Tony Dobrowolski: UConn hoops has come long way since Calhoun's first year



The first title was shocking, the second surprising, the third amazing. So how do you describe the University of Connecticut men's basketball team's fourth NCAA championship in 15 years?

I've run out of adjectives.

UConn's third title in 2011 solidified the fact that the Huskies were one of the best basketball programs in the country, but this one puts them in the same conversation with some of the greatest teams in college basketball history.

They're right up there now with Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA. Wow. That's rarefied territory, college basketball's version of Mount Olympus. Here's an adjective to describe that feat: astounding!

Anyone even remotely familiar with UConn basketball before the late 1980s is lying if they tell you they saw this coming. UConn has a long proud basketball tradition, but even the most ardent Huskies boosters never expected anything like this after Jim Calhoun was hired as coach in 1986.

My guess is they would have settled for a team that would be competitive every year in the Big East Conference, qualify for the NCAA tournament on a regular basis, and maybe advance a couple of rounds once in awhile.

National Championships? Not even on the radar screen. One title, maybe, after UConn became a national program. But two, three, or four, in a span of 15 seasons? No way.

Looking back from this perspective, it's almost impossible to believe how far UConn's program has come since the early 1980s. The only state college in the original Big East Conference, the Huskies under Calhoun's predecessor Dom Perno were the league's doormat year after year. They annually qualified for the eight/nine game in the Big East Tournament, the play-in game held to pair the nine team field down to an even eight, and lost it most of the time.

Regular season losses to teams like Georgetown and Syracuse under 20 points were considered moral victories. When Patrick Ewing played for Georgetown, the Hoyas' games with UConn were like scrimmages. You got to see a lot of future pros play against the Huskies when you went to UConn games back then, but not a lot of victories.

Unlike the other Big East schools back then, UConn didn't have an academic structure suitable for a big time basketball program, which meant that the Huskies' best players would frequently be declared academically ineligible during the second half of the season. There was talk that inner-city kids wouldn't go to UConn because it was located in small, bucolic Storrs, Conn., instead of the big cities inhabited by all their other league rivals. The players who started at UConn were frequently guys who'd been passed over by the Big East's marquee program's coming out of high school. Just the fact that Georgetown had looked at some of these guys made UConn fans think they must be pretty good.

With all the handicaps, there was serious talk about UConn dropping out of the Big East, even after Calhoun struggled to turn the program around in his first few years. Following a 40-point loss to Georgetown that I covered in the mid-1980s while working for a newspaper in Connecticut, I wrote that maybe the Huskies should try and find a league that at least they'd be competitive in. Shows you what I know. Should have stuck with hockey.

The loss came during one of Calhoun's first years as UConn's coach, and there's something else from that night that I never forgot. Georgetown coach John Thompson spent his post-game media session talking about how much better the Huskies were going to be with Calhoun as their coach. It might not be evident now, I remember Thompson saying, but give it some time and it will be.

He told us to be patient.

He was right.


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