George Blaney has never been the type of coach to rank one achievement over another, one recruit over another, or one victory over another. But after 43 years as a college basketball coach – the last 12 at Connecticut – he had to admit Thursday that certain moments do stand out in his mind.
The first time he set eyes on center Emeka Okafor was one of those moments.
"It was the first week I was here," Blaney said. "Summer camp was going on and 9 o'clock at night was when the guys would start playing games. Jim [Calhoun] was out on the road and I went in and was watching them play. I watched Emeka play for five minutes. I walked into [Calhoun's] office and left a note on his desk. I said, ‘Emeka. Oh my God.' He was just that good."
If you were wondering how Blaney spent 43 years in coaching and lasted to age 73, there's your answer. The man loved the game. And he loved the relationships he built with players and other coaches.
After UConn's 2012-13 season ended March 9 with a victory over Providence, I asked Blaney if he planned on coming back for another year. He gave the same answer he always gave when someone asked that question.
"I'm day-to-day," Blaney responded.
During a telephone conference call with the media Thursday, Blaney said he recently came to the conclusion that this was the time to walk into the bold new world of retirement. Thursday became "the day."
"When I turned 65, which is a long time ago now, I remember thinking to myself that I didn't look as much in the future as I looked at that day," he said. "From that point on, I really did just look at things [from] how I felt that day and what I was going to do.
"I thought I would always know the right time. Hopefully this is. [Former Michigan State coach] Jud Heathcote and I are good friends. When he was coaching I always used to ask him when he was going to retire. He would always say, ‘As soon as I get a bad team.' I called him yesterday and told him I'm not taking his advice. We've got a really, really good team [at UConn for 2013-14]."
Blaney was associate head coach under Calhoun and last season served as an assistant coach under first-year head coach Kevin Ollie. After the season he accepted the role of special assistant/advisor to Ollie. The change was made to move Ricky Moore up to a full-time assistant spot and get Moore on the road recruiting.
Being on the floor and on the bench for games provided the true excitement for Blaney. But he said there wasn't one thing that led to his decision to retire.
Blaney had a full career as a coach before he arrived in Storrs before the 2001-02 season. He had coached at Stonehill, Dartmouth, Seton Hall, Rhode Island and was head coach at his alma mater, Holy Cross, for 22 years. Fran Fraschilla of ESPN tweeted Thursday: "If Holy Cross had joined Big East, he may have ended up in the HOF."
Thursday Blaney called his time at UConn "such a good run; it's been really special." Indeed it was. During his time at UConn the Huskies were 298-112 overall with two national championships, three trips to the Final Four, six Big East championships and 10 NCAA appearances.
UConn fans might remember Blaney for being the coach who filled in when Calhoun had health problems and missed games. Blaney was 12-14 in games he knew would replace Calhoun. There were other times Calhoun departed in mid-game.
But that record isn't important. It's most important to know that the two coaches, despite their drastically different personalities, were good friends and shared the same basketball philosophies. Blaney joked Thursday that Pat Calhoun, the coach's wife, actually decided to hire him at UConn.
Blaney also remembered filling in for Calhoun in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament when the Huskies defeated Chattanooga 103-47 in Philadelphia.
"He's in the hospital and I go see him after the game and he's still pretty sick," Blaney said. "I figure I'm going to be coaching the next game against Texas A&M. The next morning I get a call about 9 o'clock and it's Jim and he was all excited. ‘I'm getting out, I'm getting out.' And I don't say a word. He tells the story now that I wasn't too excited about him getting out of the hospital."
Blaney called it a "big thing" that Calhoun had the faith in him to fill in. "But it was always Jim's team," he said.
He also mentioned attending 46 Final Fours and how coaching elevated the experience to a different level.
"Stepping on the floor for a national championship game was probably as good a feeling as any that I had," Blaney said.
Blaney said he was always intrigued and fascinated by the game of basketball. His next task is coping with retirement. He said he and his wife, Maryellen, plan on spending some time at their house on Cape Cod. Beyond that, the calendar has been wiped clean.
"I'm trying to figure out how you don't have to do something in the day," he said. "Right now that's my plan.
"I hope I'll be around [at UConn games] some. I have too many friends here and too much invested. I think it's going to be a great team this year. I really do. I always like it when I'm this confident this early in the summer."