After Jim Calhoun's unfortunate biking accident last night resulted in a fractured hip, UConn's coach may arguably have been better off retiring after winning national championship in 2011, but that was the last thing Calhoun should have done. (Photo courtesy of New Haven Register)
Some college basketball experts would argue that Jim Calhoun should have ridden off into the sunset sixteen months ago following the University of Connecticut's third national championship in the Hall of Fame coach's legendary tenure.
Calhoun was on top of the world, they would say. A coach whose season started off sensationally, crashed down to earth through a 9-9 campaign in Big East play, yet was resurrected in the postseason at the hands of a point guard who seemed to create a magical atmosphere whenever he touched the ball. For a coach who was one month away from celebrating his 69th birthday after a career filled with over 800 victories between UConn and his previous employment at Northeastern, the Huskies' Cinderella run seemed like the fitting finale for the blue-collar kid from the suburbs of Boston.
Only Jim Calhoun is impervious to the word "quit," even after his latest medical scare last night, a fractured hip suffered while biking before a charity game in which he was to coach. Rather than grace the bench, the coach was instead in a hospital, requiring surgery after the aforementioned bike accident.
Calhoun's hip injury is the most recent in a litany of medical problems that the gruff but affable UConn legend, three months removed from turning 70, has suffered in recent years. There was the well-documented battle with prostate cancer that the coach fought valiantly and emerged victorious from, then another bout with skin cancer, not to mention the spinal stenosis that kept Calhoun off the bench late last season during the Huskies' run to the NCAA Tournament, where he ultimately returned despite UConn losing to Iowa State. That does not include the numerous other extenuating circumstances that have taken their toll on Calhoun over the years despite not being related to his personal health, such as the allegations of laptop theft by guards Marcus Williams and A.J. Price, the recruiting scandal involving prospect Nate Miles and a former student manager, and the academic performance issues that currently leave the Huskies on the outside looking in when it comes to participating in postseason play for the upcoming season.
Yet through it all, Calhoun has done the only thing he really knows how to do other than coach: Fight. Those who know the coach personally expect nothing less from someone who had to put his education on the back burner to work an array of various jobs to support his family from the age of fifteen following the death of his father. "I can't even picture him retired," said Kemba Walker, the hero of the 2011 national championship team. "I can't see that at all," the Bronx native and current Charlotte Bobcat told the Hartford Courant.
Neither can this author.
In my numerous interactions with Calhoun over the years, I can tell you just by looking at him for mere seconds that the man lives for what he does. Coaching keeps him alive, and the chance to mold boys into men regardless of whether or not they become future superstars keeps him young to some degree. That zeal and passion for his life's work is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Calhoun remains far more active than some other septuagenarians, proving that the old adage "if you love what you do, it isn't work" to be correct. Naturally, Calhoun immediately reached out to longtime deputy George Blaney to inform him that he would be fine, a message that the associate head coach conveyed to fans in attendance at the UConn charity game Calhoun was slated to coach last night.
To suggest that Calhoun should have hung up the clipboard sixteen months ago is like suggesting that Joe Montana retire in the wake of the San Francisco 49ers' fourth Super Bowl win at the end of the 1989 season, even though he was only 33 and had several years of greatness left; like arguing that LeBron James call it a career following his NBA championship win and anticipated second consecutive Olympic gold medal despite being a mere 27 years old and in the prime of his life. Yes, the men in these scenarios are young enough to be Calhoun's children; or even grandchildren in today's society, but age truly is just a number. I myself will turn 26 in another seventeen days, and Jim Calhoun's lifestyle is far more active and energetic than that of my own, which I have no shame in admitting.
We all got to see just how important coaching can be to someone in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky saga, wherein Joe Paterno was fired from the Penn State head coaching position he had held since the Eisenhower administration only to die tragically a mere two months after being dismissed from the work that made him an institution in State College. Jim Calhoun will certainly not meet the same end Paterno did, but for him to leave what, in essence, is the only thing he knows, is something of which the sheer ramifications ensuing from such a life-changing decision cannot be fathomed at the present moment; just because it is hard to picture him bowing out permanently after all the triumphant and heroic returns he has made from far greater setbacks, especially when the coach is really 70 going on 30.
With two years remaining on his contract, the lingering questions surrounding Calhoun's future will once again resurface both around Storrs, and the nation as well. While some believe that this might be the time where the Hall of Fame coach thinks with his head and not his heart, it would not be the least bit surprising to see Jim Calhoun stick around even longer, perhaps signing a new agreement with the University of Connecticut.
After all, no part of his legacy can be tarnished, for the man has already taken a program acknowledged by few upon his arrival in 1986 and turned it into a national powerhouse; proving that he can still compete, recruit and coach with the best of them, some of whom are more than half his age. Besides, he still has something to prove.
In professional boxing, the biggest separation among older fighters is their competitive spirit. It is the most visible identifier between a punch-drunk has-been still hanging on for one last moment in the sun and a man who may be physically worn down, but whose heart lives and beats stronger than ever with each passing day.
Jim Calhoun is the latter, and will be until time; or some other factor beyond his control, proves otherwise. Until then, any sight of him away from the basketball court for a considerable amount of time would be inhuman.