Men's Basketball

Unrivaled: Calhoun left mark on years of battles between Syracuse and Connecticut

Courtesy of Connecticut Athletic Communications

Jim Calhoun guided Connecticut to three national championships and four Final Fours during his 26-year tenure in Storrs. He retired last Thursday with 873 career wins during his 40-year career. The head coach spent 14 years at Northeastern before arriving at UConn in 1986.

Connecticut and Syracuse were on opposite ends of the college-basketball universe 26 years ago.

Connecticut was nothing more than a perennial doormat in the Big East. First-year head coach Jim Calhoun’s program hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in seven years. The team’s home court — Hugh S. Greer Field House — was sometimes littered with buckets to capture water from a faulty roof.

Meanwhile, SU head coach Jim Boeheim and his team were regulars on ESPN’s Big Monday as the conference rose to national prominence. The Orangemen had won 20 games in four-straight seasons and emerged as a powerhouse in the league, along with Georgetown. Its arena — the Carrier Dome — was among the most unique and impressive facilities in the nation.

Despite the daunting gap, Calhoun was determined to match Boeheim’s success.

“He just had such a respect level for the consistent level of achievement that Coach Boeheim’s been able to establish there,” said Tom Moore, who served as an assistant coach under Calhoun from 1994-2007. “It’s really staggering when you think of the consistency of it, and that’s the thing that Coach wanted people to say about his 26 years at UConn.”

Twenty-six years later, Calhoun accomplished his goal, building the Huskies into one of the elite programs in the nation. The legendary head coach retired last Thursday, ending his 40-year college career that began at Northeastern in 1972 and ended with 873 career victories. Calhoun took over at Connecticut in 1986 and led the program to three national championships and four Final Fours.

His retirement also marks the end of a chapter in what became a fierce rivalry between Connecticut and Syracuse during his two-plus decades in Storrs. The Huskies won 10 Big East regular-season titles and seven conference tournament titles under Calhoun, while SU has claimed 10 regular-season championships and five conference titles during Boeheim’s 36-year run.

Stephen Thompson arrived at Syracuse in 1986, well versed in Big East history. The freshman guard from Los Angeles could easily list off the league’s famous coaches.

There was Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s and John Thompson at Georgetown. P.J. Carlesimo prowled the sidelines for Seton Hall, Rick Pitino was at Providence and Rollie Massimino was at the helm for Villanova.

“Those were kind of household names as I was in high school entering the Big East,” Thompson said. “But then, you know, here this guy comes and, in a short period of time, he became a household name himself.”

Calhoun endured a rough first season, going 9-19, but the program quickly turned it around from there. The Huskies won the National Invitation Tournament in his second season.

By 1989-90, UConn was already a Top-10 team competing on Syracuse’s level. The No. 8 Huskies beat the No. 4 Orangemen 78-75 in the 1990 Big East tournament championship at Madison Square Garden for its first league title.

In just four years, a rivalry between the programs was born.

“His teams really started developing,” Thompson said. “It started to become a war with them, especially by my senior year. This was a fierce contest, a fierce battle.”

It’s a battle Moore said became special to Calhoun.

While Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s and Pittsburgh all served as challenging opponents over the years, Syracuse remained the standard for Calhoun. It could be one or two weeks before the Huskies played the Orange, but Moore said the head coach would slip in pointed references to preparing to play Syracuse.

Take that shot in front of 30,000 people up at the Carrier Dome and “we’re in a lot of trouble,” Moore recalled Calhoun saying to his players at practices. Go that softly into the middle of Syracuse’s zone and “we’re screwed.”

“I think when we played other teams, our practices and our preparation were more about us,” Moore said. “I think in the days leading up to Syracuse, you could sense it was more about Syracuse.”

For Moore, UConn’s matchup with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in 1998 remains a vivid memory.

Connecticut’s starting power forward Kevin Freeman was ruled out with a wrist injury he suffered against St. John’s that Monday, and backup Antric Klaiber was suspended after being arrested for a DUI the previous week.

The players came to practice that Wednesday with doubts about their chances on Saturday. Moore said even the coaches showed concern. But Calhoun walked out onto the floor at Gampel Pavilion, looked each player in the eye and spoke with great conviction as he told them they would win with 6-foot-5-inch forward Rashamel Jones filling in on the frontline.

“We did, we ended up going up there and winning and I told people, ‘We won that game on Wednesday from 3 o’clock to 3:05 when he walked out there because those guys were like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Moore said of UConn’s 63-54 victory over SU on Jan. 24, 1998.

“And just the manner in which he said it, the manner in which he sold it to those guys, he got the team to believe we could do it.”

A decade later, Calhoun’s intensity was still on display for his players.

Former UConn forward Gavin Edwards said Calhoun pushed and hounded him throughout his career. He pulled him from games without saying a word, sending a strong message that he expected more.

And that intensity was always on display when UConn was preparing for Boeheim and Syracuse.

“You would have thought, the way that he prepared for it and the way that he would always approach the game, that they always hated each other or something,” said Edwards, who played for Calhoun from 2006-10. “He would always approach it like that was definitely one of the games every year that we had to win.”

Over the last two decades, the teams have battled for Big East titles and bragging rights. Perhaps no matchup in the rivalry has been more memorable than the 2009 Big East tournament quarterfinals game in which Syracuse defeated UConn 127-117 in six overtimes.

It’s games like those, Thompson said, that show the battles have continued each year. And it has led to a mutual respect between the Hall of Fame coaches.

“He knows his team beating a Connecticut team is kind of a barometer of how you will fair nationally,” Thompson said of Boeheim. “Because you’re playing in your conference if not the nationally highest ranked-team, one of the highest nationally ranked teams in the UConn program.”

In two-plus decades, Connecticut climbed out of the conference basement, became one of the nation’s elite and Syracuse’s equal.

“They were miles away from what UConn could ever aspire to be,” Moore said. “So it was with a sense of pride that he finally got the program to the point where UConn and Syracuse became the two heavyweights in the league, and we were trying to match their success in deep tournament runs.”

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