STORRS, Conn. — Heading into the postseason at the end of February, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun had lost his battle with the NCAA, his sister-in-law to cancer and four of five basketball games.
He’s had a better March.
Star guard Kemba Walker said it was tough to watch Calhoun go through those hard times, and one of the best parts of UConn’s run to the Final Four had been seeing a smile return to his face.
“I heard guys say he lost it, you know his coaching ability, something like that,” Walker said. “So, for us to be in the Final Four, especially being a team that was picked to be 10th in the Big East…it’s special after all this program has been through.”
On Feb. 22, Calhoun was cited by the NCAA for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance within his program and was suspended for the first three Big East games during the 2011-12 season.
The NCAA also hit UConn with scholarship reductions for three academic years, recruiting restrictions, permanent disassociation of a booster and three years probation for recruiting violations.
Calhoun missed the next game at Marquette to attend the funeral of his wife’s sister. The Huskies lost that game and two of the next three to end the regular season.
Calhoun said he began to see the team getting down on itself. So, after losing to Notre Dame 70-67 on senior night, a loss that dropped the Huskies to the ninth seed in the Big East tournament, Calhoun put them through one of the hardest practices of the season.
“It’s a young team, 21-9 wasn’t a bad ending,” he said. “We were going to the NCAA tournament. But damn it, we weren’t going to put our shoulders down and we were going to play.”
He said that’s exactly what they decided to do.
“These kids were going to give it everything they had, leave it on the Madison Square Garden floor,” he said. “And five days later, they actually took something from Madison Square Garden.”
That would be the championship trophy. They then continued the roll into the NCAA tournament, and haven’t looked back.
UConn guard Shabazz Napier said he thinks the team has taken on the personality of its coach.
“We don’t let down from a fight,” he said. “We’re willing to battle anytime, and that’s the type of person he is.”
Calhoun has spent a lot of time since the Huskies’ win against Arizona in the West final being introspective.
He has acknowledged making mistakes over the past two seasons. But he also told reporters that he is content right now – of course, the winning helps – because he feels he has been true to himself, to his family, to God and to his players.
“Have I done everything the right way? No,” he said this week. “But I did it my way. I’m not Sinatra right now, but I have. I am who I am, and quite frankly my skin and the person living inside that skin is pretty comfortable with who he is.”
Calhoun, who turns 69 in May, will make a decision about whether to return for a 40th season sometime after the Final Four. He said speculation that a third national title would push him into retirement is off base.
“Standing on the podium would be a bad time to make any decision,” he said. “And quite frankly, if things don’t go well it would be a lousy time to make a decision.”
For now, he’s just enjoying a run with what he calls a special team.
“I think about my grandchildren, I think about my wife. I think about friends who I’ve lost recently,” he said. “I think about the joy of being able to coach, the joy of going to a Final Four.”