HOUSTON (AP) - When Jim Calhoun was 28 and just gaining a foothold in coaching, he figured he already had all the answers.
“Now I’m 68,” Calhoun said Sunday, with a shot at his third national championship looming some 24 hours away, “and I have a lot of questions.”
He’s hardly alone. Uncertainty surrounded Connecticut’s basketball program this season like the dirt cloud following PigPen around in the cartoon strip “Peanuts.” A young team, bad basketball, recruiting violations, a death in Calhoun’s family _ all those things conspired to make people wonder whether one of the great coaches of his generation should call it a career.
Now that Calhoun and his team have come out on the other end, cutting a swath through both the Big East and NCAA tournaments with 10 straight wins, some wonder whether another title and a place among the best of any generation might persuade Calhoun to walk away on his terms.
When the issue first was raised, he simply laughed it off.
“You sound like one of our alumni midway through the season when we lost four out of five,” he said. “It may be a legitimate question, I don’t know. I don’t know if I look that bad today. Maybe I do. I didn’t sleep very much last night.”
Calhoun paused and those fierce Irish eyes scanned the room side to side, as though searching for a memory tucked into one of the distant corners.
“I told my wife I would retire when I was 50,” Calhoun began again. “I lied.
“But I was on a plane roughly 10 years ago with Dean Smith, and he said, ‘Don’t ever make a decision on your basketball future right after a season, no matter how great it was, and don’t ever make it after a disappointing season. Give yourself some time, space, and distance and then make a decision.’
“I’ve done that every spring,” he said finally, “for probably the past five, six, seven years.”
The day between a semifinal win and the title game is often when you catch a coach at his most candid. Because the biggest prize is still out there, their competitive drive hasn’t been sated, but in a sense, they’re already playing with house money. They’re funny and self-deprecating. They settle scores, tell stories about hard times and good ones, about mentors who taught them to deal with the expectations that follow the biggest wins and kids who taught them to celebrate the smallest.
Better still, the half-hour or so on a stage together is contagious. It loosens the kids’ lips as well.
“I thought he was mean, just from watching him over the years, growing up,” UConn star Kemba Walker laughed. “But when I met him, you know, it was a whole different story.”
“I definitely thought he was a nice guy,” said teammate Alex Oriakhi, smiling mischievously. “But when you play for him, your thoughts start to change.”
Emboldened by the banter and picking up on the competitive theme, freshman Shabazz Napier chimed in: “If he was young enough, he’d still be out there playing with us. Probably wouldn’t do much, though,” he added, “because people would lock him up.”