STORRS — The reality of 40 cold New England winters are behind him. We begin with the Jim Calhoun legend now, and when legend becomes fact, they say, print the legend.
UConn, ranked No. 1 in the nation, was up three against Syracuse with 11 seconds left at the 2006 Big East tournament. During the timeout, there was a debate. Put Craig Austrie on Gerry McNamara? No, UConn would stick with Rashad Anderson. This had been a fierce game against a fierce rival. Syracuse had led by double digits only to have the Huskies rebound for the lead. Yet here was McNamara racing across midcourt and draining a three-pointer from well behind the arc.
Calhoun grew apoplectic. "What geniuses I have for assistant coaches!" he screamed for anyone to hear at Madison Square Garden. "They tell me, 'Don't double McNamara!'"
Well, Syracuse goes on to win in overtime. It's a shocking defeat, a gutting defeat. Drained, Calhoun disappeared behind closed doors. Staff and league officials tried to get him out of the coach's office to meet with the media. He's not coming out. They tell him he needs to talk to his team and go to the podium or else the locker room doors will simply swing open for the media.
Finally, Calhoun emerged. Shirt unbuttoned. Tie askew. He suggested a mop.
Behind him there was vomit all over the floor, all over the wall, all over the place.
Forty years of coaching, 26 years at UConn, yes, that's how bad Jim Calhoun wanted it.
"He's a legend," UConn President Susan Herbst said Thursday at the news conference to announce Calhoun's retirement and Kevin Ollie's hiring as head coach. "And he's our legend."
Three national championships, 873 wins, eight million and 73 stories, he surely is. Few men in sports have wanted to win more. His postgame rants are the stuff of YouTube legend. Nobody in the history of mankind was a worse loser.
"People who know me will determine my character," Calhoun said. "Others will determine my legacy. Character is what I want to be judged on."
Nobody ever said Jim Calhoun wasn't a character.
"Jay Bilas just called Jim one of the greatest coaches in all of sport, which he is," associate coach George Blaney said. "He is remarkable in his ability to get people to do things through persuasion, through will, through expertise. I'm telling you, you can feel it, absolutely feel it when Jim Calhoun is willing people to do something."
You can always feel Jim Calhoun and every single one of his complexities. He is a battler. He is a bully. He is a teacher. He is a philanthropist. He is the one who dared to dream. He is a charmer. And on the day of his retirement, he was magnanimous in spreading credit to everyone from Storrs to the state Capitol.
Yet it is an absolute hatred of losing, the explosive nut in this enigma of a man, the unrelenting will that drove the UConn program to sustained greatness and made Jim Calhoun the most fascinating figure in Connecticut sports history. To be honest, it also is some of what I was looking for in Ollie on this day.
Ollie is his own man. He must be. Yet this also must be a reason why this will be more than a one-season contractual experiment — price tag $384,615 —and a reason why this guy from a continent away from Calhoun's Boston roots is his rightful long-term successor. He doesn't sound the same. He doesn't look the same. We must know if he burns the same inside.
"I was made for this job," Ollie said.
As he went on for 20 minutes, damn if Kevin Ollie didn't carry the day. Passionate about basketball and his family, funny, challenging, appreciative, God-fearing, Ollie won the press conference. Early score: Ollie 1, Rest of the Field 0.
Calhoun didn't cry on this day. Ollie did.
Talking about how he so loves walking his daughter to the school bus stop, how he burned inside through bus rides in the CBA and USBL to carve out 13 years in the NBA, how his wife Stephanie twice rebuffed him before finally going out with him … Ollie choked back tears.
"If you weren't inspired by that presentation," Howie Dickenman said, "I'm not sure what gets you going."