Calhoun can't stop being Calhoun

March, 20, 2009
PHILADELPHIA -- The nurse posed a simple enough question to Jim Calhoun: Are you type A?

With a hospital bracelet encircling his wrist and his basketball team playing in the NCAA tournament without him, the Connecticut coach looked at her and smiled.

"What's beyond that?" he said. "I know that's a trick question."

Calhoun was laughing as he spoke, another health scare behind him and another game in front of him. Just hours earlier he was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, admitted Thursday with a severe enough case of dehydration that he missed his team's game against Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Again. Three times this has happened during March Madness, 21 times during his career. Calhoun pointed out those aren't bad numbers considering he has coached in 1,142 games. The man has a point. Most companies would probably be offering him a gold watch or a commemorative rocking chair for such solid service.

But it is nonetheless stunning that a Hall of Fame coach, a man with so many games on his résumé, so many big games to his credit, still gets his stomach twisted into such tight knots that he ends up in the hospital.

He is 66, and has been granted heavy doses of perspective courtesy of one battle with prostate cancer and two dogfights with skin cancer.

And yet …

"I don't know of any tip," he said. "Except maybe not coach basketball, not doing something competitive. But whatever it is, I'll find a reason to make it competitive. Reading a book, I'd see if I could do it the fastest of anybody who's ever read a book. Point being, that's my nature."

Calhoun isn't an original. The profession is littered with roadkill, coaches who have been run out or run over by the pressures to win.

Stress and health issues temporarily drove Rick Majerus from the game and this year pushed Loyola Marymount coach Bill Bayno out before the season even started.

Calhoun mentioned Bill Russell, the man he considers the best to ever play the game and his habit of throwing up before every game.

It is the vicious cycle of the profession: Successful coaches thrive on competition yet the very anguish of it also eats them up.

"There was never a game where I didn't feel really, really ready to go,'' Calhoun said. "I've had people I've become friendly with, who are actors, public speakers, ask, 'Do you get a kind of rush?' Everybody handles it differently. Everybody's body handles it differently.''

Whenever a coach becomes ill or is hospitalized, the call comes out for his peers to better manage their pressures. It happened after the death of Skip Prosser. Everyone bemoaned the insane travel schedule of the summer, the one that sends coaches crisscrossing from Vegas to Atlanta to Orlando on the endless quest to find the perfect player.

And then this summer, coaches packed their bags and loaded themselves back onto airplanes. Nothing had changed and nothing will.

Long after the Connecticut game ended, long past when the players went to bed, long beyond the visiting hours, Calhoun sat in his hospital room alone. It was 2 a.m.

He was watching game tape.

Dana O'Neil | email

ESPN Senior Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?