‘If we keep knocking at the door, it'll open’
The University of Connecticut's metamorphic rise in men's basketball from Big East Conference doormat to national powerhouse is truly remarkable.
In fact, to fully appreciate UConn's astounding ascension to five - count 'em, five - national championships, we have to go back 40 years to when the Huskies flat-out stunk and the suggestion of them winning even one National Championship would have gotten you laughed out of the room.
During my 10+ years at The Day back in the 1980s, I covered sports for a couple of years, including UConn men's basketball. Back then, the Huskies were regulars in the lower tier of the fledgling Big East Conference, routinely trounced by the likes of Georgetown, St. John's, Syracuse, Villanova and Boston College. They got - and deserved - less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.
Connecticut high schools were a rich breeding ground for college-bound basketball stars, but few even gave UConn a sniff when they were considering where to take their high-end skills.
Super John Williamson, the legendary Wilbur Cross scoring machine who led the nation in his senior year with a 38-point average, went to New Mexico State. His younger brother, Jiggy, enrolled at University of Rhode Island as did another legendary New Haven star, Sly Williams. Rocket Rod Foster, a sensation at St. Thomas Aquinas in New Britain, went to UCLA, Charles Smith, the 6-foot-10 man-child from Bridgeport's Warren Harding High School, starred for four years at Pittsburgh, and Mystic's Harold Pressley, a two-time All-State star at St. Bernard in Uncasville, went to Villanova, where his team won a National Championship, beating Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.
Yes, a few homegrown stars like Corny Thompson of Middletown, Tony Hanson of Waterbury, and Earl Kelley of New Haven, stayed to play for UConn over the years, but as high school basketball talent went, they were the exceptions, not the rule.
The first UConn game I covered was on Jan. 22, 1983, at the old New Haven Coliseum where Boston College defeated the Huskies, 88-79. Three BC players - Michael Adams, Jay Murphy and John Garris - accounted for 78 of BC's 88 points. What hurt most was that all three had played their high school basketball in Connecticut - Adams in Hartford, Murphy in Meriden, Garris in Bridgeport.
It was a sore subject for then-UConn Coach Dom Perno, who angrily refused to discuss the topic when I asked about it after the game. After finishing fourth, tied for third and fifth in its first three years in the Big East, UConn got left behind by the new league's stronger programs. The Huskies then finished seventh in the nine-team league during the next three seasons. After his team finished its fourth consecutive losing season - 12-16 overall and 3-13 for eighth place in the conference - Perno retired after the 1985-86 season.
Enter a guy named Jim Calhoun, who was hired after coaching 14 seasons at Northeastern University, where he had turned a once-mediocre basketball program into one that qualified for the NCAA post-season tournament in five of his last six seasons there. Calhoun's Northeastern teams had gone 248-137 for an impressive .644 winning percentage but won or shared six conference titles in seven seasons during which NU went 95-24 for an eye-popping .798 winning percentage against league opponents.
Competing mostly with players left over from the leanest Perno years, UConn struggled through a 9-19 season in Calhoun's first year in Storrs. Then, hungry for any post-season exposure after finishing last in the Big East, UConn accepted a bid to the 1988 National Invitation Tournament. Even though the NIT had fallen to bridesmaid status in the shadow of the NCAA tournament, UConn raised eyebrows when it won the NIT championship.
Despite its last-place finish in the conference that year, UConn had finished the season with a respectable 20-14 overall record, its first winning season in five years, and the first of 25 consecutive winning seasons under Calhoun. After an 18-13 season the next year (6-10, tied for seventh place in the league), things really began to change.
For all intents and purposes, UConn announced its arrival loudly and abruptly as Beast of the East in 1990.
Its 10,167-seat Gampel Pavilion, the largest on-campus arena in New England, finally opened on Jan. 21, 1990, and, along with a new, high-energy coach, infused new life into the program. In its first game in the new arena, UConn stunned No. 15 St. John's, 72-58, before a delirious capacity crowd. In March, the Huskies upset national powerhouse Syracuse to win its first Big East Tournament Championship at Madison Square Garden. The tournament's Most Valuable Player was UConn's Chris Smith, a high school star from Bridgeport who chose to stay home and enroll at UConn.
UConn fans were beside themselves with glee. For the first time in more than a decade, the Huskies would actually be part of March Madness, the NCAA's 64-team post-season tournament. As luck would have it, their first two tournament games were played at the Hartford Civic Center.
