Calhoun built UConn with force of will

NEW YORK -- Jim Calhoun wants to coach major college basketball again, and nothing about Friday night in Madison Square Garden will temper the fire within. The Connecticut Huskies will be the home team against Iowa State in the Sweet 16, and the sights and sounds will carry Calhoun back to the seven Big East tournaments he won in a building all but airlifted out of Manhattan and dropped down in the middle of Storrs.

Boston College administrators aren't about to hire him, yet this much is clear: somebody will. Calhoun will force a school to take a chance on a 71-year-old Hall of Famer with an alarming series of health issues in his not-too-distant past, and to understand why you might want to watch the first NCAA tournament game in the Garden in more than half a century.

Through the singular power of his bare-knuckled personality, Calhoun made UConn basketball one of the more improbable powers in the modern history of college sports, right there next to Geno Auriemma's dynasty on the women's side. When he took the job in 1986, Calhoun didn't have any bluegrass to boast about, nor could he take a recruit off to see the Wizard of Westwood, or drive him down Tobacco Road, or put him on the phone with Patrick Ewing. He didn't have a Carrier Dome to sell, or a bunch of regular-season games in the Garden to pitch.

What did he really have in Storrs, other than a blind faith in himself?

"I think some of my kids truly believed in me because I believed in it," Calhoun said Wednesday at the Garden, surrounded by the likes of Oscar Robertson and Pearl Washington and others summoned to reminisce about the kind of college basketball venue this used to be. Out of Braintree, Mass., a lifer who always sounded as if he'd just stepped off a Cape Cod fishing boat, Calhoun went on about his underdog teams at Northeastern, some of them featuring Reggie Lewis, and how he was positively shocked whenever they lost in the tourney.

"If you're a coach and you can impose your will on your kids," Calhoun said, "they can impose their will on the other team."

Nobody in the Big East imposed their will on their kids quite like Calhoun did, not even Big John Thompson, or Jim Boeheim, or Rollie Massimino, or Lou Carnesecca. If those four coaches go down as the founding on-court fathers of Dave Gavitt's conference, Calhoun was the one who did more with less. He won three national titles, or the same number of Thompson (1), Boeheim (1), Massimino (1) and Carnesecca (none) combined.

"Thanks," Gavitt told him at one league meeting, long after the Big East glory days of the '80s were complete. "You kept us going."

Calhoun was wearing his Hall of Fame ring on his right hand as he spoke Wednesday. He looked trim and rested and a lot healthier than he looked at the end of his career, after separate bouts with cancer and biking injuries and spinal stenosis surgery inspired him in 2012 to make the handoff to Kevin Ollie, one of his former guards. Calhoun is a grandfather who has moved to the edge of his rocking chair, swiveling his head this way and that as he scours the landscape for an available team.

"I'm one of the few guys, at 71 years of age, who likes recruiting," he said. "I don't mind going out and seeing a kid and saying, 'If you come here, we can do these things together.'"

Ray Allen. Donyell Marshall. Emeka Okafor. Ben Gordon. Kemba Walker. Caron Butler. Rip Hamilton. Rudy Gay. Calhoun started his own personal pipeline to the NBA, and he did it in the early years by winning over recruits with the most unique approach.

He didn't market his school and his teams as much as he marketed the schools and teams the Huskies would face. Come play against Alonzo Mourning in the best conference in America!

It worked, big time. Calhoun ultimately beat Mike Krzyzewski's Duke for the 1999 national championship, beat Coach K again at the 2004 Final Four on the way to ring No. 2, and then became only the fifth Division I coach to win at least three titles in 2011, after Walker unlocked that magical run at the Garden with five Big East victories in five days.

And no, Calhoun's was not a perfect career, not even close. He got himself suspended for three conference games, and got his program placed on probation, for recruiting violations that went down on his watch. Maybe that's why he told ESPNNewYork.com that Manhattan College should give a second chance to Steve Masiello, who lost the South Florida job after falsely claiming on his resume that he'd earned a degree from Kentucky ("I'd take him back ... in a heartbeat," Calhoun said). There's no such thing as a perfect career in the big business that is major college athletics.

Calhoun built his imperfect career with the Huskies on the 1988 NIT title at the Garden -- the triumph, he said, that gave the people of Connecticut "tangible evidence that we could get this done." On Wednesday, he recalled driving home with his wife Pat on the Merritt Parkway, heading north at 3 a.m. and thinking that their lives were about to change.

Calhoun attacked his monumental basketball challenges like he did the cancerous tumor found in his prostate in 2003. "Get this thing out of me," he told his doctors. "It doesn't belong in me." He'd been a pretty tough guy ever since the day, as a 15-year-old outfielder in a youth all-star game, he was interrupted by the bulletin that his hero, his father, had just died of a massive heart attack.

Before he found his true calling, Calhoun was a gravestone cutter, a painter, a junkyard worker, you name it. Now the special assistant to the UConn athletic director wants his old career back, the one that made him rich and famous, the one that landed him in the Hall of Fame. He said he's been thinking about a return to the bench for the last six or seven months. He said if the right offer comes along, he'll probably take it.

"I'm not desperate," Calhoun said. "I don't have to fulfill anything I haven't fulfilled. ... And if I start coaching again, am I chasing myself? You never catch yourself; you realize that, right?"

Before he decides to either re-enter that race or stay on the sideline for keeps, Calhoun will watch his own recruit, Shabazz Napier, try to do for Kevin Ollie what Kemba Walker did for him. The venue will mean almost as much to the old coach as a spot in the regional final against the winner of Virginia-Michigan State.

Calhoun called UConn a Big East team despite its American Athletic affiliation ("You can't divorce yourself of so much history," he said), and he described himself as a hopeless romantic on the subject of the Garden. The six-overtime loss to Syracuse, the Ray Allen-Allen Iverson duel, the sound of the late public-address legend, John Condon, calling "timeout ... timeout" -- the memories will hit him like a forearm to the ribs.

And win, lose, or draw, the scene of another UConn crowd taking over the Garden will remind everyone inside that Jim Calhoun imposed his will on his team as much as any college coach who ever walked through the door.