Opinion: No Reason for Calhoun to Hurry

Sixteen teams remain in the hunt for the 2012 championship in NCAA men's basketball and the trophy that Connecticut brought home from Houston last year.

We learned late Thursday night that the Huskies would not repeat their accomplishment. Of course, I think everyone in Connecticut knew that wasn't going to happen, dating back to about Jan. 3 when this UConn team started taking on some unpleasant characteristics.

I've been covering UConn basketball since 1985, Dom Perno's final season as coach. There are snapshots in my mind that I associate with certain seasons. John Gwynn's smile in 1990; Khalid El-Amin running around the Tropicana Field court after winning the first title in 1999; Ray Allen's shot that beat Georgetown at Madison Square Garden in 1996; and Kemba Walker's continuous smile in 2011– just to name a few.

The symbol for the 2011-12 season – in my mind – will always be Jeremy Louisville Thursday night. The Huskies had their butts handed to them on the way to a 77-64 loss to Iowa State. What was Lamb thinking? What was the message he wanted to send?

But what do I know?

I thought Lamb was going to be Big East Player of the Year. I thought Andre Drummond would be Big East Rookie of the Year. I thought that combination would translate into another Big East regular season championship. And I thought the Huskies would be one of the top four or five teams in the nation – all season long. With all that talent, how could they miss the Final Four in New Orleans?

I was very wrong.

Blame the Three D's: distractions, detachment and dysfunctionality. This team had it all. Anyone reading this piece knows the details. It makes no sense to recap it all. After the loss to Iowa State, in a stunned and almost silent locker room, I asked freshman guard Ryan Boatright if he ever felt his season had a chance to establish a rhythm or a comfort zone.

Boatright, who was suspended twice this season for eligibility issues, just shook his head no.

Few teams and few coaching staffs have ever encountered such a disjointed season. There's no one to blame. Things just happened.

And now we enter the long period known as the offseason. For the fans, right now is a time for brooding. Last year brought the afterglow of a national championship. This year, the program is filled with uncertainty.

There are several pressing questions. Put them all together and the face of the program could drastically change. Just standing in the locker room after the loss to Iowa State, there was this strange feeling that the faces of the players could be very different next season.

Asked what might happen, sophomore guard Shabazz Napier shook his head and said he didn't know. It was an honest response. Some will stay and some will go.

Drummond and Lamb are probably both headed to the NBA. That's not a shocking revelation. That has been the assumption since the start of the season. But the decisions won't be simple and we probably won't know until April.

Right now, the issue of ineligibility for the 2013 NCAA Tournament hangs over the Huskies like a dark cloud. UConn must wait until April to get a final decision from the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance. The committee could decide to make changes in the gathering of data and that could lead to a change in UConn's eligibility status.

But there really is no reason to be optimistic about those possibilities. Right or wrong, that's the way it is. UConn didn't meet academic standards and the program will likely pay the price.

If the final decision is that UConn will be banned from postseason play in 2013, it could decimate the roster. Every team lists the NCAA Tournament as a goal. How many players would want to eliminate that goal before the season starts? How many players would be motivated to work during the summer without a carrot dangling at the end of the stick?

The Big East might tell UConn to stay home and not play in the conference tournament. Why would a conference want to risk its automatic bid going to a team that is already banned from the NCAA Tournament?

Of course, everyone is asking about the future of coach Jim Calhoun, the very face of the program, the man who will turn 70 in May, and the man whose health has been a topic of concern for the past decade. His leave of absence and back surgery this season has led to wild speculation and debate.

It amused me March 3 when a reporter asked Lamb if Calhoun had just coached his final game at Gampel Pavilion. How in the world would Jeremy Lamb know that? Then we moved to the Big East tournament in New York and there was speculation that Calhoun had coached in his last Big East tourney.

During the Iowa State game, I heard reporters talking about the possibility of it being the last game for the Hall of Fame coach. Evidently they had not been listening to Calhoun's words since he returned from back surgery. At that first practice, he said he hadn't been making any plans to do anything else.

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports tried to get a response from Calhoun after the Iowa State game. Calhoun responded with the same answer he always gives at the end of a season.

"We're talking about tonight's game," Calhoun said. "We're not talking about me. I'm going to get on the plane tomorrow, go home and do what I usually do, and meet up with the team on Monday. As far as my own personal thing, I don't think it has any relevance here, to be honest with you."

