Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Post-Jim Calhoun Era

By now you surely know that Jim Calhoun has retired as head basketball coach at UConn. Kevin Ollie, who played for UConn from 1991 through 1995 is taking over... for now.

The fact this news came within 24 hours of Notre Dame announcing their exit from the Big East and their move to the ACC is a coincidence, but the news relates. That the small Catholic basketball-focused schools in the Big East are in a precarious situation is not new, but the loss of Notre Dame is a huge blow to them. UConn is now facing this new era by transitioning from one of college basketball's all-time legends to complete uncertainty.

First, let me say that Jim Calhoun is probably, in a sense, an underrated coach. There's a myth that coaches like Calhoun, John Calipari and Rick Barnes just recruit superstars and roll the ball out of the floor saying "Go play basketball, boys". But recruits are not enough to win championships, and while Calhoun's offensive strategy was - well, it basically consisted of throwing the ball off the rim and getting scores off offensive rebounds - his teams always played good defense and were always tough-minded. Calhoun was an excellent motivator, and his kids played hard for him.

That said, I don't buy these white-washed "Calhoun is leaving on his own terms" stories. I respect Andy Katz's work, and don't mean to pick on him, but come on. Maybe if he'd left after that insane, magical 2011 National Title that would have been leaving on top, but he didn't. The team has had a serious of off-the-court issues. UConn is already under probation, scholarship restrictions and recruiting restrictions, and now are set to be banned from the 2013 NCAA Tournament. And Calhoun has had a series of health problems. He missed several games in 2012 and in 2010, as well as others in earlier seasons. And now with a broken hip it would have been almost impossible for him to be much more than a coach-in-name-only this season.

Whatever the opposite of "leaving on his own terms" is, that's pretty much what Calhoun is doing.

And the future is precarious for all of the Big East Catholic schools (Villanova, Providence, Georgetown, St. John's, Seton Hall, Marquette, DePaul and UConn). All of those schools are the types of smaller private schools that don't have huge armies of alumni and donors that can pack huge arenas. Providence is the only of those eight schools with an arena larger than 10,200 seats on campus (and theirs is only 12,400). Most of those schools, including UConn, have to head to off-campus professional sports arenas for their big games. Those arenas are harder for students to get to, and lack the ambiance of arenas built for college athletics. UConn fans need to travel about a half hour from campus to the XL Center.

With the Big East football powers fleeing for other conferences, money is a huge concern for the conference. It's not inconceivable that these Catholic schools end up in a few years in a conference with some Atlantic Ten teams, and perhaps schools like Butler or Memphis (Memphis is joining the Big East already, but they'd be the most logical non-Catholic Big East school to tag along if the conference breaks up).

The arguments for Kevin Ollie are, I have to say, underwhelming. Two years as an assistant under Calhoun do not a wonderful set of experience make - he's extraordinarily green for a major conference head coach. And the fact that he's been given a one year contract for $625,000 is proof enough that UConn doesn't have a lot of faith in him either. It looks as if the school will be looking for a new coach to come on for next season.

UConn has a lot working against them right now. The conference uncertainty, the relatively small school and difficult arena situation, and all of the off-court problems that tail them just do not make it a very desirable location for a coach or recruits. Even if they dump Kevin Ollie, they're still going to need to take a chance on somebody. They will not be able to draw a very successful mid-major head coach. So the future is extremely uncertain, and I'd be very nervous about the future if I was a UConn fan.


JohnF said...

Everything you wrote is true, except the University of Connecticut is not a Catholic school. It is a public university.

Jeff said...

Yes, that was a silly goof. They always do get grouped with the Catholic schools... sorry about that one.