ADVERTISEMENT

Before Jim Calhoun hit his new campus in 1986, the only Yukon that was easily recognizable was the one by Alaska in the geography books. The University of Connecticut? It was a moribund basketball program, a team that didn't make the NCAA Tournament a single time in the 1980s and didn't win a regular season title in the Yankee Conference and later the Big East from 1970-1990.
As he headed into retirement from coaching Thursday, Calhoun's greatest accomplishment was that "UConn" is now a brand. It's right there with UCLA. With Duke and North Carolina. With Kentucky and Kansas.
The numbers are undeniable. Three national titles - more than anyone in history except John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski. A glittering total of 873 wins, sixth in Division I annals. A litany of NBA stars. And it all goes back to the irascible Irishman with the New England brogue.
That is Calhoun's legacy. But a lot changed over time as UConn went from the Little Engine of Storrs to the Big Locomotive of the Big East, much of it not so positive. That is Calhoun's legacy, too.
The program that Calhoun now leaves to interim coach and beloved former Huskie Kevin Ollie is far from what it once was, and not just because of the tenuous stature of the Big East.
UConn is dealing with NCAA sanctions for using a booster-turned-agent to buy up a recruit, an unseemly misstep. It can't play in the NCAA Tournament this season because its APR score fell below NCAA academic mandates, the first big-name school hit by that process. This year's team, frankly, is expected to stink. It might come close to the 9-19 group Calhoun produced in his first season.
Calhoun is jumping ship because he's 70 and his body is breaking down. He's had cancer and assorted other problems. Now he's dealing with a broken hip suffered in a fall off a bike last month. He would have been limited this year for sure.
No one denies Calhoun's coaching ability or his accomplishments. But he is one polarizing figure. Genius or grouch? Ambassador or bully? Epic fund-raiser or colossal power hoarder? Hard to decide.
By all accounts, Calhoun ran Athletics Director Jeff Hathaway out of town. Now old friend Warde Manuel from the University at Buffalo is in that chair and forced to deal with the difficult issue of succession of a Hall of Fame coach. And Calhoun seems to have that orchestrated, too.
Just as Dean Smith did at North Carolina to assure Bill Guthridge replaced him, Calhoun has moved out in the fall to make promotion from within the logical road. It's a tough spot for Manuel, who would certainly love to get a chance to make the premier hire at the school but has little choice but to acquiesce to the master's agenda.
That said, Ollie has only a one-year contract. If he proves unworthy, there would be no shortage of name candidates in the Shaka Smart mold for Manuel to consider.
But even with all the warts, Calhoun the character will be missed.
I first ran into Calhoun back in the mid-1980s, a vastly underrated time for Little Three basketball. Canisius and Niagara were in the North Atlantic Conference and the coaches included the likes of Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Mike Jarvis, Mike Deane and Nick Macarchuk. Pretty rough and tumble group.
Calhoun was the tough guy on the block back then too, as he led a Northeastern team featuring future Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis. One night in 1986, his final year at the Boston school, Calhoun's club made its annual visit to the Aud and got drilled by Canisius. The Huskies scored only 47 points after ringing up 90 on Niagara at the Gallagher Center two nights earlier.
Calhoun burst into the press room afterward, neck veins bulging and looking to swallow a radio reporter's microphone when he was asked if his club was tired.
"We weren't tired," Calhoun said. "They kicked our bleep. They kicked. Our. Bleeping. Bleep."
Every word got louder, every syllable smashed with emphasis. Sentences started getting spit out faster and faster. It was hysterical.
"It was a disgusting performance, completely disgusting," Calhoun said. "The most disgusting by a Northeastern team in the last eight or nine years. We will practice for three or four or five hours tomorrow."
Calhoun did well to keep that soliloquy mostly PG rated. Over time, he lost that battle. Press row at a UConn game was a classic place to hear bombs flying. I knew what was coming but many folks sitting behind the UConn bench during the 2004 NCAA subregional in HSBC Arena had no idea. Between Calhoun's sideline rants and his timeout tirades, plenty of them either turned blue in the face or couldn't hold back their laughter, even though the national championship-bound Huskies were pounding Vermont and DePaul.
Calhoun's ability to win with different teams was amazing. From the NIT champions of 1988 led by Buffalo's Cliff Robinson to the NCAA champions of 1999 (Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin), 2004 (Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon) and 2011 (Kemba Walker), Calhoun coached to his strengths. There were several near-misses too. The 2006 team led by Rudy Gay and Rashard Anderson was submarined a game short of the Final Four by upstart George Mason. Those Huskies certainly could have given eventual champion Florida a tough night.
Those teams made for a glorious time in the school's history. With Calhoun gone and the Big East about to become a shell of itself, keeping its brand name atop the charts will be a huge challenge for UConn.
email: mharrington@buffnews.com