Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Man Who Should Truly Be Appreciated

Despite what you may hear about him, there aren't many better people out there than Jim Calhoun. (Photo courtesy of WFAN)

Sometimes, you just have to take a stand for what you believe in.

Back in March, I shared my reasons for why Rutgers coach Mike Rice should be appreciated. A month later, I did exactly the same in defense of Bobby Gonzalez; who continues to be ostracized from the coaching fraternity he should once again be a part of. Today, I step to the pulpit once again for yet another man that has become a polarizing figure in the world of college basketball through no apparent fault of his own. A man that has once again made headlines for allegedly threatening to throw his athletic director under the bus amid rumors of the AD potentially having his contract bought out by his university's administration. This man has been regarded as a larger-than-life icon at his institution and across his native region; and whether you love him or you hate him, you cannot deny his astounding success over a Hall of Fame career that includes over 800 wins, three national championships, and a tendency to make even the most educated hoops fan learn something new about the game simply by listening to him.

Jim Calhoun.

A true great in the college basketball world, Calhoun is unfortunately the victim of backstage politics and this society's insatiable desire to hate those who perennially do well in the face of those who wish failure upon them. I can't speak for how some of my other colleagues may view the University of Connecticut head man; but Calhoun has been among the most accessible and affable coaches I have had the pleasure of covering in my four years in this industry, treating me with the utmost respect and providing a straight answer to every question I have asked him over that time. I've garnered a lot of heat from friends of mine for being a St. John's graduate who openly roots for UConn, (except, of course, when they play the Johnnies or my two favorite teams, North Carolina and Michigan State) especially with no shame in this past April's national championship game against mid-major darling Butler; but I have my reasons. Never mind the fact that former Calhoun product Ray Allen has been one of my favorite players since his time in Gampel Pavilion. As I may have said in the past; and as those of you who know me can certainly attest to, personal interactions go a long way with me, and Calhoun's kindness toward me in each of the last three Big East media days have solidified both his reputation as a misunderstood figure in college basketball and my respect for him and his contributions to the sport that I cover.

Yes, Calhoun has become a lightning rod on more than one occasion, creating controversy with even the slightest movement of his mouth while never intending to. He may be in the midst of a $13 million contract that still has four years left on it, and his prior deal was the impetus behind the coach's infamous "not a dime back" press conference. Calhoun was also suspended three games during the impending season as a fallout from the notorious scandal surrounding the recruitment of Nate Miles, an incident that the coach really didn't have much to do with in the grand scheme of things. If you look closer at the Miles fiasco, you'll see that aside from former UConn team manager Josh Nochimson, the main principle involved in the recruitment was former Calhoun assistant Tom Moore, whom I also get to cover on a regular basis now that he is the head coach at Quinnipiac. Recently, Calhoun is making headlines again due to his perceived desire to see UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway forced out of Storrs by means of the aforementioned buyout. Conicidentally, the Miles recruitment could turn out to be Hathaway's undoing after he told the NCAA that he had never seen a coach "so involved in a player's recruitment" before witnessing Calhoun's quest to bring Miles into the Nutmeg State.

Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant insists Hathaway will indeed be bought out, but goes on to portray Calhoun as a factor behind the administrator's impending dismissal. Calhoun has admittedly not seen issues from the same perspective as his beleaguered athletic director most times, but says that although "you're not always going to get along with people," he "doesn't want to see anyone out of work."

Now, when I read that Calhoun quote, I immediately believed him when he said that. Read further into the Jacobs article and you'll see that Calhoun isn't really the reason why Hathaway is on the hot seat. I'm not going to speak for Jim on this one, but I believe I know the coach well enough from my four years of covering him to know that had he really wanted his boss thrown out the door, he would have come out and said so. Maybe not directly, but Calhoun isn't one to shy away from saying what's on his mind. Just consider what he told me last October when I asked him what he expected from his team after being picked in the middle of the Big East standings:

"I don't know if we're going to be a giant. If we're just really, really good when it's all said and done, then I'll be happy."

Usually, coaches try to remain as positive as possible when they have a team that isn't expected to set the world on fire; and this was way before UConn got off to an undefeated start with a win in the Maui Invitational after going through Michigan State and Kentucky, before a 9-9 Big East season, before their improbable run to a Big East tournament championship from the No. 9 seed that saw the Huskies play five games in as many days, before the storybook run continues through the NCAA Tournament and culminated with the coach and star guard Kemba Walker leading the team in cutting down the nets in Houston. Calhoun was brutally honest, almost to a fault.

That same quote can be used to describe Calhoun's career, even after the allegations that landed him in hot water with the NCAA and prompted a crowd of 75,000 at Ford Field to call him a cheater during the 2009 Final Four. Calhoun may not be regarded with the Krzyzewskis, Smiths and Woodens of the world; but if he's just considered a really good head coach by the time he calls it a career, I and many other college basketball (not just UConn) fans will be happy.

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