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By Jared Trexler, Contributing Editor - Archive - Email
Calhoun has one final moment
Jim Calhoun won 873 games in his 40 years as a head coach.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Talk about burying your leads in an avalanche of discussion about flex players and bounty suspensions.

Pulling back the layers of scandal in the world of collegiate athletics has been difficult of late, with the academic cheating inquiries at North Carolina and Harvard the latest two cases that remind us that sports' "One Shining Moment" purity is sometimes overrun by power's place in the human condition.

College basketball has unearthed many moving parts over the past several weeks in the face of NFL fantasy leagues and season openers, giving From The End of the Bench the perfect launching pad for discussion of where we are now and a starting point for the season-long narrative of where we are headed.

However, let's hop off the soapbox of collegiate power plays and impropriety, or conference realignment and financial interests for one day. Trust that detailed looks at Harvard's academic cheating scandal and rumors of other rule breaking are on the horizon, as is a complete picture of conference movement punctuated by Notre Dame's decision to join the ACC in every sport but football.

Instead, we begin our 2012-2013 season with the news of the day -- the retirement of Connecticut head basketball coach Jim Calhoun.

Calhoun was a snarly, sarcastic son of a gun, famously known for browbeating players, coaches and reporters in equal measure. He was tenacious, determined, and in his mind right always and wrong never even over areas of ambiguity. Calhoun never fit the poetic storylines of heartwarming success or the harsh images of ridicule and defeat.

He was a difficult bird to read, but no one had any trouble listing off his career successes. Calhoun won 873 games in his 40 years as a head coach, starting at Northeastern and concluding with 26 years at UConn. He reached four Final Fours and won three national titles (1994, 2004, 2011), more than the likes of Dean Smith or Henry Iba.

Calhoun was at the top of his profession, so one would wonder: why pick this time to walk away, on Sept. 13, just months before the season's outset? The answers coincidentally are far simpler than the man himself.

His health had always been a major issue. A three-time cancer survivor who also missed eight games last year due to a painful spinal condition, Calhoun fractured his hip after falling off his bicycle in early August. This came after missing 29 games and leaving another 11 during his career at UConn. At 70 years of age, after numerous bouts with cancer, most recently in 2008, and others on the meat grinder of a recruiting trail, Calhoun likely had finally reached his personal fatigue threshold.

Then there is the black cloud of compliance, UConn's failure to reach the required APR (Academic Performance Rate) numbers for postseason eligibility. The Huskies, the 2011 NCAA champions, are not eligible for the 2013 NCAA Tournament under rules passed in the fall of 2011. That came on the heels of closure from eight major rules violations cited by the NCAA in May 2010 following a 15-month investigation into the recruiting of former player Nate Miles, who was kicked out of UConn in October 2008 without ever donning a Huskies jersey.

Calhoun was cited for failing to maintain an atmosphere of compliance, and coupled with the latest failings in the classroom, the stigma, justly or not, of leadership shortcomings dogged a coach already battling poor health.

The culmination proved too much, and retirement proved too alluring, especially on his own terms. Calhoun also liked the idea of leaving on his own free will, truly the embodiment of his public and private persona since his first day in Storrs. He used his will to find his way both with the media and his team, throwing around his power and prestige to set his own path.

Thursday that path led to retirement, and in true Calhoun fashion, the naming of his handpicked successor, current assistant Kevin Ollie. The former Huskies point guard will now take over a program that saw five underclassmen bolt after last season due to the looming tournament ban. That only adds to the difficulty for a first-time head coach replacing a legend.

The story of the 2012-2013 Huskies is for another day, but the discussion of Calhoun's place in the annals of college basketball is one for the water cooler now. His win totals, tournament success and 2005 election into the Basketball Hall of Fame point to legendary status alongside the likes of Smith, Adolph Rupp and others.

Yet, unlike those two lofty names, Calhoun's legacy faces more questions about how he ran his program and the influence he had in its NCAA improprieties and academic faults. For example, he sat out three games at the start of last year's Big East season for the NCAA issues dating back to 2008.

The discussion has many layers, which is an interesting twist on the merits of a coach who recognized the complexities of issues but never wavered in his belief that his road of principles was always the correct path. Such self- confidence in some ways illustrates the successes he had, but also reminds those judging his legacy that Calhoun was combative against the characterture of a typical coach and the black-and-white stereotypes of success and failure.

Perhaps his stains are now typical of 21st century life, his virtues and failures both hung out to dry for the world to see. Whatever the case, today begins the discussion of his national titles and his abuse of power. It's a complex case, but that perfectly explains Jim Calhoun.



Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.


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