It was minutes after Connecticut’s basketball team took down the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed on Saturday night when a large group of reporters gathered around a specific figure in the Huskies locker room. Those asking questions were both local reporters who cover UConn and national ones seeking quick soundbites or long narratives about what had just transpired against Florida. No one had a larger contingent around them.
The same scene played out at AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon, when Connecticut was preparing to meet Kentucky in tonight’s national championship game. Again, a large group holding notebooks and pens and cameras sought out the same figure for his view on the Huskies and their magical run to within 40 minutes of a fourth title.
Drawing closer, one strained to see over the sea of heads and identify which UConn leader was being interviewed.
Head coach Kevin Ollie?
Star point guard Shabazz Napier?
Rising junior forward DeAndre Daniels?
No to all.
It was former coach Jim Calhoun holding court.
And a few thoughts arose: Where have you gone, Dean Smith?
How do you move past the ghost when the ghost never leaves?
This should be Ollie’s moment. His time in the sun. His moment to bask in his team’s improbable run to the final game as a No. 7 seed. It should not be about the past, about a Hall of Fame coach who over 26 years built the program into a national power and left it in 2012 in what many felt was complete disrepair.
Calhoun has dealt with severe health issues, including two bouts with cancer and surgeries on his spine and hip. But when he walked away, he did so in a time the program was trying to wrap its arms around academic failures that led to a postseason ban in 2013 and still stinging from recruiting violations. He left the thing in near-shambles.
But he never really walked away. He accepted a position in athletics while serving as an adviser to coaches. He was given a title of head coach emeritus. He was paid more to retire than he would have been to remain coach.
He is in locker rooms, on planes, behind the bench for games. He’s everywhere.
And there is no question Ollie and his players embrace it, at least publicly.
But there is something to be said for a mentor disappearing into the shadows as his pupil arrives at center stage.
When he decided to retire after 36 seasons as North Carolina’s coach in 1997, Smith purposefully spent the next year far away from the Tar Heels program. He had handpicked his successor in Bill Guthridge (much like Calhoun did with Ollie) and wanted him to build things in his image without the weight of Smith’s face at practices and games and other team events.
North Carolina made the Final Four that first season under Guthridge and Smith was seen only at a regular-season game to honor one of his former teams.
He left at halftime.
Ollie owes most everything to Calhoun. He played for him, coached under him, received the opportunity to take over the program because of him. Calhoun believed in him in a way only a coach can of a former player.
“I can never fill Coach Calhoun’s shoes,” Ollie said. “This program has already been built. But I want to sustain it. I want to get it to another level. That level is not about winning championships. It’s about creating great young men so they can go out there in their community after they leave our campus and be ambassadors of their family, of their name, of this great university. But it’s my team now. My program. I have to do things my way.”
Calhoun won 873 career games and championships at UConn in 1999, 2004 and 2011, lifting the Huskies into national athletic relevance over nearly three decades. His long-term legacy ranks among the game’s best and yet his short-term one over those final seasons in Storrs was stained with academic woes and NCAA improprieties.
Which leads to this: If the Huskies are victorious tonight and it comes time to cut down a net, here’s hoping the only head coach celebrated and remembered for such an ending is the one who was born in this city, whose father woke him at 4 a.m. to beat the heat and help with the family’s landscaping business, who led Connecticut through its postseason ban last year, who saved a proud program from that seemingly unavoidable fate of disrepair.
“Kevin is doing a wonderful job,” said Calhoun. “But I love being there for him. It has worked out well for us. I love my relationship with him. We can talk. But this is his team. His imprints are all over it.”
Here’s hoping the largest media scrum regarding Connecticut tonight is around a current head coach, not a former one.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.