Calhoun may be retired as coach, but he's still pushing UConn
Updated 12:11 am, Sunday, January 6, 2013
STORRS -- Jim Calhoun sits in a black swivel chair in his new office, a floor above the space he occupied for 26 years. There's a large callus on his right hand, and he intermittently picks at it for the next hour.
"This callus," Calhoun says, revealing a red scab on his palm. "It's from golf."
After months of limited exercise, Calhoun, who fractured his hip in early August, insisted on walking the course. He took a club with him and used it like a cane, digging into that palm.
"Initially, those first two or three months, (the doctors) didn't want the pin (in my leg) to bend at all," Calhoun explains. "Knowing who I am, they figured I'd just keep walking, and they didn't want me to develop a limp that way."
Knowing who Jim Calhoun is, retirement isn't a 24/7 round of golf.
"Let me show you," he says, pulling a monthly planner from a desk drawer.
October is filled, as is November. December, he says, was a little light, but January is getting busy.
"I don't need a job," Calhoun says. "But I need to do things."
"That's pretty obvious."
Calhoun, 70, knew he was retiring a "a week or 10 days" before he informed UConn President Susan Herbst and athletic director Warde Manuel. He's since transitioned to the role of Special Assistant to the Athletic Director, and he has a few months to decide whether he'll take a $1 million buyout or stay for a five-year contract worth $300,000 annually. As the conversation veers from the Marquette loss (he wouldn't have fouled, by the way) to realignment to UConn's ticket sales, it doesn't appear that he's vacating his new office anytime soon.
There are post-it notes -- blue and yellow -- scattered around the phone on his desk. Earlier in this particular day, he talked to Albert Mouring, a former Huskies guard, trying to assist in finding him a new professional home. Calhoun has a weekly talk radio show with WTIC in the works. He's been in contact with CBS about announcing the NCAA tournament, too, but nothing is finalized. He's still heavily involved with the Calhoun Cardiology Center, and recently spoke with Bill Clinton about ideas for the Clinton Global Initiative. Then there's the Calhoun Charity Bike Ride, which he says is "in negotiations."
His business in this office, though, is UConn. He still attends practice and jots down notes to discuss with Ollie. Now that Ollie is inked for the long-term -- Calhoun's ultimate post-retirement wish -- he's ready to approach former players about donations for the new practice facility. He's also been working on "scheduling" matters in the office, preparing for the future in an unsettled period.
"In fairness to Warde and Susan, they couldn't have come at a worse time," Calhoun says.
He's leaning back, picking at the callus, maybe subconsciously. Tiny flakes of skin leap upward and land on his black sweater. He brushes them off. He picks and picks and picks, his hand moving at the same rate as his mouth.
"The fact that (the Big East) didn't need to be like this is something that is really irritating to me," he says. "I mean, really major-league irritating to me. If it was inevitable, that's one thing, but if we had years to triple the money we're getting for each school, I know Syracuse wouldn't have left. I assume Pittsburgh wouldn't have left."
He's done all the numbers: In May 2011, the Big East rejected an ESPN contract that reportedly would have paid $11 million annually to its football schools. Last season, football members made between $4.3 and $6.5 million (that's from television contract, bowl revenue, radio rights and licensing revenue), according to a Big East spokesperson.
"I don't know who advised our former commissioner, who's a good guy, but clearly, it was a miscalculation," Calhoun says. "In a time of turmoil, you can't be turning down money."
He shifts in his seat, resting his elbows on the desk, as he brings up the Catholic Seven, who are departing the Big East. He doesn't get that, either. He outlines the league payout for NCAA tournament success, and wonders how Providence and Seton Hall can take "a portion of the shares that they didn't earn" and leave the conference. Then his phone rings.
"Sticks," he answers.
Stanley Robinson, a UConn forward from 2006-10, is on the other end. "Sticks," as they call him, is attempting to return from a torn Achilles' tendon suffered while playing in the NBA Developmental League. Calhoun is helping him sort things out. He asks, "When's the league in Puerto Rico start?"
In this office, maybe half the size of the one he turned over to Ollie, Calhoun surrounds himself with his former players. There's a framed photo of Ollie and Caron Butler on his desk, another of Emeka Okafor on the wall, and a few memorabilia-filled boxes opposite his desk. He smiles when he glances at the 2011 national championship team posing with President Barack Obama. It reminds him of that day; Kemba Walker arrived late on a flight from New York.
That's his soft side. The fiery, super-competitive side still exists, too. Calhoun sits baseline for most UConn games, and his stomach jumps while watching: "Damn it Shabazz, give it up!" he'll say, or, "Boat, stop playing around with the ball!" He recalls the Michigan State win, which he announced on radio, and shakes his fists.
"It was like, `We did it!'" he says through clenched teeth.
Over a six-month period, Calhoun had operations on his back, lungs and hip. If it weren't for the hip, maybe he would have been on the sidelines versus Michigan State. He can't say for sure. He can't completely rule out a comeback to coaching, either, pegging the odds as "very, very minimal" but still conceding, "If something really special came along, I'd think about it."
"I'll give you a hypothetical," he says. "This program is in decent shape and we're getting into League X and we need a guy to build it who's going to be like Larry Brown (at SMU), would I do something like that? It would have to be really unusual and a really great situation."
But any situation outside of this Gampel Pavilion office would seem really unusual, especially when he says things like "we need to have a whole re-look at how we distribute tickets" and "if we play in a league that isn't as strong as what we've been in, we've got to schedule up on the outside, much like Memphis did with (John) Calipari."
Calhoun scratches the callus, continues to fiddle with it, and occasionally checks his watch. He picks at the callus some more. As long as it's there, it seems he'll keep itching.
As long as there's the floating idea of UConn sliding from the elite, he'll adamantly provide the counter-evidence, citing 52 wins and a national championship in his final two seasons and Ollie's strong start.
"Why all of a sudden is school X in great shape and everything is wonderful and UConn is ...?" Calhoun re-routes himself.
"Well, yeah, the conference thing hurt us. The NCAA (violations), I could say it doesn't bother me, of course it bothers me. Does it stop me from believing in who I was? Not a bit. Do I know the intentions I had were always right? Yep. Do I think $3,700 (improper benefits from a former team manager in the Nate Miles case) and rules that don't even exist anymore are as big a deal as they made it? No."
"My point being," he continues, "is that the perception is not the reality here."
The reality is Jim Calhoun's mind has retired from coaching basketball. It may never retire from UConn. If he can help from this new little office, he feels he owes it to the school.
"The best legacy I could have at UConn is to say that he came, the program really got to a particular level," Calhoun says, "and then he had a say in where it goes in a tumultuous time."