When I took over a downtrodden St. John's program in 1996, I wanted to compete with the top programs in the Big East as quickly as possible. So, the best model I could think of copying was Jim Calhoun's Connecticut Huskies program because they were the "bully on the block" and I admired their toughness.
But I didn't exactly endear myself to the veteran coach when, during my second season, I said that I liked UConn -- and that it played with the arrogance of its coach. While meant to be a compliment -- backhanded, maybe -- Calhoun was not happy and let me know about it. But it was my way of saying, "We want to be like you."
Jim Calhoun may be the most competitive coach in college basketball history. It's a bold statement, but I believe it. No matter how many Big East championships or national championships he won, he always treated the next game on his schedule, whether against Dartmouth or Georgetown, as the most important of his career. He coached with the fear of failure of a guy who would go back to cutting gravel or digging graves in his hometown of Braintree, Mass., if he didn't win.
I remember watching "SportsCenter" one night when UConn highlights came on. In their game against Northeastern, Calhoun's old school, Northeastern scored on a tip play four seconds into the game. Calhoun jumped off the bench, called timeout and lambasted his team. It was the earliest timeout I've ever seen called in a game. The game ended in a 50-point blowout.
Jim Calhoun didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve; he wore them on every article of clothing on his body.
In recent years, I marveled at Calhoun from my ESPN broadcast position across the court from his bench. With each championship and with each injury or illness, I wondered why he kept coaching. He has a great family, with plenty of children and grandchildren to keep him busy.
The answer was obvious. His competitive streak couldn't tear him away from what he built at UConn. And, believe me, he built a basketball program for the ages through sheer force of will. Storrs, Conn., with apologies, was no basketball hub when he arrived in 1986.
In fact, I was at Madison Square Garden the night the Huskies won the NIT in 1988. Huskies fans poured down to New York City from all over the Nutmeg State to celebrate Calhoun's first championship at UConn. The arena was delirious and I had a good seat -- I was on the other bench as an assistant coach at Ohio State. You could say I was at the creation of Calhoun's UConn dynasty.
Jim Calhoun will have his admirers and his detractors even as he ends his Hall of Fame coaching career. Some will say he, at times, bent the rules, and will decry his graduation records. His fans will marvel at the consistent winning of Huskies basketball in the past quarter-century and the pride he brought to his adopted state.
Although I didn't always agree with him, I admire Jim Calhoun. He got the most out of his players and he got the most out of himself. I have no doubt he could have been a good grave digger, but he was a heck of a coach.