Dee Rowe has known George Blaney longer than just about any of us. It must be a hundred years, the godfather of UConn athletics said, before settling on nearly 60. Rowe was coaching Worcester Academy back in those days and he used to play college freshmen teams.
"We've got Holy Cross in our place and this kid Blaney out of Jersey City beats us at the wire," Rowe said Thursday after Blaney announced his retirement from UConn after 43 years as a college basketball coach. "Let me tell you, he was three-decker tough. That's what we called it in Worcester.
"He had a lot of the same qualities as Jim Calhoun, demanding, innovative. Both Irish, both Catholic, both with an incredible passion for the game, but they also were two totally different kind of guys. The fact he and Jim came to blend together in such a way should be a lesson for everybody. It was a marriage made in heaven."
Of course, sometimes you got to go through a little hell before you get to heaven, and for 11 years, through two national championships, it sometimes appeared that way for Blaney. If not hell, maybe purgatory. Something would go bad in a game. Bad pass. Bad shot. Bad read. Calhoun, storming the sidelines like a tortured bear, would stamp his feet. Only he couldn't stamp out his anger, so he'd wheel around, turn to Blaney, sitting quietly on the bench, and yell about the mistake.
Blaney's body wouldn't move. Only his head would. He'd nod softly in agreement.
"Jim is a remarkable individual, he really is," Blaney said, laughing. "His ability to analyze things and get to the core of the problem is truly remarkable."
In truth, Blaney saw the same thing Calhoun saw. He was actually agreeing with Calhoun. The difference was in the reaction. The divergence was in the personality and the fact one was the head coach and the other wasn't.
"Never let Coach Blaney's demeanor on the sidelines fool you into thinking there wasn't a competitor there," said Tom Moore, who coached alongside the two at UConn before becoming the coach at Quinnipiac. "Underneath that calm surface was a coach with an incredible passion and love for the game and with a great attention to detail. I called him the rock."
Blaney, Moore said, had certain pet peeves about little things that would set him off. Things like stepping out of bounds. Things like an official doing a bad job throwing up a jump ball. If a player stepped on the sideline while shooting a three or stepped on the baseline while trying to get separation in the lane, it would drive Blaney crazy.
"He'd go, 'Do you think Jerry West or Oscar Robertson ever stepped out of bounds?'" Moore said. "Sometimes players would look at him like he had two heads, because his point of reference was [40 years earlier]. He was serious about mental mistakes."
Moore recalled a 2005 exhibition game in St. Louis between a collection of top collegiate seniors and the Globetrotters. As 2004 national champs, the UConn staff coached the college team.
"Even though it was the Globetrotters, it was a serious game," Moore said. "I don't think the refs were quite ready for how serious. The jump ball wasn't thrown up right. That set George off and that got Coach Calhoun wound up. There's 19:59 on the clock and this guy already has two coaches attacking him. The ref comes over at the first timeout, looks at me and goes, "Holy spit! Those two are tough."
Blaney played at St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, N.J., before heading to Worcester. A two-time All-New England pick, Blaney finished in 1961 with 1,012 points at Holy Cross. He played for the Knicks. He played in the old Eastern League. Although he wasn't with the Knicks the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 on them in Hershey — Blaney was doing a stint in the Army — he did play 36 games that season. He has joked that after Wilt picked up both him and the ball up at one time, he decided coaching was a wiser career choice. He coached at Stonehill and Dartmouth before return to his alma mater for 22 years. He was a Worcester institution.
"I spoke at his party when he left to coach Seton Hall," Rowe said. "It was a great honor for me. Holy Cross is like family to me. I cried happy and I cried sad that night."
Blaney had been to 36 Final Fours before 2004, but always he was in the stands. He looked down in envy at those coaches on the floor. And that's why before the semifinal game against Duke, with tears filling his eyes, he thanked Calhoun. He thanked Calhoun again at the 2009 Final Four. He thanked him once more when the Huskies won the national title in 2011.
"I have to tell you Pat [Calhoun's wife] hired me, not Jim," Blaney said. "I'll always be appreciative what he did after I was fired at Seton Hall, was in the International Basketball League and coached six months at Rhode Island. It was a tough time for me. He showed a great deal of friendship to hire me."
There was something deep and profound in it for Calhoun, too. Blaney obviously didn't make Calhoun's career. He already had won a national title in 1999. Yet maybe he helped prolong Calhoun's career. They surely nurtured each other.
When Rowe called Blaney three-decker tough, he was talking about the three-decker houses of the blue-collar folks in New England. Calhoun, 71, is three-decker tough, too. Of the same generation, Blaney understood Calhoun. He was a confidant. Filling in as the head coach during Calhoun's illnesses and suspensions, he was no threat to Calhoun yet he also had his abiding respect. That is no small distinction.
"It was big thing for me that Jim had enough faith in me to allow me to coach," Blaney said. "But it was always Jim's team and I tried to do what he would have done. I did it in my own personality, but I didn't try to change things."
Calhoun was the great, piercing needle. Blaney was the understanding pin cushion. Together they sewed a great New England story.
"George is not only one of the best basketball coaches, but also one of the finest people I've ever been around," Calhoun said. "I think it was a great marriage of perhaps two very different personalities, but two people who were very similar in our feelings about basketball and the kids who played for us.
"George had an awful lot to do with all that we were able to accomplish here and I will cherish the time we had working together. I'm proud to call him my friend."
On Thursday, Blaney, 73, talked about how he had filled in for Calhoun in the 2009 NCAA opening round victory over Chattanooga. How the next morning Calhoun had called him, pumped he was getting out of the hospital and could coach the next game against Texas A&M. Blaney didn't say much in response.
"He tells the story now about how I wasn't too excited about him getting out of the hospital," Blaney said.
Out of somebody else's mouth that joke may be perceived differently.
"Here's the thing," Rowe said. "Their relationship was made out of respect and admiration and a fair amount of tough love. George never thought he was bigger than the game or the kids."
As a writer, you could go to Blaney after a game, any game, win or lose, ask him a specific question about X's and O's or a player's development. His answer was so specific, his demeanor so genuine you walked away smarter and certainly thankful for his unending grace. Day after day, year after year, his love for the game couldn't be extinguished.
"The game has never stopped intriguing me, the game allows you to be good, the game allows you to be bad," Blaney said, finding in basketball a metaphor for life. "When you're good, you've got to be good the next day. When you're bad it allows you the opportunity to be good the next day."
"He's a Jersey guy, but he is such an important part of our great New England basketball story," Rowe, the man who has know him for more than a half century, said. "Few have ever done it with more dignity."