STORRS, Conn. — Jim Calhoun retired as Connecticut head coach Thursday, closing a 26-year career at the school with thanks to everyone who helped him turn UConn from an athletic backwater into a national power that won three national titles.
The retirement of the 70-year-old Hall of Famer was announced on the court in Storrs, where Calhoun racked up many of his 873 total wins.
In thanking administrators, players, fans and his family, Calhoun said he feels blessed and is grateful that “you trusted us.”
Calhoun will take a transition appointment through next spring as a special assistant to athletic director Warde Manuel. When he is fully retired, Calhoun will become head coach emeritus.
Calhoun has been slowed by health problems in recent years, including a fractured hip last month.
“The hip injury really didn’t enter into the decision, except that it gave me more time to think about it and the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this was the right time to move on to the next phase of my life,” he said in an official statement.
Assistant coach Kevin Ollie, who played point guard for Calhoun from 1991-95, will be the Huskies’ new coach. His contract runs through next April 4 and he will be paid $625,000.
He takes over a team that returns only five players who saw significant playing time a year ago and failed to qualify academically for the 2013 NCAA tournament. UConn’s ban from the postseason culminated a series of problems the program has had with the NCAA in recent years.
“I am very honored and humbled to become the UConn men’s basketball coach,” said Ollie. “I cannot put into words how grateful I am to coach Jim Calhoun, who retires today as one of the most legendary coaches in the history of college basketball. Coach Calhoun brought me here to Connecticut as a person right out of high school and has mentored me into the person I have become today.”
Despite the school’s problems and uncertain future, Calhoun — who coached UConn’s latest title winners just last year — got a fine send off.
“This is a day of sorrow, celebration and admiration,” Connecticut President Susan Herbst said.
Players echoed the sentiment.
“Coach Calhoun is a great coach, one of the greatest ever in college basketball, and it was an honor to play for him,” said sophomore forward DeAndre Daniels. “I think everybody’s still in shock right now and just don’t really believe it.”
Ollie is one of more than two dozen players whom Calhoun sent to the NBA, a list includes everyone from Reggie Lewis at Northeastern, to Cliff Robinson, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay and Kemba Walker.
Associate head coach George Blaney plans to stay on and help Ollie.
“No one ever thought that UConn could become a national power, one of the top-five programs in the nation,” Blaney said. “Now you look at what this school has become, the type of students that they have, the buildings, even the image of the state, so much of that is attributable to the success of his basketball program.”
Calhoun was hired by UConn in May 1986, after spending 14 years at Northeastern where he transformed the team from a Division II program to a mid-major power with five appearances in the NCAA tournament.
He won an NIT title in his second season. His teams won 10 Big East regular-season championships and seven Big East Tournament titles.
“The thing that stands out to me is it’s one thing to take over a Duke or a Kentucky and build it and win games and win championships,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who went into the Hall of Fame with Calhoun in 2005. “But 26 years ago Connecticut wasn’t even thought of in the college basketball world. He’s turned them into one of the top programs in the country. I think it’s really, to me, the greatest building job that anybody’s ever done.”
In 1999, Calhoun coached the Huskies to a 34-2 record and their first NCAA championship, a 77-74 upset against Duke.
In 2004, the Huskies started and ended the season at No. 1, beating Georgia Tech in the NCAA championship game 82-73. A year later, Calhoun was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 2011, UConn finished the regular season in ninth place in the Big East before reeling off a remarkable 11-game run in the postseason, including a 53-41 victory against Butler in the national championship game.
Calhoun’s only loss in the Final Four came in 2009 to Michigan State in the national semifinals. The coach missed the Huskies’ first NCAA tournament game that season after being hospitalized for dehydration.
It was one of a number of health problems that plagued the coach in recent years.
Before fracturing his hip in Auguest, Calhoun fought off cancer three times and missed eight games last season because of a painful spinal condition. He returned just four days after having back surgery to coach the Huskies in their regular-season finale and the postseason.
UConn finished the year 20-14, losing to Iowa State in the first-round of the NCAA tournament.
He missed 29 games at UConn, and left another 11 because of illness. He successfully battled prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer twice, most recently in 2008.
Calhoun also was hospitalized in 2009 after breaking several ribs during a charity bike ride and he missed seven games in the 2009-10 season for an undisclosed stress-related medical reason.
In addition to his medical leaves, Calhoun served a three-game suspension at the start of the Big East season last winter for failing to maintain an atmosphere of compliance in his program with NCAA rules.
The sanctions came after a 15-month investigation into the recruiting of former player Nate Miles, who was expelled from UConn in October 2008 without ever playing for the Huskies.
Besides accusations that his staff improperly contacted recruits, gave them improper benefits and distributed free tickets to high school coaches and others, Calhoun was cited for failing to maintain an atmosphere of compliance.
The accusations led to the resignations of two assistants, and a promise from Calhoun to make things right. He told reporters that the idea of bringing closure to that issue was a ”major, major factor” in his decision to come back after the 2011 championship season.
Calhoun also faced criticism for his team’s performance in the classroom. His team failed to qualify academically for the 2013 NCAA tournament under rules passed in the fall of 2011.
UConn sought a waiver citing improved scores in 2011-12, but that was rejected and five underclassmen left the Huskies after last season, two heading for the NBA and three transferring.
Ollie has never been a head coach at any level. He played at UConn and spent 13 seasons in the NBA, playing for 12 teams before being hired by Calhoun as an assistant in 2010.
Calhoun, the state’s highest paid employee, signed a five-year, $13 million contract in 2010.
Under that deal, once he retires he is due either a $1 million cash payment or another 5-year job in the athletic department with a $300,000 a year salary.