equal you would probably have to give the nod to someone who turned a program from an also-ran into a national power over someone who took over at a traditional power and continued to win even if that coach did bring the program up a notch or two. Others have undertaken the endeavor of trying to rank coaches in order with The Sporting News being the most notable among them, but that isn’t our objective (at least not for today). Instead we will focus on Calhoun, his legacy, and his place in the history of the game.
Looking through Calhoun’s impressive resume affirms the belief that he belongs on any list of all-time great coaches. The numbers he has compiled during his 39-year career are astonishing. 855 career victories (6th all-time in Divison 1), 3 NCAA titles (tied for 4th all-time), 9 Big East regular season titles, and 7 Big East Tournament titles speak volumes by themselves. To understand what kind of company he is in historically it is instructive to see what kind of company he is in with the first two figures since comparing conference titles is challenging given the differences in relative strength of conferences over the years. The only coaches ahead of Calhoun on the all-time victories list are Knight (902), Krzyzewski (900), Smith (879), Rupp (876), and Boeheim (856). The only other coaches with three or more NCAA titles are Wooden (10), Rupp (4), Krzyzewski (4), and Knight (3). Clearly Calhoun is in pretty heady company here. I believe it goes without saying that Wooden is in his own class. While his career victory numbers lag behind many of the others in the tiers below him, his 10 NCAA titles still boggles the mind and the fact that he made UCLA into the greatest dynasty in major college athletics from a middling basketball program speaks volume about his influence on the game. A case certainly be made for Calhoun to be included in the next group that includes Rupp, Krzyzewski, Knight, and Smith. While the media often does not treat him in the same reverential way that they do with those other figures it may be because of his personality as only Knight tops Calhoun’s history of confrontations with the media and Rupp existed in a very different era. In some ways Knight’s surly personality only added to his mystique in the media’s eyes while Calhoun’s detracted from his. Certainly others like Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino, and Roy Williams will also merit serious discussion in this conversation, but at this point there is still plenty to be written in their career narratives so at the present time they probably should be excluded from this discussion, but they will certainly be close to, if not in, the same group as the aforementioned coaches in the not to distant future.
Calhoun’s ability to turn Northeastern first and then UConn into powers (the former a regional power and the latter a national power) should not be treated lightly. Other than Wooden and Rupp, both of whom quite frankly coached before much of college basketball history had been written, all of the other coaches in Calhoun’s class took over programs that were very successful. The national media likes to paint a picture of Mike Krzyzewski creating basketball at Duke, but to do so is a slap in the face of Eddie Cameron, Vic Bubas, and Bill Foster. In the modern era, there is not a single coach with a resume that even approaches Calhoun who took a program that was mired in mediocrity like UConn and turned it into a national power. He also did so without being located in a fertile recruiting area. There are certainly plenty of talented players in New York City, but luring them to come to Storrs, Connecticut to play for a program with no tradition when they had options like St. John’s not to mention at least a dozen more appealing programs was no easy task. Calhoun’s impact at UConn has been so big that many have wondered how or if the program will survive once he leaves.
There will be detractors who point to the latest allegations by Nate Miles that Calhoun had more knowledge of the recruiting violations committed by the university than the NCAA report reveals or may even be content trying to smear his credentials with the stink of the already revealed details of that recruiting scandal, but to do so is to ignore the fact that today’s college sports landscape is littered with such scandal. We won’t sully the names of any programs or coaches who haven’t faced NCAA investigations, but it is naive to think that at least some of those programs didn’t have some misconduct involved in their success.If you read about Wooden’s dynasty the name of booster Sam Gilbert pops up quite often as someone who “helped out” Bruin players and made a significant contribution to sustaining the program, but Gilbert’s name conveniently gets left out of the conversation when discussing Wooden’s legacyarrative.
Over the next few months, Calhoun will have to make a decision about whether he wants to retire at the top, which only three college basketball coaches have ever done (Wooden in 1975, Al McGuire in 1977, and Larry Brown in 1988) or come back for at least one more season. If he does he will have to face a three game Big East suspension to begin conference play and the prospect of coaching the team without Kemba Walker. He will undoubtedly face a barrage of questions about Miles and why he came back. The odds are that it is unlikely that he will ever cut down the nets in April again. The storybook ending is that Calhoun announces his retirement this summer in a scripted press conference where his former players and assistants can thank him for his contributions to their careers and lives, but based on his statements following the Final Four it is unclear whether he intends to do so. Regardless of when Calhoun makes the decision to put down his clipboard for the final time he will be in some very elite company when he does.