He is a two-time NCAA champion and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He is one of the winningest college coaches of all time. Over a career that has spanned four decades, he has become known for his relentless work ethic and fierce determination to win.
But to the people who know him best, Jim Calhoun is simply Coach. His legacy is more than one of wins and losses. For his players and assistants, for the people of the University of Connecticut, his legacy is one of teaching and learning, inspiration and motivation, guidance and friendship, and above all, of family.
Given where Coach came from, and the dramatic experiences that shaped him as a young man, those qualities were all but determined from the start.
BORN TO LEAD
James A. Calhoun was born on May 10, 1942, deep in the heart of New England in Braintree, Massachusetts. That is to say, that Jim Calhoun has been a New England man his entire life.
The son of Kathleen and James Calhoun, he was the oldest boy of six siblings. His Irish-Catholic family embodied the values of the region: hard work, dedication and strength of character in the face of adversity.
Those values came into play when young Jim was 15 years old. His father died of a heart attack.
Suddenly, he was the oldest man in the family. Jim did not shirk the responsibility that accompanied it. That day, he told his mother that he would take care of her, and made it his mission to do just that.
“He has that ability to make you know that whatever is going wrong, he can take care of it. He had that even as a kid, after my father died,” Jim’s older sister Rose Dias told the Hartford Courant in 2005. “Jimmy had that same demeanor, attitude to just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and keep going on. ... You just knew he was going to be a leader by the way he carried himself. He had it in him.''
AN ATHLETE EMERGES
Coach never did like to hear that he couldn’t do something.
"I think our parents really made us all feel, even after my dad died, but especially when he was alive, that we could do anything we put our mind to,” another one of Jim’s sisters, Joan Girard, told the Courant. “That's how we were brought up.”
Growing up as a father figure and provider for his family could have hampered Jim’s athletic aspirations, but instead, it pushed him to achieve his goals.
As a child of New England, he grew up a die-hard Red Sox fan, and had enjoyed many Saturday trips to Fenway Park with his father. But as he aged, Jim gained an appreciation for the Boston Celtics and the game of basketball. Most nights, adolescent Jim could be found at French’s Common in Braintree, honing his game by the glow of the moon and dim car headlights.
Jim would go on to letter in baseball, basketball and football, earning all-state honors in the latter two sports. But it was hoops that would win out in the end, earning Jim a scholarship to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts.
On the court at AIC, Jim excelled, eventually rising to fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list. The leadership skills Jim honed on that team -- which he guided to the Division II National Tournament as a senior -- would come in handy down the road.
After his eligibility as a player expired, Jim stayed at AIC for two more years, where he joined on as an assistant. Following two seasons with the Yellow Jackets, he begin his head coaching career in earnest in the high school ranks.
All the while, Jim was working to grow and learn as a coach, just as he had as a person and a player before. He worked not only to better himself, but his players too. From the beginning, Jim had a special bond with those who played for him, many of whom -- like he had -- were from poorer backgrounds, fighting to beat the odds.
"Someone once told me I have some Father Flanagan in me," Calhoun told the Boston Globe in 2005, referring to the famous mentor of Boys Town. "I believe I can save every kid. I can't, and I have failed. But I have never failed for not trying, never not giving the kid the best I could give him."
By the time he was making his way around the New England high school circuit, Jim had met his wife Pat, and the two embarked together on a journey across the region. Calhoun was stationed first at Old Lyme High School in Old Lyme, Connecticut, then moved on to Westport High School in Westport, Massachusetts.
"I remember going to games in Orono [Maine] and knowing it was a really big game because the announcer would say, 'We've got a great crowd tonight, will everybody please move to your left,' " Jim told the Globe.
But high school basketball was a breeding ground for Jim’s skills as a coach and mentor. By the time he arrived at Dedham High School in Dedham, Massachusetts -- his third high school stop -- he was a hot commodity.
Under Calhoun, Dedham went 21-1 in 1971-72, and advanced to the state semifinals. Coach's quick success garnered some attention at the higher levels, and he was soon offered his first college head-coaching job at Northeastern University.
In Calhoun’s first season at NU, he led the Huskies to a 19-7 record: a seven-win improvement over his predecessor. Over the next six seasons, Jim’s Northeastern teams hovered around the .500 mark. But by 1979-80, Calhoun had the Huskies on the right track, and as a member of the North Atlantic Conference, they won 19 games. Jim also picked up his 100th victory as a college coach that season, fittingly in a 88-81 win over his alma-mater, AIC.
"I've said numerous times, Jim over painstaking years advanced us kicking and screaming - an extra dollar here, an extra scholarship there," Jack Grinold, in his 47th year working in Northeastern’s sports information department told the Hartford Courant in 2009. "It took an amount of time, but we had quite a bit of confidence in him. He did a lot of things that were really great. Being around the basketball team was a family affair, and not just his family. [Wife] Pat every game, the kids were ballboys and it was a family-type thing. And if you were on the periphery, you were included in the family just as well. Jim and I had a special relationship. He's a lovable Irishman."
