It’s been close to two months since First Night and, with that, two months since I “officially” started on the UConn men’s basketball beat. It’s been a learning experience so far, but the main thing I’ve garnered to this point has been an appreciation of coach Jim Calhoun. Let me explain.
I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Calhoun’s coaching abilities from afar. To take a school out in the sticks of Storrs, Conn. and turn it into one of the elite basketball programs in the country is as good a coaching job as anyone in the sport (Bob Knight, Coach K, Jim Boeheim, etc.) has done.
I remember when I went out to introduce myself to Calhoun at a golf tournament at Norwich C.C. back in August. I told him I was from Rhode Island, we talked a little about Providence College basketball, and I mentioned to him how tough a job coach Tim Welsh has at Providence: small school with limited practice and weight-room facilities and no on-campus arena, not near a significant African-American population, trying to compete in the best conference in America. As I was saying this, I realized: with the exception of the small school part, this is precisely what Calhoun encountered when he arrived at UConn 22 years ago.
But having witnessed Calhoun up close, I’ve developed an appreciation for the man’s no-nonsense approach. He tells it like it is, or at least how he sees it. O.K., sometimes he gets his facts a little wrong – check that, he almost always
gets his facts a little wrong (when he says someone’s right hamstring is sore, you can bet it’s his left; when he says someone is ranked 96th in the country in blocked shots, it’s actually 26th).
But the coach doesn’t mince words. He’s not afraid to publicly castigate anyone – his players, the officials, sometimes even opposing coaches. Thursday night was a classic example.
First, Calhoun tore into his own team. He criticized one unnamed player (it was obviously Stanley Robinson) for killing the team defensively by not working to get through screens. He criticized his entire team, giving them an ‘F’ for their offensive play, and gave his players a backhanded “diss” when he said of Northeastern’s Matt Janning, “It’s nice to see a guy who really knows how to play.”
Then it was on to the officials, specifically Wally Rutecki, who ejected Calhoun from the game after assessing him his second technical foul.
“He’s not very good,” the coach said of Rutecki. “The other two guys actually weren’t bad, but that official was a bad official … He’s not advancing to the NCAA Tournament (as a ref). If he’s practicing to do that, he’s wasting his time right now.”
Now, I’m not exactly sure if it’s the best thing to be criticizing amateur athletes. Sure, these kids are high-profile, and they’re getting free rides to college. But so are members of the UConn field hockey and gymnastics teams. These are still kids, after all.
Nor is it a good idea to be publicly ridiculing referees. Calhoun found that out on Friday when the Big East publicly reprimanded him for his comments. The next time Calhoun castigates officials, the Register has learned, he'll be hit with a one-game suspension.
I’m also not sold on the idea of yanking a player from the floor after he makes one mistake. Seems it would be tough to play with one eye constantly looking over your shoulder, knowing that one bad pass, one missed rebound and you’re back on the bench.
But then, who am I to criticize the coaching techniques of Jim Calhoun? The man has won two national championships largely employing the same style. Obviously, it works.
I will say this: after covering the Boston Red Sox from 2004-06, it’s refreshing to hear Calhoun’s blunt honesty when discussing his players, the refs, etc. Compared to Red Sox manager Terry Francona, Calhoun is a godsend.
Francona never criticized his players publicly. No matter how egregious an error or mishap a Sox player may have committed, Francona would always come to his defense. Always.
It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t the multi-millionaire players be able to handle a little public criticism from their manager when it’s deserved? And shouldn’t the amateur college athletes perhaps get a little slack?
Either way, I’d take Calhoun over Francona any day of the week. Francona also had a nasty habit of being extremely condescending towards the media. Any question, no matter how innocuous, could be twisted and turned by Francona and thrown back into the reporter’s face as an obvious attempt to rattle the cage.
Worse, Francona doesn’t treat media members equally. If he sees you on TV or hears you on the radio, he’ll give you a respectful answer to a question. That same question is often treated with derision if asked by someone from a smaller media outlet.
Jim Calhoun treats everyone essentially the same. He’ll answer virtually any question. He tells it like he sees it, and you’ve got to appreciate that. I certainly do.