I am not here to defend all the things Jim Calhoun has done. He has made mistakes, especially in the Nate Miles case and being so combative with the NCAA. His stubborn nature will not allow him to admit any of those mistakes and that has seriously damaged his reputation.

On the other hand, I find it humorous that people (writers and broadcasters) who don't know Calhoun at all – or with the possible brief conversation – feel so empowered to predict when he will retire and why he should. He should have quit after winning the championship last year, they say. He should quit after this season because he's old with a bum back, they say.

I understand the business. People get paid big bucks to express their opinions. But I do not get trying to tell someone what to do – especially without a clear understanding of the circumstances.

Last year at this time, Calhoun and I talked about legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen and how he was forced to retire at age 70. It was state law back then. Allen had just recruited Wilt Chamberlain and never got the opportunity to coach him. Allen didn't want to retire. But he had no choice.

"Different times," Calhoun said.

Absolutely. In our times, people blog and Tweet and write traditional columns to give the appearance of being the authority on everything. The fans shoot back with their opinions.

If only they could pass state laws, huh?

The latest voice wrote over the weekend that Calhoun must make his decision "now." He can't be "ridiculously slow" like he was last year.

Why? Who says?

Why does Calhoun have to say anything? He has two years remaining on his contract – a contract that was extended with the knowledge of an NCAA investigation into the Nate Miles recruiting case. If former athletic director Jeff Hathaway wanted to fire Calhoun at that point, maybe he had enough justification in 2009 or 2010.

But it isn't easy to fire a Hall of Famer. Ask Penn State or Florida State or even Indiana. Maybe even Syracuse. If you don't know the coaches I'm talking about, you haven't been paying attention.

Calhoun was walking with a cane a few weeks ago. I spoke with Pat Calhoun, the coach's wife, in New York during the Big East tournament. She said Calhoun was in so much pain he was crawling on the floor and unable to stand because of his spinal stenosis. But she didn't tell me she wanted him to quit. She told me Calhoun was getting stronger and feeling better every day.

Calhoun came back to be with his players. He came back to salvage a season that was out of control. He tried to rescue a group of players who are immensely talented but didn't understand the team concept. Once again, the players seemed more interested in themselves than what they could accomplish as a team. That's why Lamb's failed dunk will be the snapshot from this season.

The man who built this program is the man who put UConn on the map, both as an athletic program and as a public university. Why does he have to tell us anything right now? Why does he have to tell us right now when the APR conclusion isn't coming until April? Why does he have to tell us right now when Drummond and Lamb have time to think?

Why does he have to tell us right now when a new athletic director, Warde Manuel, just moved into his office on Monday? They haven't had time to talk about anything relevant and important yet. They haven't had a chance to discuss goals and philosophies.

Why does Calhoun have to have an answer right now when he just had the season breakdown meeting with his team on Monday?

Calhoun wants to be around this program even when he is done coaching. He wants a say in who follows him as coach. What if Manuel doesn't want Kevin Ollie to be head coach? What if Manuel has a list of his own candidates?

The transition to a new coach is going to be hard enough. No matter what you think of Jim Calhoun, it will be close to impossible to walk in his shoes. The man worked a miracle in Storrs. I still don't understand why any decent player – let alone a McDonald's All-American – would come to a campus where there is no town, no nothing.

Nothing except Jim Calhoun, of course.

Calhoun doesn't want to walk away from the game with the Iowa State game as the last taste in his mouth. He won't want to hand the program over to a new coach when the program is banned from the NCAA Tournament.

Calhoun would rather fight through the adversity, the way he fought cancer, the way he fought these back problems, and prove people they were wrong. His motivation? How about an undefeated regular season that would make everyone wonder if UConn could have won the national championship.

"I worry a great deal about [sustaining success]," Calhoun told me in 2010 when I was working on my book on the history of UConn basketball. "I would hate to think that 24 years of sweat equity would go down the drain.

"If you don't watch the program every single day, things happen. If you have two bad recruiting years, you drop below the top 10 in our league. You've got to continue to maintain the program and then it will continue to flourish."

When I wonder what Calhoun might do next, I remember those words. He will not leave UConn with the program in disarray. I'm sure of it.

As far as I'm concerned you can count on Jim Calhoun being on the UConn bench next season. I'd almost guarantee it.

But what do I know?


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