Give Calhoun Some Credit

It's time to give Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun a little credit.

COMMENTARY

Calhoun's three-game suspension, imposed by the NCAA, has come and gone. He said Friday that the penalty, along with the entire NCAA investigation into recruiting violations within the UConn program, is in his rear view mirror.

And that's good.

But before the whole situation falls completely out of sight, I think it should be said that Calhoun handled it all with class and dignity. He took his punishment like a man - with a little levity thrown in at the end.

The story surrounding his absence could have taken on a life of its own. It could have grabbed national headlines and, quite frankly, when the Committee on Infractions announced the suspension last February, I think there were quite a few people who thought the event would turn into a media circus.

The Hall of Fame coach at old State U. has a history of making bad situations even worse with his penchant for sarcasm and arrogance. Basketball fans in Connecticut know his style can be abrasive. They are well schooled in his behavioral pattern.

But that didn't happen this time. And that too is good.

In a conference call with UConn beat reporters Friday, Calhoun said that he gave serious thought to pulling an Al McGuire – meaning he considered walking away from the game on top as national champion. I've known Calhoun since 1985 and I never thought he would do that. In the minutes, hours and days after UConn's victory over Butler, I told anyone who asked that I was confident Calhoun would be coaching again this season.

Then the summer dragged on and there was no definitive commitment from the 69-year-old coach. He kept hinting that he would be back, but we didn't know for sure until late August. Most of that time, Calhoun was relatively quiet about the factors that were weighing on his mind.

Friday he revealed that the idea of bringing closure to this chapter of UConn basketball history was a "major, major factor" in his decision to return for this season.

"When I contemplated, over the spring and summer, what I was going to do ... I always thought there was something hanging out there, and we needed to get finality on that," Calhoun said. "My own personal feelings about the NCAA situation are my own personal feelings. The university, including all of us and myself included, were penalized. And I wanted to make sure that I was the guy who sat out. I was the guy that finalized it.

"And as far as I'm concerned it's something in the past. What was done was done. It is what it is."

It's obvious Calhoun still disagrees with many of the allegations and the resulting findings of the Committee on Infractions. He battled this thing from the time Yahoo! Sports broke the story during the 2009 NCAA Tournament, through all the reporting, through his testimony before the committee and to the time the sanctions were announced.

Like many others, I was critical of the way Calhoun handled it. I thought his attitude through much of the process would be detrimental to UConn's cause. I thought his stubborn, Irish nature might tick off so many people at the NCAA that the decision would crush the program.

When he considered appealing the sanctions, I thought he was doing considerable damage to his Hall of Fame career by extending the process to a point where he could not win. Fortunately, he elected not to appeal.

Many columnists across the nation complained that Calhoun had received just a slap on the wrist. But I don't think any of those people understood the scope of Calhoun's suspension. Unlike former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who was suspended last season by the Southeastern Conference, Calhoun wasn't allowed to be part of any of the basketball operations of the UConn program from Christmas night to Jan. 4.

As the penalty approached, Calhoun said repeatedly that serving his sentence would be difficult. Anyone who knows him understood that it would be worse than that.

Jim Calhoun is a man of enormous personal pride. UConn fans should be thankful for that. The very instincts that gave him the strength to take charge of his family when his father died during his teenage years were used to build a basketball program at UConn that has become a national power. It remains one of the great transformations in the history of college athletics and maybe – just maybe – when he is no longer coaching, the fans in Connecticut will understand that fully.

Health problems have kept Calhoun away from his team before. But this was very different. This was a penalty. He was told to stay away. Just imagine what it was like for him to watch three games on TV, knowing he could not influence the outcome in any way. He could not coach. He could not teach.

Calhoun was asked if there were any positives that came from stepping away from the program and gaining a different perspective.

"I suppose you could make the case [for] sitting back for 120 minutes of basketball and watching it and not feeling attached," he said. "A, I felt attached. B, I felt the same feelings in my stomach. C, when I yelled, the television did nothing, unfortunately. That was the only problem. It didn't react. I didn't get a T [technical foul] from it. I got nothing.

"But no, I can't think of a positive."

He said the ability to be a little more refreshed as a result of getting away from his normal, hectic schedule was offset by all the anxiety.

"The way I personalized it, I don't think it kept me removed the way a ‘normal' person might be removed," he said.

In the days before the suspension began, Calhoun hinted that UConn had tried to ease the situation in some way. He didn't offer specifics. It might be safe to assume that he wanted contact with his team between games, much the way Pearl did last year.

It doesn't matter. Calhoun did not wage another public battle with the NCAA. It's not a battle many coaches in that position can win under those circumstances.

UConn fans should be proud. Calhoun was given his medicine and he took it. There had to be a degree of embarrassment, although he would never admit that. But he didn't turn the attention back on the UConn program and the violations that took place. Enough was enough and I think he finally realized that.

As usual, associate head coach George Blaney handled his substitution duties professionally and emerged with two wins and one loss. He did that under the stress of a family situation that requires great attention. This week, many have been critical of Blaney's coaching against Seton Hall. He himself said he wasn't pleased with his performance. But I'm not so sure UConn would have won that game with Calhoun on the bench.

Maybe. Or maybe it had more to do with the fact that Seton Hall is a program on the rise and the Pirates just played better. Things like that happen in the Big East.

And the UConn players deserve a pat on the back too. They handled all the questions from the media and said all the right things. Calhoun was missed, they said. Blaney is a very good coach, they said. Blaney was happy with the way they responded, the way they listened and the respect the players showed him.

Combine all of those things and here's the most important result: Those three games are not going to change the season or impact it in a negative way. Calhoun made sure of it. He had it all thought out last summer and his plan couldn't have been executed any better.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's in the rear-view mirror," he said. "I love my university. I love my life there. I love my players. And the reason that I'm saying that is I always feel that I need to be there when they need me and finish something that, like it or not - and I didn't like it - that I was part of. Let's move on and get on to the next phase of basketball at UConn."


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