University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun is a passionate golfer who loves everything about the game. But he had one suggestion for improving it, which he shared with about 100 staffers of the United States Golf Association during an informal visit to the organization’s headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.
“I do have one complaint,” said Calhoun, whose team is scheduled to play against nearby Rutgers on Jan. 7. “I don’t know why if I hit a ball in the middle of the fairway and it sits in a divot, that’s not man made.”
Said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director, Rules of Golf, Competitions and Amateur Status, and a friend of Calhoun’s who arranged the visit: “You share that view with Jack Nicklaus.”
“That’s the only thing I share with Jack Nicklaus,” Calhoun replied.
Actually, both the 69-year-old Calhoun and Nicklaus, who turns 72 on Jan. 21, are renowned for their competitive spirit and longevity. Calhoun gave an example of the former by recalling a jog he took one day during his tenure as the basketball coach at Northeastern University in Boston. He spotted rival coach Rick Pitino, then at Boston University, running toward him from the opposite direction.
Calhoun, an entertaining storyteller who has retained the Boston accent from his eastern Massachusetts childhood, said the two passed each other without even making eye contact, as if they were strangers.
“True story,” said Calhoun amid the laughter. “You can’t make this kind of stuff up.”
More than 30 years later, Calhoun and Pitino, now the coach at the University of Louisville, are still competing against each other in the Big East Conference. And last year, Calhoun, then 68, became the oldest coach to win an NCAA Division I basketball championship, a feat mirroring that of Nicklaus, who was 46 when he became the oldest winner of the Masters in 1986.
Golf may be a lifetime game, but as Calhoun has proved, coaches can enjoy victories much later into their lives than even golfers can. In fact, Calhoun took over at Connecticut the month after Nicklaus’ historic 1986 Masters victory. As Nicklaus was celebrating his final hurrah in major championship golf, Calhoun had yet to start building his legacy.
Since then, Calhoun has won three national championships and has built a tradition of success at an institution that previously had been happy with victories over in-state rivals like Yale. Now full of tradition and history, UConn has an elite college basketball program.
Tradition is very important to Calhoun, and he emphasized the importance of this value in golf, contrasting the game’s steadfastness against the realignment of conferences that is quickly reshaping the landscape of college athletics.
“It’s not good that Pittsburgh and Syracuse are leaving the Big East,” he said. “And we could wind up in the [Atlantic Coast Conference]. None of that is good. We need tradition.
“Your game is full of it, which is wonderful. When you talk about Bobby Jones and others, and pay tribute to them here around this building, it’s a wonderful experience.”
Calhoun also drew parallels between his career and the USGA’s mission as golf’s governing body. In addition to coaching stars like Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor and Kemba Walker, Calhoun mentored young men who received little playing time.
“Sure, you have to be there for Ray, Emeka or Kemba,” said Calhoun. “But you also have to be there for every single kid. And care about them. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong business."
Calhoun reminded the staff that in addition to conducting the U.S. Open for players like Rory McIlroy, the USGA impacts millions of golfers around the world who love and enjoy the game.
“I like talking to people who are doing something every single day to enrich America and enrich the people in America. You’re enriching our lives, trust me. Because of the USGA, we are better.”
Golf has given a lot to Calhoun. He has learned to be more patient as a coach because of golf, which also was a vehicle for spending valuable time with his two sons. The game has allowed him to forge strong friendships with fellow coaches like Jim Boeheim of Syracuse University and former players like Allen.
“It’s been the one constant over the past 35 years that has allowed me to get away from the job,” said Calhoun.
No longer as long off the tee as he once was, Calhoun has embraced the TEE IT FORWARD philosophy – he plays from the middle tees instead of the back. In addition to playing, he derives enjoyment from introducing the game to his players, being on the board of The First Tee of Connecticut, and hosting a celebrity tournament to raise money for the Jim and Pat Calhoun Cardiology Research Endowment Fund.
Calhoun is a great example of the passion that the USGA’s constituents display every day. Unlike most of them, he had the chance to express his passion directly to golf’s dedicated custodians.
“The game that you’re entrusted with is a magical game,” he said. “There is nothing like it.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.