One month after fracturing his hip during a bike ride, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun officially called it quits at a live press conference in Gampel Pavilion.
“It’s time,” Calhoun said. “It’s time to move forward. There’s been a lot of things swirling around for some time. It’s time to move forward.”
Moving forward, Kevin Ollie will be next looming figure on the Huskies sideline. For two years, Prince Ollie’s manifest destiny has been one of the worst kept secrets in sports.
Ollie faces a colossal challenge. Despite winning three national championships, the next few seasons will decide whether UConn is has ascended into the perennial blue chip programs that will stand the test of time such as North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA or if Jim Calhoun’s King Midas’ touch was only temporary.
Replacing a legend is never easy. It’s even tougher when you’re expected to directly follow that legend. While they were successful, the accomplishments of Kentucky’s Bill Guthridge, and Kentucky’s Joe B. Hall are hidden in the overbearing shadows of predecessors Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp.
Calhoun’s coaching touch transformed a small northeastern Connecticut school into a basketball powerhouse that has become accustomed to winning Big East titles and Final Four trips. In 1979, the UConn became one of the Big East’s seven founding members. That same year, 40 miles away, the Entertainment Sports Programming Network-otherwise known as ESPN-launched.
The simultaneous emergence of ESPN became a recruiting boon, which the university used to its advantage. More importantly, their proximity to New York City enabled the school to use its geographic advantage to tap into the well of talent. Their magical carpet ride to the 2011 National Championship was piloted by Bronx combo guard Kemba Walker and on Sept. 2, the Huskies secured a commitment from Brooklyn point guard Terence Samuels.
Ironically, Calhoun’s first national title didn’t come at the Final Four but rather in Madison Square Garden where Huskies Calhoun won the ’88 NIT. While Calhoun strolled down memory lane in his thick Bwastan accent, there was one thing that he rarely discussed. The future.
Sadly, Calhoun leaves at a time when the Big East’s golden era is taking a pounding. On Wednesday, the Golden Domers announced their conference exit, joining Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the ACC.
Next season, UConn will return returning leading scorer Shabazz Napier but the program will have a giant roadblock in its way as a result of a postseason ban due to the NCAA’s new Academic Progress Rate rule.
Ollie will reign over a depleted roster, which lost Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb to the first round of the NBA Draft following a disappointing 20-14 campaign.
The program still faces more uncertainty as athletic director Warde Manuel was only willing to give Ollie a one-year contract.
Ollie will be handicapped by the program’s restrictions, the exodus of talent, the rockiness of a coaching transition and his time bomb of a contract.
Calhoun spoke glowingly about keeping the head coaching job in-house at UConn but in a year Ollie will have to watch his back as the athletic department pursues more high profile, proven names such as VCUs Shaka Smart or Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley.
Ollie wasn’t even the most popular candidate on UConn’s campus where many have fantasized about giving seven-time national women’s basketball champion Geno Auriemma a chance to roam the men’s sideline.
“Geno’s always pushing you. ‘We don’t play girls’ basketball, we play basketball.'” former Lady Huskies star and current assistant coach Shea Ralph once opined.
Besides the potential candidates Calhoun will also hover over the program meaning his shadow will be larger than Smith and Rupp’s.
“I’ll miss the gym greatly. But I can’t and I won’t get away from basketball,” said Calhoun. “And I will be at practice.”
Calhoun’s three national champions, 618 wins and the NBA talent he has produced are etched in stone (unless the NCAA decides otherwise) but the future is as difficult to read as the unintelligible Harvard accent that the 70-year-old joked almost forced him to hire a translator in 1986.
Calhoun’s bunker mentality is a great platitude but there’s no definitive evidence that it’s good business.
Indiana’s Mike Davis, who succeeded Bob Knight at Indiana and Arizona’s Kevin O’Neill, Lute Olsen’s handpicked successor are prime examples about the dangers of hiring from within.
Conversely, keeping your friends close and enemies closer has proven to be beneficial for great programs.
Kentucky’s Rick Pitino discovered the grass is always bluer on the other side of the Bluegrass Rivalry after he was hired to supplant the retiring Denny Crum at Louisville. Bill Self was lured from Big 12 rival Oklahoma State after Roy Williams took his talents to the Tar Heels. UConn’s expectations have changed since May 16, 1986 and Final Fours are the barometer for successor.
According to The Boston Globe’s Jackie McMullan, in 1986, while UConn conducted its coaching search, Villanova coaching legend Rollie Massimino thought UConn would never hire a guy like him. He was wrong and 26 years ago, UConn hired the ultimate outsider. It’s too bad Calhoun forgot to do the same.