Tickets for those games were so hard to come by that state Public Works Commissioner Don Cassin, who had overseen construction of Gampel, had to pressure UConn President John Casteen for tickets for then-Gov. William A. O'Neill. When Casteen told Cassin the game was sold out, the commissioner told President Casteen to come up with tickets for the governor - or be prepared to give up his own. Gov. O'Neill and his wife, Nikki, were in center court seats for the game.
Lifted by a friendly Hartford crowd, UConn won its first two tournament games, qualifying for the tournament's next round.
In its Sweet 16 game in New Jersey's Brendan Byrne Arena, the Huskies ran out to a 19-point lead in the second half over Clemson, but their fans watched in horror as Clemson rallied to take a one-point lead with one second left in the game. With the game seemingly lost, UConn's Scott Burrell, another homegrown star from Hamden, threw the ball the length of the 90-foot court to teammate Tate George. In one motion, George caught the pass, turned, and swished a 16-foot shot from the corner at the final buzzer. The play would be remembered in state lore simply as The Shot.
(Local angle - Three area men were on the court for that historic celebration - UConn assistant coach Howie Dickenman, a former basketball star at Norwich Free Academy and Central Connecticut State, where he would later be head coach; Glen Miller, a former Fitch High School star, who was also head coach at Connecticut College from 1993-99 before head coaching stints at Penn, Brown and St. Joseph; and Tim Tolokan, UConn's Sports Information Director after years as Sports Editor at the Norwich Bulletin).
In their next game, the Huskies' magical season came to an end just short of The Final Four when Christian Laettner hit a last-second shot in overtime to lift Duke over UConn, 79-78. Nevertheless, Calhoun, whose team finished the season with a 31-6 record, was named Associated Press and United Press International Coach of the Year.
UConn was now a nationally known name, though not yet a brand like Duke, North Carolina, UCLA or Indiana. Calhoun was emerging as a big-time coach, and Storrs was quickly becoming a destination for some of the brightest high school stars in America and beyond. In the years to come, UConn would send more players to the National Basketball Association than any college in the nation. Calhoun was able to recruit the likes of Ray Allen from South Carolina, Rip Hamilton and Donyell Marshall from Pennsylvania, Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker from New York, Emeka Okafer from Texas and Shabazz Napier from Massachetts, all who would become first-team All-Americans. He recruited stars from beyond American boundaries like Nadav Henefeld from Israel, Englishman Ben Gordon by way of New York and Tanzanian Hasheem Thabeet via Texas.
The Huskies would qualify for March Madness eight times in the 1990s, finally making it to The Final Four for the first time in the program's 98-year history in 1999. After defeating Ohio State in the semifinal game, UConn, ranked third nationally with a 33-2 record, squared off against top-ranked and universally favored Duke. The Blue Devils, 36-1, came into the game with a 31-game winning streak with four players who would be first-round NBA draft picks later that spring.
However, in Hamilton, UConn had its own future NBA star and a cool, roly-poly floor general, Khalid El-Amin. The pair combined for 28 second-half points, and guard Ricky Moore, a defensive specialist, stunned Duke by scoring all 13 of his points in the first half. At last, there was revenge for the heartbreak of 1990. When the final buzzer sounded this time, UConn had won the National Championship, 77-74, and El-Amin stood atop the scorer's table shouting, "We shocked the world!"
After coming close in previous seasons, UConn had finally reached the top of the college basketball world.
"I kept saying: "If we keep knocking at the door, it'll open," Calhoun said. "And in '99, it did."
Indeed, it did. Calhoun coached the Huskies to two more National Championships in 2004 and 2011. His successor and former player Kevin Ollie coached them to a title in 2014, and Dan Hurley coached them to this year's championship.
Only the storied basketball programs at UCLA with 11, Kentucky (eight) and North Carolina (six) have more national championships than UConn's five. With that many, the Huskies are in good company, tied with Duke and Indiana.
However, in the past 25 years, no team in America has won more National Championships than the University of Connecticut. And Calhoun, who engineered the turnaround, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.
Addendum: Calhoun's Hall of Fame college career was not his first transformation. He experienced an inuspicious start as basketball coach at Lyme-Old Lyme High School, where accounts differ on how bad his first season was - either 1-17 or 3-16 before he returned to his native Massachusetts. In two years at Dedham High School, he led that team to a combined 38-1 record and a state championship before being hired at Northeastern.