Published September 14. 2012 4:00AM
Jim Calhoun never had the time to dissect the moments when he was involved in them. There was always the next recruit to call, the next game to coach. But there comes a time for all of us when your vocation suddenly announces, "Here I am on the final day."
And so there was the seminal figure in the history of Connecticut sports trying to tie together the loose ends of a lifetime on Thursday, the day Jim Calhoun officially retired from the University of Connecticut. Let us all echo the words of UConn president Susan Herbst, who called Thursday "a day of sorrow, celebration and admiration."
What do you say when the man who changed everything yields to time's relentless passage? And Jim Calhoun changed everything. He turned Connecticut, a state of relative sporting bumpkins, into a national frame of reference for college basketball. The UConn game became the nation's biggest sporting event on hundreds of nights for the last 26 years. He made Storrs into basketball Broadway.
Maybe there's no greater compliment to a person's legacy than to say he rescued us from a long fade into sporting irrelevance and splashed us all over national television.
Jim Calhoun will be missed. Desperately. For entertainment value alone. Calhoun had the inimitable ability to be unintentionally hilarious.
He turned a provincial state university from New England into a hip, national happening. Yet he never lost the endearing Boston accent, personifying what many observers around the country think about New Englanders: fast-talking, impatient, caustic. His wit is unparalleled. His sarcasm is of legend. In practice, on the bus, during the game, after the game.
And as much as all the Final Fours and three national championships tell Calhoun's story, his persona tells it even better. We're not losing one of the most successful coaches in college sports history. We're losing an icon.
"My favorite story," said program great Scott Burrell, one of many former players at Thursday's news conference, "was at Georgetown. One of our guards, and I forget who, decided to drive to the basket against Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning."
Burrell paused and grinned as if the memory came surging at him like a current. He was alluding to two former Georgetown greats who became elite centers in the National Basketball Association.
"After the game, coach says to everyone, 'What was he going to do on the way to the basket? Punch Alonzo in the face and hit Dikembe over the head with a baseball bat?'"
Calhoun's rants toward his players may be matched only by bouts with the media. Once, late Manchester Journal-Inquirer columnist Randy Smith wrote a piece bemoaning what he perceived as a missed educational opportunity for the basketball team. Smith read an account of the team's trip to Hawaii, during which the players' recreation didn't go past the beach. Smith was disappointed that nobody bothered to visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.
"Hey, Randy," Calhoun said as he walked off the court at halftime of the next game. "The kids are holed up at the Farmington Marriott for semester break. Think I should take them to the bleeping Mark Twain House?"
And that's Jim Calhoun. Postgame streams of consciousness that lasted longer than some marriages. Frequent, almost violent, spins to his assistants during games, questioning anything, everything.
"We were playing Vermont one night," assistant coach Glen Miller of Mystic said Thursday. "We were horrible, they were horrible. No one could score. So I say, 'Hey, we're playing good defense.' You know. Stick with the positive. Vermont scores the first six points of the second half. He whips around and says, 'Great defense, genius.'"
Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore, a former Calhoun assistant, said, "You needed thick skin. But it's part of the drive. If you lived through it, whether you were a player, coach or bus driver, the lesson you learned is that you better do things a certain way. It stays with you."
Jim Calhoun will stay with all of us.
President Herbst had it right. This was a day of sorrow, celebration and appreciation.
"He is a legend," Herbst said. "Our legend."
Indeed. Happy retirement, coach.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.