Northeastern surged in the 80s, winning 20 games in five of the next six seasons. In each of those five years, Coach took the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament. It was a transcendent era for the program, which hadn’t posted a 20-win season since the late 60s.
Suddenly, Northeastern had half a decade of them in near succession.
"It was a special time," Andre LaFleur, a point guard for Calhoun at Northeastern, told the Hartford Courant. "He made everyone believe that if you put in the work, you would see the results. . . . He hasn't changed. He made everyone accountable and made everyone believe. It wasn't hard to see even back then that Coach had something in him that might lead him to where he is now."
A NEW CHALLENGE
After 248 wins and five tournament appearances, Coach left Boston for a new opportunity, and the chance to lead another fledgling program to great promise.
When Calhoun took the reigns at Connecticut on May 15, 1986, the program was in disarray, coming off a fourth consecutive losing season.
After a rocky start that saw the team win just nine games in his first year, Coach began steering the ship toward absolute glory. He would lead UConn to back-to-back NIT appearances in his second and third years, and the Huskies won the NIT in 1988.
That was just a glimpse of what would follow in the magical season of 1989.
UConn rolled to 31 wins during 1989-90, their first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years, and the first 30-win season in school history. Jim was named National Coach of the Year, and led UConn to the brink of the Final Four.
“We went in not knowing how good we could be," Howie Dickenman, then an assistant to Calhoun, told the Courant. "It was one of those seasons where you wondered - and then it just steamrolled. . . . That season was a blur - bing, bing, bing."
Over the next nine years, Calhoun built UConn into a year-in, year-out power. Over the course of the 90s, Connecticut dominated the college basketball landscape with a remarkable 256 wins.
"What he's done is a miracle," former UConn coach and New England legend Dee Rowe told the Boston Globe in 2006. "What he's done is beyond imagination. He has taken us to the top of the mountain, where we breathe the rarefied air. I'm so grateful to be sitting at the back of the bus while he's taken us on that ride."
It all culminated in the 1998-1999 season. After a decade of near misses, the Huskies got to the top of the mountain. A 77-74 win over the heavily favored Duke Blue Devils in the National Championship gave UConn its first basketball championship.
"This is one of the greatest games I have ever been associated with," Jim told the Dallas Morning News after the game. "When the kids said they wanted Duke instead of Michigan State, I thought maybe the wise head [should prevail]. But the kids knew better. They knew they could win and beat the best. We have as much character as any team I have been associated with."
After 27 years of coaching college basketball, Jim Calhoun had finally achieved the ultimate goal:
“It took us 13 years [at UConn] to do that. It`s a process,” Jim told Charlie Rose in 2007. “Success is a process. And you have got to create a culture of winning in order for that to happen. We were knocked out of the final eight five times before we finally got to the final four. So my point being simply, people need to understand that it`s a process. And when you do get knocked down, it`s another opportunity.”
The 90s had transformed UConn into a college basketball powerhouse and one of the most well received programs in the nation.
‘What Jim has done is to make it kind of OK to be a UConn coach and OK to be a UConn person," said UConn associate athletic director Mike Enright told the Boston Globe in 2006. "That wasn't always the case around here."
Coach had restored pride at the University of Connecticut. As the Huskies celebrated in St. Petersburg, the Associated Press reported on the scene back home in Storrs.
“The thousands of students who watched the NCAA championship game inside the Huskies' home arena blended their voices into one giant scream as the final buzzer sounded on Connecticut's 77-74 victory over the Blue Devils.
"My dream has finally come true. This makes up for all the heartache Duke has caused us so many times," said Ellen Truax of Sharon, a recent Connecticut graduate who jumped with joy.”
The win was the clear signature moment of his tenure at UConn, and the image of Jim cutting down the net in St. Petersburg will live on forever in UConn lore. But the journey was far from over for Calhoun and the Huskies.
"After the game, Coach K [Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski] said to me, 'You're going to want another one,' " Calhoun told the Boston Globe.
Coach did bring another title to Storrs in 2004, but not before fighting his own personal battle off the court.
BEATING THE ODDS
In February 3rd of 2003, with the Huskies in the midst of a Big East title run, Coach revealed that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery and turned the team over to his assistants. When he returned to the sidelines on February 19, he guided UConn to a share of the Big East regular season title, another NCAA Tournament berth and an appearance in the Sweet 16.
Coach contemplated retirement as he battled with his health, but it wasn’t really a logical option for a man who had devoted his entire life to the game.
"What was he going to do?" his former assistant Howie told the New Haven Register. "After basketball he has his family, and it's not necessarily in that order. To tell you the truth, I think Pat wanted him out of the house. I wouldn't want to be around him either. And then there are only so many rounds of golf you can play. It's just not his style to sit around. There are certain things that happen in your life that make you think. I'm sure Jim did some re-evaluation. You appreciate things more. You think about things. But you still ride the horse that got you there. He doesn't want to get off."
