Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Calhoun proves he can win it all

UConn coach now not seen as a 'failure'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — He began the project in November. Play 'em one at a time? Oh, sure. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun would tell that to his players and tell that to the media, all the while compiling notes on how to beat teams he wasn't even scheduled to play.

        He made notes on Cincinnati, on Michigan State, on Auburn. Duke, of course, got every bit of attention the Huskies could afford. Calhoun would watch a game, see something of interest, sketch it on a blue index card and file it away.

        Calhoun knew he'd be in the NCAA Tournament. He knew he'd be expected to win quite a few games. He knew the Huskies would have an opportunity to win the championship, and he wanted to be completely prepared to prepare them for their finest effort.

        “We started preparing ourselves,” Calhoun said, “if we had a chance to meet one of these teams down the line.”

        Next time a coach tells you the pressure does not affect him, remember this story. Remember that UConn spent an entire season preparing for six games over the space of three weekends, the last of which resulted in a 77-74 victory over Duke at Tropicana Field in the NCAA title game Monday and removed for good the notion that Calhoun was not equipped to win “the big one.”

        “I'm no better a coach than I was three weeks ago, or no worse. That's what it means to me,” Calhoun said. Still U-conning his public.

        “You thought I was kidding before. Everybody thought I had to do something. I didn't have to do anything. All I had to do was be true to my kids and coach the best I could, and that's what I've done.”

        Calhoun orchestrated an amazing game plan, trusting that his defenders would move quickly and authoritatively enough to negate national player of the year Elton Brand with double-teams. Brand had domi nated inside against Temple and Michigan State, but UConn would not allow him to put the ball on the floor and back down his man and, because of the authority of the traps, caused a degree of discomfort he had not experienced all season.

        By the end, Brand looked for escape, not the goal, when the ball came his direction. Duke's superb perimeter scorers were not effective with the ball coming inside-out. Guard Trajan Langdon got many of his 25 points in transition or by coming off screens.

        “It's obvious they wanted to take that away,” Krzyzewski said of Brand. “It really should have opened up a little bit more for us. I don't know if we made good reads on that. But, you know, we had enough — there were enough points out there to win.”

        If you want to know how rough the college coaching business can get, attention is now being paid to Krzyzewski's four title-game losses as though that is a burden. He won in 1991 and 1992 and has reached eight Final Fours.

        “Anybody expects me to be down about this game, they don't understand me,” Krzyzewski said. “I have a hard time being sad. I'm sorry. I don't coach for winning. I coach for relationships. I've got the best.”

        Perhaps more than any other sport, college basketball places its coaches in a structure that offers clear definitions of success and failure and that always seems to hold out one more goal that is beyond reach.

        If that were the whole of it, perhaps the process would be completely fair. But it's not. After a time, a coach is judged not for what he does, but for what he doesn't.

        Calhoun won 16 NCAA Tournament games and lost seven at Connecticut entering this season's event. That was more victories than all but seven teams in Division I. The Huskies reached the regional championship game three times, but did not advance to the Final Four.

        And so this came to be how he was defined as a coach: No Final Fours. The common suggestion was Calhoun tightened under pressure and his players sensed it.

        “I think it's unfortunate that three weeks in March defines whether you can coach or not,” Calhoun said. “When I told you I didn't need to get to a Final Four — as badly as I wanted to, like anyone who would want to win the highest honor in their profession — I still think that I could coach basketball.

        “You didn't believe me, and I'm just telling the truth. That's how I feel.”


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