STORRS, Conn. — Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun hasn’t made any plans to retire just yet.
The 69-year-old Hall-of-Famer, a self-described gym rat, is back from a monthlong medical leave that had many questioning whether he would ever coach again.
“We started this thing, I started it, 26 years ago and I haven’t made any plans to do anything else except come back,” Calhoun said Friday. “A few other things along the way have gotten in my way.”
And so he was at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday, less than a week after having a disk fragment removed from his spine, leading the Huskies to a 74-65 win over Pittsburgh. And on Monday, he was leading practice and getting ready to head out to Madison Square Garden for Tuesday’s start to the Big East tournament, hoping to lead the Huskies on a run similar to the 11-game streak that brought them a third national title a year ago.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Jeez it will be great to have you there,’” Calhoun said Monday. “I said, actually, you’d be better off having (former UConn guard) Kemba (Walker) here. ”
What happens after this season is anyone’s guess, and pundits, friends, even former players and assistant coaches are doing just that.
“It’s like, ‘OK, Jim you’re 70 years old, what more do you want to prove?” said Digger Phelps, a former coach at Notre Dame, and now an analyst at ESPN. “He’s a survivor and he’s a survivor as a coach. He’s at the point now where he’s won three national titles. He knows what’s at stake. He’s gotta make that decision.”
Calhoun is a three-time cancer survivor, overcoming prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer twice, most recently in 2008. He has missed 29 games over his 40-year career because of various medical conditions and had to leave another 11 games for medical reasons.
Calhoun took his latest medical leave on Feb. 3 and missed eight games because of the effects of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine, normally associated with aging and sometimes with arthritis. It began affecting him over the summer, but reached the point where he could no longer coach after the team lost at Georgetown on Feb. 1.
“For the preceding days to the surgery, I literally couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I couldn’t walk. I had a cane, and the pain was a great deal.”
After trying physical therapy and other treatments, Calhoun underwent a two-hour surgery last Monday in New York. It involved removing a large disk fragment that had been pressing on a spinal nerve. The surgeons decompressed the area around the nerve.
“Yesterday, I walked a couple miles and probably did a little too much,” he said Monday. But more importantly, I’m trying to recapture my body a little bit again, because I feel I like I’ve kind of lost it. But, once we get around game time, I’ll be fine.”
Former Virginia coach Dave Leitao, who played for Calhoun at Northeastern and coached under him at UConn, said those who speculated those back problems meant Calhoun had coached his last game, just don’t understand the man.
Calhoun, Leitao pointed out, broke several ribs during a crash while participating in a charity bicycle event in 2009, and got up and rode several more miles to finish the event.
“He is by far the best competitor I’ve been around,” Leitao said. “It could be a Big East championship. It could be getting healthy. It could be a lot of things. He’s gonna compete and he’s going to win whatever challenge is in front of him, and he’s not going to allow a back in this case (to) dictate when he feels most comfortable stepping down.”
But Leitao said that is also the Catch 22 with Calhoun. There is always another challenge.
Calhoun has said that he did not retire after his third national title last year in large part because he wanted to see through NCAA sanctions that resulted from recruiting violations in his program. He was suspended for three games at the start of the Big East season, and didn’t want another coach to serve that penalty.
Now, the team faces a possible banishment from the 2013 NCAA tournament because of past academic problems. Retiring also would likely leave Calhoun in sixth place on the all-time wins list, where he is just five behind legend Adolph Rupp.
“So, the most perplexing thing for people that are close to him is, what is the scenario?” Leitao said. “Should he ride off into the sunset winning the national championship as they did last year and things are going very well, or do you want to see through things like the APR or NCAA sanctions or even having a bad year. Do you want to leave on that note?”
George Blaney, the longtime assistant who led UConn to a 3-5 record during Calhoun’s latest absence, said he knows his friend’s heart is still in the game.
“That’s why we’ve gotten along for 40 years. There is no way that I could get along with Jim Calhoun for 40 years and no way he could get along with me for 40 years except that we love to be in the gym,” he said. “It’s something that’s part of us. I know both of us want to keep coaching. Whether or not we can keep coaching is always up in the air.”
If Calhoun has decided what his future holds, he hasn’t made that decision public. But those who know him best all say they would be surprised if he walks away now.
“I can’t ever see coach leaving,” said Walker, now in the NBA with the Charlotte Bobcats. “He’s such a strong guy mentally. I think he’ll overcome everything he’s going through right now.”
Calhoun said he’s not returning for trophies or praise or “anything else.” What motivates him, he said, is “being around the kids and knowing what the game did for me and knowing what it is going to eventually do for a lot of these kids and watching their growth.”
“I got a chance to watch some of it from a distance,” he said. “I didn’t like that, obviously. It’s hard to do. So, I want to be back near them.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He didn’t have to come back,” UConn forward Jeremy Lamb said. “He still needs rest and stuff. But he decided to come back and be with us and give us all he’s got, so I think that meant a lot to the team.
“So, all we can do for him is play as hard as we can.”