"It always comes back to the game," Jim told the Boston Globe. "I never got into this for the money. I always believed that if you took care of business, business will take care of you. My whole goal was to just be happy coaching. I have a great family, two great sons who I talk to every day. My best friend for the past 39 years is my wife."
The following season was another magical year for Coach and the Huskies. Thirty-three wins and another Big East title played prelude to a second National Championship, coming in a 82-73 win over Georgia Tech in the NCAA title game.
"Jim is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese , who has been a friend for almost 40 years, dating to the days in the mid-1960s when Tranghese was the public address announcer at American International College basketball games and Calhoun was a prime-time player, told the Boston Globe. "He's always known what he is doing. Those people that don't know Jim see the hard edge. But there's more to him than that. What he has done at UConn is amazing. If you had been there when he first got there and saw that he then won not one, but two, national championships, you would say, 'No way.' "
By the time of the second title, Coach had already been accepted as one of the greatest college coaches of all-time, and even his peers gushed about him.
"Jim Calhoun has probably done the greatest building job in the history of college basketball," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told the Boston Globe. "It's not like Dean [Smith] at North Carolina, because Frank McGuire already had done it. It's not like Rick [Pitino] at Kentucky, because Adolph Rupp had already done it. What Jim's done is at a very different level. And he really has had the very best program of them all during the last five, or maybe even 10, years."
In September 2005, Coach's career path came full circle as he was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same place his coaching career started at AIC.
The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan put it best:
“Any man who can make Storrs, Conn., a destination has to be put in somebody's Hall of Fame.”
And it was fitting that Hall of Fame was located in the same place where it all began, in the heart of New England, where Coach learned, harnessed and shared his craft.
"To be back at a place that we couldn't even afford to get into, and this ceremony is the culmination of a very long journey," Pat Calhoun told the Globe.
But the journey is one that Coach wouldn’t dare change.
"In my heart and soul I'm a New England guy," Calhoun said. "This shows you don't have to bring in somebody from the outside in order to get the job done. [Connecticut uber-legend] Dee Rowe told me I'm the first born-and-bred New England coach to get into the Hall since [Rhode Island's] Frank Keaney."
Coach was also inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Coach overcame cancer twice more. He beat skin cancer in 2007, and had a cancerous mass removed from his neck in 2008. After undergoing radiation therapy, Jim Calhoun remains cancer-free.
Jim's health once again forced him to ponder moving on from the game -- but only briefly.
"If I walk away from coaching someday and people say, `He helped change a lot of young guys' lives and in the process he got them to compete and be successful,' then I'd be very happy," Jim told the Seattle Times in late 2008. "If the number [of wins] is 300 or 500 or 600, I don't think that's as important. I've lasted a long time because I've had a lot of good players.
“What matters most are the players and the people you associate with because they define you more than else. I'm happy to leave. But why leave? I'm having too much fun."
Two months later, Calhoun reached the 800-win plateau in a 93-82 Huskies victory over Marquette. The Hartford Coruant covered the historic moment:
“After UConn defeated Marquette, Calhoun called his wife Pat, who cried and said she had cake waiting for him back home in Pomfret. His son Jeff sat right behind the bench - a last-minute surprise after telling his dad all week that he couldn't make it. After the game, Calhoun said his father always told him he would be judged by the company he keeps. And then Calhoun, 66, went on to talk about the pride in being in the company of Bob Knight and Dean Smith.
"I would hope that no one ever takes this for granted because he walks proudly with the giants of the game," Rowe said.
Said Tolokan: "The best we thought we could ever do was be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team. How could Connecticut, which in 1985 was clearly a second division program - why would national power Syracuse back up and let us pass? Why would national power Georgetown back up and let us pass? Why would Villanova and Rollie Massimino, the 1985 national champs, back up? Why would St. John's back up? We not only caught those people, we passed those people. They still wanted to be good. Yet what has happened, has happened. Holy mackerel."
THE LEGEND CONTINUES
Jim Calhoun enters his 25th season as Connecticut coach this year and 39th season overall, aimed at continuing the winning tradition that UConn has become accustomed to.
As of October 2010, Calhoun has 823 career wins, seventh all-time among Division I coaches, and third on the active list. But with his health issues curbed, Jim shows no signs of slowing down.
"I still have the drive," he told the Boston Globe. "I've seen coaches in this league who have lost their push, and when that happens you should get out. But I still have the passion for the game and for working with the kids."
Jim and his wife Pat also participate in numerous charitable efforts throughout New England. The Jim Calhoun Cancer Ride raised more than $220,000 for charity again this year. For his charitable efforts, Jim received the Connecticut Bar Association Public Service Award.
Coach with his children and their families.
Off the court or on it, Jim Calhoun strives to make a difference in the lives of others. His New England upbringing taught him how to do so, and his mark on the region is undeniable.
His assistant coach and longtime friend George Blaney put it best:
"The legacy he will have is the ability to make people do things better than they think they can do them."