STORRS, Conn. (WTNH) -- It's a question UConn fans have been pondering for years, but never actually had to answer.
"People would ask me, what are you going to do when coach Calhoun retires," said athletic director Warde Manuel at the retirement ceremony on Thursday. "I thought to myself, that's a very good question. And then I kept walking," he said.
Even as news of Calhoun's retirement finally became real and permanent last night, that answer remains elusive.
The Basketball Hall of Famer is gone, leaving 26 years, 873 wins, and three national titles behind. UConn basketball will never be the same.
Calhoun will be replaced by assistant Kevin Ollie, who has made a tremendous connection to the players, administration and fans in just two seasons on the bench. Whether or not Ollie is able to replicate the success Calhoun has had, one thing is for sure: he won't be as entertaining to watch.
I grew up in the glory days of Connecticut basketball. I was 12 years old when UConn won its first title in 1999, 17 when they won title two and 24 when they captured title three. My father and I have been going to games for years, and we would often watch Calhoun's reactions on the sidelines instead of the action on the floor.
We'd laugh when he would rip someone out of the game just seconds after he had put him in. Any missed defensive assignment, bad pass or otherwise bonehead play would warrant immediate expulsion from the contest. Often, you could see it coming. No one in the country substituted like Calhoun.
My father would always joke that the television cameras refused to show him during timeouts, because of how ahem…demonstrative he was. He'd bark incessantly at officials, scream at assistant George Blaney, and stand in stone-cold silence during timeouts, leaving his players to figure out for themselves how to get back on track. But that was all a part of Calhoun's charm. He was brash, stubborn, fiery and intimidating, and hilarious to watch.
We all knew it was going to end sometime. Calhoun is 70 years old and in rough shape, having endured two bicycle accidents, bouts with skin and prostate cancer, and various stress-related ailments that have kept him out of forty games during the course of his career. He missed eleven games last season with severe back problems.
He was also staring down the barrel of a relatively meaningless season, as UConn is barred from postseason play thanks to the NCAA's academic progress rate crackdown. The best the Huskies can hope for is a regular-season Big East title.
Still, if he hadn't suffered a broken hip in a bicycle accident in August, it's not far-fetched to believe that Calhoun would have returned this season. He never wanted to leave the Huskies this way, asking new coach Kevin Ollie to navigate what figures to be the toughest season the program has endured in decades. The departures of Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi, and Roscoe Smith, among others, have left UConn with a painfully young and inexperienced roster, and there is no NCAA Tournament dream to keep them motivated.
Beyond that, Calhoun loves a challenge and he probably would have considered it his personal mission to ensure that the 2012-13 Huskies overachieved to the point that national experts wouldn't even recognize them. Calhoun's best teams were often some of his most overlooked.
He said that the hip injury didn't enter into his decision making, except that it gave him more time to think about it. "It gave me a momentary pause. I couldn't do anything for two weeks," he said. "It gave me a lot of time to contemplate some of the things in my life. But I looked around and realized that we were headed in the right direction. I knew this was the time."
Calhoun always said that he would take legendary former North Carolina head coach Dean Smith's advice and wait until the fall to make his final decision, to see if he still had the competitive fire for the next season. In the end, he realized he still had the fire, but just didn't have the stamina to get through another grueling season.
He's still going to be a presence at practices and in meetings, and Calhoun even said that he would now have more time to focus on individual player development. "Just don't come to me with questions about playing time," he told his players.
But it's going to be strange to look over at the bench and not see him there, in all his vein-popping, gum-spitting, sign-kicking glory.
No matter how successful UConn basketball continues to be, it will never have another coach like Jim Calhoun.
And there will never be a good time to say goodbye.
Today we have the first contributions from Kels Dayton, our SportzEdge online journalist. In the coming months, SportzEdge will be bringing you more information about local youth sports in Connecticut. Be on the lookout for more stories -- and find out how you can become a part of SportzEdge!