Jim Calhoun Hints At Retirement: How Will UConn Sustain His Progress?

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 7th, 2012

Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

When programs are so closely associated with one legendary coach, it’s often difficult to properly gauge their sustainability and staying power. Coaching leadership and innovation, when harnessed in the right ways, can ignite and maintain momentum. In these instances, when sideline legends engineer complete turnarounds at places with little or no previous historical success, the burning question is whether the building project and subsequent rise has set the stage for long-term security and continuity, or if the inevitable coaching change will undo the trailblazing predecessor’s foundational work. UConn men’s basketball is one of these programs. The Huskies’ success is impossible to extract from its longtime head coach Jim Calhoun. UConn garnered some regional recognition as a member of the Yankee Conference under Hugh Greer, but it was only when Calhoun took over – not to mention UConn’s move to the Big East in 1979, a conference created with the goal of assembling the region’s best basketball programs – that the Huskies truly hit their stride on the national stage. In 1986-87, Calhoun’s first season as head coach, UConn finished 9-19. Two years later, the Huskies won their first national postseason tournament when they knocked off Ohio State en route to an NIT championship. By 1990, UConn had claimed its first Big East title along with a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. More importantly, UConn debuted its new on-campus home, Gampel Pavilion, signaling a positive turn in the school’s administrative support for the ascendant Huskies. Nine Big East titles and three National Championships later, UConn has clearly established itself among the college hoops elite. It seems unlikely the Huskies will ever recede into their pre-Calhoun irrelevance, but there remains a sneaking suspicion that UConn will lose at least some measure of its national prestige once their pioneering head coach calls it quits.

It sounds as if Calhoun is ready to leave the program he elevated to elite status (Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images).

What once felt like an unimaginable outcome – that Calhoun, after morphing UConn into the national powerhouse it is today, would step down – has inched closer and closer to reality. In fact, the timetable for his retirement could dictate that Calhoun has seen his last moments on the Huskies sidelines. In a candid interview with SI.com’s Mark Blaudschun, Calhoun spoke with humbling acceptance and resignation of the circumstances surrounding his health and the program he practically built from the ground up. Calhoun, 70, is coming off his 26th season at the helm, just two years removed from winning his third – and arguably his most impressive, given the talent on hand – national championship. The Huskies, who returned much of their championship rotation (minus Kemba Walker) and welcomed in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, vastly underperformed in their title-defense season. Calhoun missed three games due to recruiting violations, and UConn was notified it had been banned from the 2013 postseason thanks to its inability to meet the NCAA’s increasingly stringent APR standards. Still, Calhoun, undeterred by the variety of factors weighing against him, thought he could extend his career on the sidelines, if only to lead UConn out of the grim short-term outlook it now faces. That may still be the case, but an offseason bike injury requiring hip surgery seems to have sapped the competitive drive that has long defined Calhoun’s coaching psyche. From Blaudschun’s story:

Jim Calhoun is more than a month into his latest rehab program and as usual he is pushing the envelope. “About another eight days,” says the University of Connecticut basketball coach, sitting in a chair in his office at Gampel Pavilion, “and I can move to a cane.

The bike injury interrupted an otherwise normal summer for Calhoun. Before his cycling mishap, Calhoun was traveling across the country seeking out recruits and preparing for the upcoming season. He was doing what elite high-major hoops coaches do, what Calhoun has done for more than two decades as behind-the-scenes work for the competitive on-court product the Huskies have produced year after year under his watch. He discussed a recent recruiting trip:

I was on a recruiting trip to Washington and as I was going around and talking to people and doing things, I said to myself, this could be the last recruiting trip I ever take. I know I have plenty of things I want to do. I have plans. I’m just going to go with how I feel. I will know.’

His ultimate decision remains unclear, but Calhoun reiterated his support for assistant coach Kevin Ollie to take the reins once he leaves his post. We should gain some clarity on his coaching future before the season begins: “I would be very, very surprised if I didn’t have something to say within the next two weeks,” Calhoun said. Whether he retires this offseason or at the end of his current contract, which expires in 2014, the Calhoun era is clearly coming to a close. Trying to picture UConn basketball without Calhoun is confounding because he is as much a part of UConn basketball as the institution that houses it; he morphed a long-neglected program into a national name and inhabited its sidelines for the better part of three decades. Calhoun’s construction and development of the men’s basketball brand at UConn to previously unimaginable levels of regional and national acclaim is remarkable. But the program must now prepare to embrace a future without the man largely responsible for its current status among the college hoops elite. It has a decent blueprint from which to base its transition process: Arizona.

Much like UConn’s Calhoun-era rise, the Wildcats watched Lute Olson turn the program in Tucson, Arizona, into a national contender and a breeding ground for NBA-bound talents. When he took a leave of absence at the outset of the 2007-08 season, one from which he never returned, Arizona pegged two stopgap solutions (Kevin O’Neill, Russ Pennell) while enduring mounting criticism over Olson’s departure and the athletic department’s handling of the situation. After Pennell’s Sweet Sixteen run in 2009, which the Wildcats’ athletic department largely discounted in the hiring process, Arizona decided on Sean Miller, formerly of Xavier, to succeed the legend. In his short tenure, Miller has guided the Wildcats to national prominence and consistently reeled in some of the best recruiting classes in the country. It’s a sustainable approach, accumulating elite talent and congealing it into a unified and productive unit, but Miller’s success and reasons behind it – recruiting to favorable weather conditions and the basketball-first campus atmosphere (a rarity among power conference schools) along with an established track record of producing successful NBA players, and taking advantage of a weakened Pac-12 – are not exactly repeatable. Miller has successfully bridged the Olson era into a new and promising future, but there’s no reason to expect a candidate capable of making a similar impact in Storrs to surface on the free agent coaching market just in time for Calhoun’s retirement (particularly if Calhoun resigns at this late juncture). Miller is unique, and his success is just as much about the program he lords over as it is his own coaching and prospect-hunting prowess. The Huskies won’t so easily find a coach with the same visionary ideals and relentless devotion to his craft. Calhoun has already indicated his preference, and Ollie may very well be the right choice to lead UConn into a new era. In any case, the program’s next step, the coaching search, is critical. The Wildcats have seamlessly risen back to national relevance because Miller was – at least as far as we can tell after three years on the job – the right hire. UConn needs to ensure it makes a prudent decision to land its next courtside leader. The program underwent a meteoric rise under Calhoun. But the line of succession, the man charged with sustaining Calhoun’s progress, is integral to continuing the upward trajectory he established and avoiding a regressive path toward the middling state in which UConn found itself 27 years ago.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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