It's taken me a couple of days to absorb the shock that came when I heard that Jim Calhoun decided to retire from the University of Conneticut as the men's head basketball coach. As I think about it more, it makes me sad to think that the ultimate tough guy in Calhoun could only take so much. Although his incredible coaching legacy will inevitably be overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding the recruiting violations, and academic probationary sanctions, I can't help but feel disappointed that a guy who had always been known for doing things the right way would unfortunately get dragged down by the progressively worsening sliminess of big-time collegiate athletics. Perhaps it would have been fitting if Calhoun decided to retire on top after winning the 2011 NCAA Championship, but the fighter within decided to keep going despite what he knew was coming.
In reflecting specifically on Calhoun's legacy on the college game, I think his biggest contribution schematically was his "pro-style" based approach. In other words, many coaches are system coaches -- they use a 4-out motion, or flex, or dribble drive, 7 seconds or less, spread pick and roll, 40 minutes of hell, 2-3 zone, 1-3-1 zone, etc... Calhoun's philosophy has always been that the best system to use is the one that gets the best players the ball. So, when he had the likes of Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton, it was all about the box sets, and stagger screens to free up those jumpers on the wing. When he had Emeka Okafor and later with Hasheem Thabeet, it was a man-to-man defense that featured a dominant shot-blocking big man, leveraging their offensive rebounding prowess, and a post-entry based offense. With Kemba Walker, it was half court trapping, and a 1 man fast break and the drive and kick game. It was not a surprise to see so many star recruits gravitate towards UConn, future NBA players were developed by Calhoun because he featured them, and found ways to make them successful. And when they went to the NBA, they became stars because they played in a system which featured them.
It's certainly true that Calhoun rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He wasn't always graceful in defeat nor in victory, but with Calhoun you always knew that what you saw was what you got and that he didn't give a damn what anybody else thought. There wasn't a lot of pizzaz, he didn't care to put on a show, he just coached his a** off and was always about his players.