I wrote a book with Jim Calhoun in the spring of 1999. The subject was the University of Connecticut’s up-from-nowhere rise to the NCAA men’s basketball championship, a feat that I -- a UConn graduate from the long ago, when big games at the dusty 4,500-seat Field House were against Maine and Vermont -- still consider the most unbelievable sports achievement I ever have seen. The title was “Dare To Dream.”
I never had written an “as told to” book before, but had a pretty good idea how the process worked. I bought myself a tape recorder and a dozen of those 90-minute cassettes, and proceeded to let the coach fill them up during a series of meetings at his office at Gampel Pavilion on the Storrs, Conn., campus. We talked about his life, his career, UConn, basketball, the grand season, a bunch of seasons, a bunch of other stuff.
The plan was to have the tapes transcribed by a professional. I hired a woman in Malden, a suburb of Boston, to do the job. She was a court reporter during the day. This was the perfect second job for her.
Until she tried it.
“I can’t do this,” the woman from Malden said the next day in tears. “I can’t understand him. I never have had this problem. I handle all kinds of accents in court, people who mumble …”
“He has a BOSTON accent,” I pointed out. “You hear that all the time.”
“I can’t do this,” the woman from Malden repeated, still in tears. “He talks too fast. The accent. All the names. All the teams. I can’t do this.”
She couldn’t do this.
I tried a company, a transcription service in Cambridge that handles term papers and doctoral theses and other important business at Harvard University. The printed transcript that was delivered at some ungodly rate had sentences that read something like “[Unintelligible] played [unintelligible] until [unintelligible] [unintelligible] [unintelligible]!” I transcribed the tapes myself.
Night after night, I locked the door, sat in a room with the words of Jim Calhoun. I think the usual rate of transcription is at least two-to-one, which would be three hours for every 90 minutes, but with him it had to be longer. Once I turned on the tape recorder, a rush of words came out of the machine, a gusher, a fire hydrant left unchecked. He sputtered more than simply talked. I pictured total congestion, a Times Square traffic jam of sentences and thoughts, ideas, observations, phrases and exclamations, f-bombs and platitudes, located somewhere between his mind and his mouth. All of them honked and jostled, fought with each other to get free, into the fresh air. They celebrated when they did.
Slowed down, sentences repeated until they made sense, the confusion disappeared. He was witty and wise. Smart. The jumpy, rapid-fire delivery that seemed out of place in courtside television interviews, the opposite of the slick, salesman-style coaching norm that dominates, became natural. The biographical story that it told was filled with wonder and happenstance, a random path to the top of his profession.
“‘What’s the best career path to follow to become a Division-I coach?’ is a question I get asked at clinics,” the voice of Jim Calhoun said. “‘I have no idea,’” is my reply.
Story: When he was 15 years old, his father died of a heart attack. The basketball coach at Braintree (Mass.) High School became a replacement father figure. Calhoun became the dutiful replacement son. He was a good, not great high school player. When he graduated, no long list of college recruiters at the door, he went to work to help support his mothers and two sisters and a brother still at home. He was a stonecutter.
Story: Basketball was a recreation, not a career path. At a tournament in Western Massachusetts, though, Calhoun had a very good night, scored 40 points. The coach of American International College was in attendance. He not only offered a scholarship, but a part-time job so Calhoun could still contribute to the family finances. Eighteen months after high school graduation, Calhoun was a college student.
Story: Four years at AIC. Married at the end. No job. What to do? He took graduate courses. Became an assistant coach. Liked it. Liked the whistle hanging from the shoelace around his neck. That AIC assistant job led to a high school job in Old Lyme, Conn., which led to another high school job in Westport, Mass., then a high school job in Dedham, Mass., outside Boston. Dedham was where he flourished. He built a program, not a team, had summer leagues, and middle school teams, a feeder system that was up and running. He was 27-1 by the end of the second season and could have been in Dedham for a long, long time, part of the community.
Story: So then the Northeastern University coach, Dick Dukeshire, came back from a yearlong sabbatical coaching the Greek national team and was sick, had a disease, couldn’t coach. The assistant coach, who had filled in for the sabbatical year, could not take the job again because he had been accepted for a position with the FBI, which had always been his dream. So this was already September -- September! -- and Northeastern, which, by the way, had just jumped from Division II to Division I basketball, offered the job to a bunch of possible candidates and was turned down everywhere, until someone, in the midst of the chaos, said, “There’s a guy at Dedham who went 29-1.”
Story: So Jim Calhoun, 29 years old, became the youngest Division I coach in the country. So everything went from there. He figured out what he had to figure out. He feuded, he fought, scuffled for attention. He won more than he lost. He won a lot more. When the University of Connecticut called after 14 years at Northeastern, he took a pay cut and went to a place where he didn’t know anybody, settled into an apartment filled with cockroaches, worked in an office that featured government retread furniture and a dial phone, jumped into a state-issued light blue Dodge, a company car with the seal of the state of Connecticut on the doors, and set about conquering the college basketball world.
“I want my kids to know they’re part of a family,” the voice on the tape said back in 1999, delivering the Jim Calhoun coaching philosophy. “I want them to know that I’m the one in charge of the family. OK, the father. I want them to know that I love them, but I don’t necessarily love what they do. This is an old-time family. I’m in charge of the clicker. Don’t be late for supper.”
So that was how it all worked.
I watched the press conference from Storrs on Thursday afternoon when Calhoun retired after 26 years at UConn. He is 70 years old. How did that happen? He has survived three bouts with different kinds of cancers. He has fallen off his bicycle and hurt himself two different times. This last hurt, followed by the hip surgery, was enough to make him leave.
A lot more has taken place since the “Dare To Dream” book. He leaves with three NCAA championships, four appearances in Final Fours. He coached 1,253 Division I games, second only to Bobby Knight. He had 873 wins, sixth all-time among coaches. He was controversial at the end, NCAA sanctions already in place for his successor, Kevin Ollie, but that was not his legacy. Far from it.
“When I came here, the first press conference, the way I talked, someone said, ‘How is anyone going to understand him?’” Calhoun said in that familiar rush of words, the accent banging around in the middle. “Someone else said, ‘Have you ever seen him coach? They’ll understand him just fine.’”
His legacy is that he got everyone to listen, got everyone to understand. Yes, he did.