Jeff Jacobs: Calhoun sees ‘rejuvenation’ as UConn returns to the Big East

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Jim Calhoun, a man of many words spoken at the speed of sound, settled on one to describe UConn’s official July 1 re-entry into the Big East Conference.

“Rejuvenation,” Calhoun said.

Say it. Book it. Brand it.

Basketball, the crown jewel of UConn athletics, is safe.

“This is obviously great for the school,” Calhoun said. “It is going to bring enthusiasm. That’s why tickets sales are way up (2,000). You don’t have Pittsburgh or BC anymore. You obviously don’t have Syracuse. But you have a lot of old rivals, particularly Villanova. And now you have schools like Butler and Creighton, who has a terrific offensive coach (Greg McDermott). Overall, it’s a much, much better league for us, because we need to have something at this time point in time beyond just the W’s and L’s.”

Which leads us to Interesting Calhoun Point 1.

“I think the (James) Bouknight kid is going to be important to us, because we need a great player,” Calhoun said. “I mean that. Early in the comeback that Danny Hurley is involved with, you need the team, of course, but you also maybe need a guy that everyone wants to see play.

“I’ve seen the point guard from Howard (transfer R.J. Cole), too, heard some great things, was out to practice six, seven times. He can play. Not a great shooter, but if they can get enough shooting — I can’t talk nationally right now — but they’d be one the of three, four best teams in the Big East. If you’re one of the three, four best teams right now, you’re going to the NCAA Tournament.”

Only Jim Boeheim has won more Big East games than Calhoun. No one matches Calhoun’s three national championships. Although head coach at Division III St. Joseph now, and his contract as a special assistant at UConn has expired, he still employs the words “we” often. Calhoun is as much the state of Connecticut as great pizza, Geno Auriemma and traffic jams. He also speaks in a stream of consciousness and we’re going to let him roll. So buckle up.

“I like what Danny’s doing,” Calhoun said. “I like their approach. I like their work ethic. I think this move is just what we need. We’ve got to get some excitement. People say to me, ‘Don’t go back in time. Don’t do it.’ Oh, I’m going to do it. I remember getting to games at noon on Saturday at the old Civic Center and getting ready for a 1 o’clock game. It was magical. You could feel it.”

This leads to Interesting Calhoun Point 2.

“Gampel is Gampel,” he said. “Gampel will take care of itself because of the students, who are incredible. But I believe, no question, that getting back into the Big East can be great for the XL Center. Fix that old place up, fill it, I still remember us jumping out 18-0 to beat Georgetown (in front of a 16,294 sellout crowd in 1990). It was big-time. That electricity even in the shootaround. That’s not fake news. The fans knew every coach in the league. I bet you half the fans didn’t (in the American Athletic Conference).

“Football is going to be tough. The football program doesn’t have a home per se. Everybody tells me we’re going to make so much money. It’s not about money. If we were 10-2, football people would still come to the games.”

This leads to Interesting Calhoun Point 3.

Big East football was a BCS conference. It appeared to be set with the pot of college football gold. Calhoun does not criticize the administration for deciding to move up to FBS football in the ’90s. Who knew what would happen a decade later?

“Louisville,” Calhoun said. “That’s who the AAC chose (at the end of conference realignment that UConn lost out on). Louisville’s football certainly helped them. In all our aspirations, and all the money we spent in athletics in a good way, without football I don’t know how else you go.

“You can give the examples of Villanova and some others if you want, but there’s not a lot of that happening now. I think it was the right thing going forward. A couple times the last five, six years, I think we all had some doubts if (football) was a good idea. I wasn’t in the position to make that call and if I was it would have been an incredibly difficult conversation to drop major college football. Going back, the university wasn’t what it is today, and a lot had to do with the exposure from sports, men’s and women’s basketball.”

The financial losses and the subsidy from the school has grown to over $40 million annually — led by a $13 million loss by football — and that led to men’s track, tennis and swimming, along with women’s rowing, being cut.

This leads us to Interesting Calhoun Point Number 4.

“This time around, they made a decision to keep going with football,” Calhoun said. “That’s fine. I go to most games. I’m a football fan. But the lack of a league, in my opinion, can’t be very good for football. League championships, for us, was a big, big deal. Ray Allen at the Garden. I feel bad football is in that position. That’s the thing you can’t convince me, that we’re in a good place (as an independent). I don’t believe that.

“People aren’t saying enough of what they really should be saying: That we’ve got a (crap)load of work to do to get the football program back. Not just exist, and I’m not talking 11-1 either. I look at their games. I’m a realist. I think it’s going to be tough for them.”

It’s fond memories to recall dominant Big East basketball of the 1980s. It’s cool to consider the power of the Big East as late as 2011, when a record 11 teams made the NCAA. UConn isn’t returning to the same Big East that separated in 2013, but the Catholic 7 added Creighton, Xavier and Butler (the only non-Catholic school), and the league turned out better than I thought it would. The Big East was ranked No. 1 in RPI and Net Rankings, while KenPom had it third when the season was canceled by COVID-19. The AAC was seventh. In the previous four seasons, the Big East was fifth, second, third and fourth in RPI.

“We weren’t like the ’04 team, which had the most talent we had, but the 2011 team was coming on and Kemba Walker developed into the best player in the country,” Calhoun said. “Some of the Big East games we had that year, holy crap. Anytime a 9-9 league team can win a national championship, it doesn’t say as much about the team as how tough the league was.”

“The schools put so much of their resources and attention to basketball,” Calhoun said. “I don’t think that has changed as much as UConn. Has it lost a little? I don’t know. They have five, six programs, look at Seton Hall, (Myles Powell), one of the best players in the nation. I’ve gotten very friendly with Patrick Ewing. I think he’s doing a terrific job at Georgetown. It’s a hard job. We’ve talked about coaching in this day and age.

“The Providence-UConn series is a very, very good one. You get those teams, 2-3 in the league, fighting it out for a championship, that’s great stuff. I’d like to see St. John’s come back. This is neighborhood talk. Neighborhood is a big deal. Football included. Nothing against Central Florida, but it’s a long, long way. Houston has a good team. Kelvin Sampson has done a great job. But they come in — c’mon, it’s not the same.”

Andre Jackson from Albany, N.Y.; Adama Sanogo from The Patrick School in North Jersey — Hurley, as planned, is scoring big recruiting in Big East country.

“Once we got going, we were able to recruit nationally, because everybody wanted to play in the Big East at that time,” Calhoun said. “It was the hottest league. I watch old tape, All-American players everywhere. Six of nine coaches in the Hall of Fame. There was animosity in a good way. We didn’t punch each other. Walking into the building, it was, ‘Let’s get this on,’ right? I think that was lost at UConn.

“I tell people the best thing I did my first year in Connecticut (1986) was go out and speak at 60 events around the state, Chamber of Commerce, everywhere. People loved the Big East. We wanted them to love us in the Big East.”

Now they do again.

Rejuvenation.; @jeffjacobs123