Posted 9/17/12

Game Changer

UConnís Jim Calhoun
Photo by Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

Last Thursday, Connecticut TV stations broke into their regular programming to televise an important news conference “live”.  It was not a natural disaster, a national emergency, or a speech by the Governor.  Instead, it was the announcement that a real game changer had occurred at the heart of UConn Husky Nation:  Men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun was retiring from his post.

When Calhoun arrived in Storrs, the UConn men’s basketball team was a lackluster entity.  If anyone had predicted at the time that Calhoun could take the Huskies to a national title, robust laughter would have been the most common response.  Yet it happened.  Not just once—three times in 1999, 2004, and 2011 under Calhoun’s leadership.  Along the way, the Massachusetts-borne Calhoun managed to get himself inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“The first step in being special is to believe you’re special,” the Coach told his retirement press conference audience last week.  “You can’t do something special without believing it can happen.” 

Calhoun said that the achievements did not come out of his personal mastery.  “It took a university to support our dreams,” he said.  “It took (school) presidents, administrators, governors and legislators to provide funding to allow us to move to a whole different level, and incredible support staff who performed magic every single day.”  The Coach also praised the ever-growing legion of Husky fans.  “Without you, Uconn basketball wouldn’t be UConn basketball,” he said.

In an introspective moment during his remarks, Calhoun said though he’s racked up an enviable record (625 wins v. 243 losses) at Uconn, numerous Big East Conference championships, and the already-mentioned national titles, it’s tough to depart because he still gets something out of each game played.  “Every time I walk into Gampel Pavilion (before a game) and the students clap as I walk in, I get chills,” he said.

Taking a mental trip back to his youth, Calhoun said he turned to athletics after his father died when Calhoun was 15 as a way to focus and ease the pain of the loss.  Basketball just seemed right he said:  “All you needed was a boy, a ball, and a dream.”  The Coach added:  “I could do away with those thoughts I had (about his father’s death) that weren’t the greatest—and the gym became home—a place of comfort, competition, and a place to grow.”

Of course, the Calhoun saga at UConn wasn’t a sugary Disney film.  There were plenty of moments of real controversy:  recruiting violation claims, player scandals, dust-ups with the media, and finally the academic performance mess that led the NCAA to bar this coming season’s UConn men’s basketball team from any post-season and tournament play.

Calhoun didn’t get into all that, and the sports reporters present at his news conference didn’t ask about it.  Instead, the Coach offered up his own assessment of his legacy at UConn.   “Character is what I want to be judged as—the kind of person—I never said I was mistake-free,” he explained.  “I think the purpose I had was always headed in the right direction,” he added.  “I was always trying to do the right thing.”

Now the torch is passed to a new coach but a familiar figure in Storrs—former UConn and NBA player Kevin Ollie.  In sports, there is often as much politicking and maneuvering as you might see in the halls of the State Capitol, and the change-over at Gampel Pavilion is a rich story.

It’s been clear for a while that Calhoun viewed Ollie as his “heir apparent”, even though Ollie has no real coaching experience beyond his efforts as Calhoun’s assistant coach.  Some UConn observers claimed Calhoun’s insistence on Ollie prolonged his retirement decision.  At the same time, UConn’s new athletic director Warde Manuel has a need to assert his own leadership.  Manuel indicated some months ago he didn’t really buy into the “heir apparent” scenario.

In government, politicians with differences but with a desire to get things done try to craft a compromise that will get the job done, even if each side doesn’t get exactly what they wanted.  You can view the Calhoun to Ollie transition as just such a deal.

Ollie’s contract, with an estimated salary value of about $625,000, lasts only until next April, at the end of the basketball season, so this is not an arrangement etched in stone.

Calhoun gets his guy (Ollie) installed as head coach.  Manuel gives the outgoing Hall of Fame coach his due consideration, but retains the power to make a change if necessary.

The decision by Calhoun to step down came far too late for UConn to do much else than quickly appoint a successor albeit on a short-term contract.  Teams across the nation are getting set for a new basketball season that begins in November—no coach of consequence is going to move now.  The Calhoun to Ollie story was in the national sports headlines, so everyone knows about the deal and its limits.

Presumably, some coaches of merit quietly will contact Manuel during the upcoming season and indicate they are interested in UConn if the athletic director chooses to make a change next year.  Manuel discreetly can put out some feelers on his own, even as he assesses Ollie’s performance as head coach.

Some might expect Ollie to view his one season contract as limiting or even demeaning, but the former UConn star didn’t voice such concerns at the news conference.  After all, Ollie achieved a gutsy and determined 13-year career in the NBA as a journeyman player for several teams, always willing to move in order to stay active in the league. 

“Giving me this opportunity is a dream come true,” said Ollie.  “This is my dream job; I was made for this job,” he explained.  “I’d rather something be difficult in the short term than easy in the long term,” he added.

The task ahead in the 2012-13 season would have been an uphill battle even for a Hall of Fame coach.  The NBA sanctions which forbid post-season play caused several key players to transfer out.  It will be no small feat to motivate the remaining team members to fight and win against the odds when they know in advance they’ll be watching Big East and March Madness tourney play on TV, even if they notch a winning record.

Commenting on the challenge ahead, Ollie said:  “We are going to take the stairs one step at a time and we’re going to get there.  Your future’s not given to you—you’ve got to take it—and we’re going to take it.”  The new coach said he is counting on University and fan support.  “I know it’s going to be some ups and downs,” he said, “but y’all are going to be right there with us—and I thank you all so much UConn Nation.”

Manuel was firm and candid in assessing Ollie’s task.  “In my mind we have a long term vision for Kevin, but it’s a short term challenge,” said the athletic director.  “I haven’t seen him coach,” he explained.  “He’s never been a head coach.”  Manuel continued:  “We have a term to the deal, but this is a commitment to (Ollie) to see what he’s like as a head coach.”

Husky Nation has seen it all over the last few decades—the glory, the missteps, the victory parades, and the embarrassing sports headlines that have characterized the Calhoun era.  Few would want to return to the days when UConn was under the radar on the sports scene.  It’s time for another game changer and the new season is just weeks away.

Follow Steve Kotchko on Twitter for news and insider tidbits on politics and government@CRN_News