'Will they know you out on the street?'

Posted: Tuesday, April 06, 2004

On the day he won his second national championship in five years, the Hall of Fame said ''no'' to Jim Calhoun.

It's too late for a recount, despite the Huskies' dominating 82-73 win Monday night over Georgia Tech, but anybody who follows the college game can take comfort knowing Calhoun will be inducted one day. A day earlier, before the official announcement of the 2004 class, he took a break from preparations for an extended interview session with reporters.

''I was honored to be nominated,'' he said then. ''I would hope someday to be worthy enough to be inducted with the people that I have incredible admiration for.''

Instead of bitterness, what Calhoun dwelled on were his memories of watching the Springfield, Mass.-based Hall being built not far from the campus of American International, where he went to school and played college ball.

''Every couple of weeks, I'd go down there and get an appreciation for some of the great, great players. ... After I finished playing, I'd go to see the coaches, the guys that I saw at the Final Four from a distance. And my sons used to do this funny thing,'' he said.

''They used to say when Coach Knight would walk by me, or whomever it might be who is a legendary coach, they'd say, 'Hey, Dad, will they know you out on the street?'''

The answer to that question today depends on where the street is located. In a few college hoops hotbeds, chances are good somebody will recognize Calhoun, especially if his tie is loosened and his pacing constant, the way he often prowls a sideline.

But back in Connecticut, a state without major pro sports, he is already a rock star, revered as the blunt, fast-talking Irishman who moved down from Boston to restore New England's rightful place near the top of the sport that was invented there.

That was always Calhoun's ambition, to build a program that would be mentioned in the same breath with Duke, Carolina and Kentucky.

''That's what I want to roll off their lips,'' he has been telling anyone who would listen since he arrived at UConn 18 years ago, and by winning it all in both of his first two Final Four appearances, Calhoun may last long enough to hear it happen.

Then-Connecticut athletic director John Toner no doubt believed it might when he announced his selection committee had settled on the hot, young coach at Northeastern. But neither man really knew what they were getting.

UConn wasn't a destination job back then, but the Big East was already the toughest coaching conference in the country. John Thompson was at Georgetown, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Lou Carnesecca at St. John's and the rest of the league's programs weren't exactly being run by slouches.

On the eve of his breakthrough national championship win in 1999, Calhoun recalled how, in his first few years on the job, he was not above pitching recruits on the chance they'd get their heads handed to them by the best players in the best arenas in the best conference in the country.

''We would tell kids, 'Would you like to play against Reggie Williams and Alonzo Mourning? Would you like to play in the Carrier Dome just not for Syracuse?'

''And if a kid said, 'I love Georgetown an awful lot,' I'd ask, 'Have you talked to Coach Thompson? No? Good.' And we went from there.''

Calhoun can still be charming on the recruiting trail ''I think Coach could talk himself out of being hijacked or robbed,'' guard Rashad Anderson said but everything else about the UConn program has changed in the last five years. And that includes Calhoun.

''I told my wife the typical coach's lie, that this would all get easier once we started winning. And she just said to me, 'I haven't seen you in five weeks.' I thought at the time I was being halfway truthful because I love her so much.

''But,'' he added with a sheepish grin, ''it was a blatant lie.''

What winning did was make Calhoun more obsessed, not less. He's come to love the attention, to welcome the expectations that come with the No. 1 preseason ranking, even though it makes the losses that much tougher to take.

As if Calhoun needed reminding, it came on the floor of the Alamodome on Saturday night, a second after he shook hands with defeated Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a close friend.

''When I walked by him, he was as devastated as I've ever seen him. ... Mike is as hungry now to win another championship as he was when he won his first back-to-back championships'' in 1991-92, Calhoun said.

The kids who play for Calhoun see that same desire every day, which may be why it came as no surprise to hear UConn All-America center Emeka Okafor describe the coach in so few words.

''Motivator, champion,'' Okafor said. ''Basically, that's it.''

But sometime soon, any description of Calhoun will have to include at least one more qualifier: Hall of Famer.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us