STORRS, Conn. — As Jim Calhoun stood in his office at Gampel Pavilion, waiting for his final news conference as Connecticut’s basketball coach, Pat Calhoun turned to her husband and gave him one final piece of advice.
“Don’t change your mind,” she said.
Calhoun had stayed on at UConn through cancer and a recruiting scandal. He refused to retire after winning a third national championship in 2011 because he didn’t want a new coach to serve his NCAA suspension. He came back again to finish last season after another absence, this one for spinal surgery.
But on Thursday he finally retired — on his own terms, with a hand-picked successor and no apologies.
“I never, ever, ever said that I was mistake free,” Calhoun said. “But I was always trying to do the right thing. It didn’t always work that way, but I was always trying to do the right thing.”
The 70-year-old Hall of Famer, on crutches after breaking a hip last month, made the announcement on the court in Storrs where he racked up many of his 873 total wins.
He thanked everyone associated with the Huskies program — administrators, players, fans and his family — for his team’s success, and played down both his health problems and troubles with the NCAA.
“There have been some bumps in the road,” he said. “But we are headed in the right direction.”
Calhoun will take a transition appointment through next spring as a special assistant to athletic director Warde Manuel. When fully retired, he will become head coach emeritus.
Calhoun has been slowed repeatedly by illness and accidents in recent years, including the fractured hip. He said the injury didn’t cause him to retire, but gave him time to reflect on whether this would be a good time to leave.
“As I looked at everything. So many things are in place for us to even go farther that we have already,” he said. “So I thought it was an excellent time.”
With just a month to go before the start of practice, there also was no time for a national search for a replacement. Assistant coach Kevin Ollie, who played point guard for Calhoun from 1991-95, but has never been a head coach at any level, will be the Huskies’ new coach.
Athletic director Warde Manual, who had balked at Calhoun’s suggestions earlier this year to name Ollie as a coach in waiting, decided not to tag him with an “acting coach” label. He instead offered Ollie a contract that runs only through next April 4, with a pro-rated value of $384,615.
“I haven’t seen him coach,” Manuel said. “He’s never been a head coach. This is a commitment to him to see what he is like as a head coach.”
Ollie, who played his way from the USBL to a 13-year NBA career, said he’s not afraid of the challenge.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “My first six years in the NBA, I didn’t have no guaranteed contract. This is easy. This is exactly where I want to be at.”
Ollie takes over a team that returns only five players who saw significant playing time a year ago and failed to qualify academically for the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Guard Ryan Boatright said the team didn’t want to play for anyone other than Ollie, and will take it upon themselves to make sure his new coach gets to keep the job.
“He’s a great person, and he loves us,” Boatright said. “I wouldn’t rather have nobody else than KO.”
Ollie is one of more than two dozen players whom Calhoun sent to the NBA, a list includes everyone from Reggie Lewis at Northeastern, to Cliff Robinson, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Ray Allen and Kemba Walker.
Walker, who attended the news conference, said that will be a big part of Calhoun’s legacy.
“He’s showed us how to work,” Walker said. “He’s pushed me to be the best player and person I could be. He’s one of the most special men in my life.”
Calhoun also will be remembered for turning a regional program into a national power — winning an NIT championship in 1988, national titles in 1999, 2004 and 2001, 10 Big East regular-season championships and seven Big East Tournament titles.
“The thing that stands out to me is it’s one thing to take over a Duke or a Kentucky and build it and win games and win championships,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who went into the Hall of Fame with Calhoun in 2005. “But 26 years ago Connecticut wasn’t even thought of in the college basketball world. He’s turned them into one of the top programs in the country. I think it’s really, to me, the greatest building job that anybody’s ever done.”
Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell, who played for Calhoun from 1987 to 1991 said his influence goes beyond the basketball program. Calhoun, he said, made people aware that there was a University of Connecticut.
“When I went here, the number-one question we got, everywhere, was: Where is UConn? Isn’t that in Alaska?” he said. “Nobody asks that anymore.”