Beyond the Boxscore
Jim Calhoun dubs the other Final Four coaches "My Three Sons": UConn goes ClintEastwood at Final Four
The first few days of Final Four weekend have been more buttoned down than some of those old George W. Bush press briefings. Everyone's a little nervous on the big stage â€” and there's no grander stage than Reliant Stadium, with all those seats â€” and no wants to say the wrong thing.
Or anything that could be used as bulletin-board material (after all, everyone knows that VCU coach Shaka Smart has his motivating projector at the ready, primed to play the slightest diss in an endless loop).
But a funny thing's happened on the way to Saturday night's semifinals. UConn coach Jim Calhoun has decided he doesn't give a damn.
The 68-year-old Calhoun, who's heard all week how the combined ages of the coaches in the first semifinal (Butler's 34-year-old Brad Stevens and VCU's 33-year-old Smart) does not add up to his, is letting loose in Houston. It's Mr. Gruff at the mic and everyone else had better duck for cover.
Calhoun was at his best Thursday night in the NCAA Salute at the Wortham Theater Center, almost stealing the show on a night when the Butler met a president and all-time NBA great Elvin Hayes was moved to tears. For when host Jim Nantz brought the four coaches together in a semicircle of chairs at the center of the stage â€” with each coach being painstakingly careful not to sit next to the coach he'll be going against on Saturday â€” Calhoun came ready.
He asked the audience if they knew Fred MacMurray â€” the dad from the My Three Sons 1960s TV show â€” and when some murmured recognition, Calhoun threw his arms out toward the other three coaches and beamed, "My Three Sons!"
Calhoun called Shaka "the brilliant youngest son," Stevens "the perfect middle child" and Calipari "the problematic oldest child."
If Calipari â€” who clearly considers himself Calhoun's peer and equal, if not better â€” has a problem with this? Well, let Cal deal. Calhoun doesn't care. He got the laugh. He clearly seems to be the most comfortable on this supersized stage.
"I did tell him that I know Fred MacMurray and you're no Fred MacMurray," Calipari says.
If Calipari really did say that to Calhoun, he did it off stage though. Calhoun's the one who grabbed the moment in front of the crowd. Only the grandpa is flexing the guts to go off script, to throw in a little backhanded tweak here and there. It's like watching Clint Eastwood or Michael Caine in one those movies about a geezer vigilante who knows he has nothing to lose.
"Jim's enjoying this run more than I've ever seen him enjoy another run," says George Blaney, the longtime assistant who goes all the way back to Calhoun's Northeastern coaching days. "He's not as stressed. He's just into the moment."
How much so? Calhoun barely gets peeved when an inexperienced TV reporter tries to block his golf cart from moving forward in a Reliant Stadium tunnel Friday afternoon, in an attempt to get an interview after Calhoun has just finished all his press obligations for the day.
He even chuckles a little.
"He was funny last night (at the Salute)," CBS voice Jim Nantz says of Calhoun, a coach he knows well enough to go golfing with. "I think he's really embraced the moment. That's something that all of us struggle with in our lives.
"We're usually all in such a hurry."
Who's This Man?
Forgive the UConn players if they're not so quick to jump onto the notion that this is a mellower, gentler coach. Who you talking about again? The guy screaming into their ear?
"In one word, it's tough," Huskies freshman point guard Shabazz Napier says of playing for Calhoun. "It's very tough. He's going to get on you and not let up."
Freshman forward Jeremy Lamb â€” whose late-season emergence is a big reason why the Huskies have a chance to win the national title â€” believes that one of the reasons it took him a while to start playing to his potential is because he had to get used to his coach's yelling. Of course, Calhoun would probably tell you that Lamb is improving precisely because of his kick-in-the-butt motivation.
"It took me a long time to adjust," Lamb says. "Sometimes when he yells, he's just trying to get the best out of you. It took me a while to really believe that."
Calhoun is from another era and he's good with that. Let Shaka Smart blare his players' music in his car and dive on loose balls in practice. Calhoun is happy that his references tend more toward a Fred MacMurray. It's become a point of pride rather than embarrassment.
He already has two national championship rings and can become only the fifth coach in college basketball history to win three or more national championships in this Houston Final Four. His second title came in San Antonio. He may be a hardboiled New Englander, but he's loving this Texas thing.
"He tells us that Texas is very good to UConn," Calhoun's star Kemba Walker laughs.
One Last Jab
Calhoun might even trade some "real" clam chowder for a meal at Goode Company Barbecue if the Lone Star State is good enough to grant him a win that would crush his longtime rival, Kentucky coach John Calipari. This is the third school that Calipari's taken to the Final Four, but he's never won a title.
And Cal's loss with Memphis in the 2008 national championship game when he had future NBA MVP Derrick Rose was one of the great choke jobs of all time, college basketball's version of Greg Norman at the 1986 Masters.
Calipari needs a title much more than Calhoun does. But he has to go through the needler who's hated him from the moment he strolled onto UMass' campus with his slick suits and slicker hair. It's UConn-Kentucky in the second semifinal. Even if it feels like Calhoun-Calipari.
"John really was trying to claim New England, but he could never say he parked the car in Harvard yard," Calhoun says in recalling their early rivalry at schools 50 miles apart. "He didn't know what clam chowder really was. He had the red stuff, not the real clam chowder. I took umbrage to it, but I take umbrage to a lot of things."
Calhoun laughs. He knows he's done the coaching job of his life with this dismissed UConn team. Why should he care what you think?
Later, he adds that he has "no disdain for (Calipari) as a person." Who says that about someone they like? Who says that period on this stage?
Maybe, Clint Eastwood. Right before he's going to break your hand.