Game 096:(2) Connecticut 77, (15) Central Florida 71 NCAA Tournament, First Round (Syracuse Bracket) Friday, March 18, 2005 DCU Center - Worcester, MA
One popular view of college basketball holds that the players are just a rotating set of chess pieces, created and molded and positioned by mastermind coaches.
And that's a key difference between our beloved mid-major programs and the power-conference powers. Small schools form the minor leagues of coaching, and each year the best and brightest move up the ladder. Many do time and pay dues in leagues like the NEC and Big Sky, then move up to tougher leagues such as the Colonial or the Missouri Valley, then it's on to assistant positions with programs in the Big Easts and ACC's of the world. A select few will graduate to top jobs at the top schools, and even fewer will ascend to the realm of myth and fable.
The mainstream sports media creates and perpetuates the auras of these coaching legends. Many of us, in turn, treat these coaches' personalities as fonts of endless fascination. When Roy Williams or Coach K or Bobby Knight is in the house walking the sideline, discussion amongst the commentators and attending fans is usually focused on their every player substitution, facial expression, arm flail - the action on the floor is secondary.
Jim Calhoun has become one of these storied coaches, and he's earned every bit of the respect he's received. He rose through the ranks and paid his dues, spending 14 years at Northeastern, and he's made the Connecticut program so successful that hardly anyone can remember a time when they weren't any good. And until further notice, he is the coach of the defending national champion basketball team in Division I.
Watching Calhoun coach is the ultimate in instruction, so much so that media members should have to pay their way in to watch; television viewers should be charged pay-per-view tuition. When he enters the arena, he immediately takes control of its every corner. A few whispered suggestions to the officials during the opening minutes. A one-mistake-you're-out substitution policy constantly reminds his players who's the one holding the playing-time leash. He'll prowl up and down the line, examining the action on his floor, turning a keen eye on his troops to make sure they're paying the proper amount of enthusiastic attention.
When he barks loudly at his players, and he does often, it isn't the type of urgent and energetic plea that so many coaches display. His periodic outbursts are less about feral intensity than about eliciting, judging and managing reaction. His eruptions don't seem to come from deep inside, penetrating out through him - his facade is carefully and precisely managed, and none his actions on the sidelines appear as acts of desperation. Calhoun is all about cool-burning power.
One second, he'll be screaming in the face of a Husky player - the next, he'll withdraw, calmly observing their reaction, studying how they've handled the duress. And as his Huskies muddled their way to an uninspired first round win over Central Florida, Calhoun was doing as much inspection and evaluation of his own sideline as on-court strategizing.
Sixty feet away, UCF coach Kirk Sperow clapped, pumped his fists and screamed, attempting to will an upset from his overmatched crew. He acted just like most mid-major coaches do in tense Tournament situations. Down the stretch, as the Golden Knights' ultimately failed comeback attempt unraveled, his frustration and dismay were clearly evident.
But even as his charges saw a 19-point lead whittled to four and faced the spectre of a 15-over-2 embarrassment, Calhoun maintained a cool inner temperature. After graduations and defections from last year's title team, the core of his 2004-05 squad is a string of untested freshmen and emerging sophomores.
When asked how this game compared to others in UConn's string of 13 consecutive first-round wins, Calhoun said resignedly, "This one was OK at best." Then he scratched his cheek.
A repeat championship will require more luck than skill, but he's likely looking at the big picture. Performances by big sophomore Charlie Villanueva and wiry freshman Rudy Gay in the 2005 Tournament will serve as the building blocks for the inevitable title runs of 2006 and 2007 - if UConn had somehow found a way to fall on this day, it would have served as a long-term learning experience, one that would be twisted to forge the killer instinct that would led to key wins down the road sometime.
When faced with challenge or adversity or pressure, most of us will pull out hearts out of our chests, then affix them firmly to our sleeves. It's why a lot of us are fascinated with big-time college basketball coaches who slowly achieve power, then wield it with supreme accuracy and confidence. Calhoun, like all the great coaches, is equal parts showman, general and philosopher - that's why he's on the short list to make the Basketball Hall Of Fame this year, and that's why the honor will likely be bestowed on him before the month is out.