A brand new day

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UConn coach Kevin Ollie talks with reporters Wednesday at Big East media day in New York (Neill Ostrout photo)

Sorry for the late post. It’s been a long day. But here are few news and notes from Big East media day in New York.

It was certainly odd attending this even without Jim Calhoun there. The times they are a changin’, no doubt.

— THE ABSENCE of the longtime UConn coach was noted by plenty in attendance at the New York Athletic Club.

Many of the coaches spoke with more reverence about Calhoun than they ever had before. (Some always did, of course).

“Jim had a lasting impact on this league, as much as any coach ever,” said Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Calhoun’s longtime friend and foil, who is in his final season in the Big East. “I think sometimes people forget that.”

Boeheim said he had no idea Calhoun was planning to step down now.

“No, I thought he’d stay. I didn’t know,” Boeheim said. “But we all have to go some time.”

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon shared the fact that Calhoun had passed along a note recently.

“I got a note from him (Tuesday),” Dixon said. “I called him during his retirement and I guess we just missed each other. So he sent a note, just talking about our relationship.”

“He kind of took me in as a mentor when I became a head coach 10 years ago,” Dixon added. “And as he said in the note, we’ve grown into very good friends. I tucked that note away. It had special meaning.”

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has known Calhoun since their days coaching at Boston University and Northeastern, said he would miss the games.

“I loved coaching against Jim Calhoun,” Pitino said.

And Pitino said he also missed Calhoun’s presence at league events like Wednesday’s.

“He’s such a character that you miss him,” Pitino said.

Pitino went on to praise the job Calhoun did in Storrs.

“I don’t think even the Connecticut guys _ except the ones my age _ realize what Connecticut was, back in the Yankee Conference and even at the time he took over.”

Pitino also reminded some of us who remember how much the two men used to hate each other. He spoke of jogging near the Charles River in Boston at the same time as Calhoun and how the two coaches would deliberately avoid each other at all costs.

“Our paths would cross. Normally if two coaches cross you’d high-five or something,” Pitino said. “But we’d both put our heads down. It was only about 12 feet wide but we’d move to the edges and keep on going.

“We evolved into being friends later on in life,” Pitino added. “We’re going to miss him terribly.”

— THE FACT THAT UConn was picked to finish 9th in the league this year didn’t seem to faze any of the Huskies.

“Two years ago when we won a national championship we were picked ninth as well,” Tyler Olander said. “Preseason is preseason.”

The Huskies actually were picked 10th that year and finished ninth but Olander’s point is well made.

— UCONN GUARD Shabazz Napier, who had surgery Sept. 7 on his right foot to help repair a stress fracture, practiced fully on Tuesday for the first time since then.

“My foot is doing well. I practice (Tuesday) through the whole practice,” Napier said. “It hurts but they said it’s scar tissue and it has to break up. If I had to put a number on it, I’m 85 percent right now.”

— THE BIG EAST HAS signed a new deal with Madison Square Garden to keep the tournament there for perhaps 14 more years. Neither side announced the length of the deal but the Big East had four years left on its current contract and the new deal is apparently for 10 more years.

The Big East tournament has been played at MSG each year since 1983, making it the longest running conference tournament played at the same site.

— FORMER UNIVERSITY of Hartford coach Paul Brazeau is returning to college athletics. He’s been an NBA executive for the last 10 years but in November will become the Big East’s new senior associate commissioner. He replaces Dan Gavitt, who took a job with the NCAA this summer.

— NAPIER HAD some poignant words about what it was like to learn that Calhoun was retiring.

“I was shocked. At one point I was scared. I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Napier said. “I saw it coming but I didn’t see it coming. It was one of the hardest weeks I’ve ever been through in my life. Coach Calhoun was a big presence to me. He meant so much to me, more than words can explain.

“When I heard he was leaving, all I could do was sit by myself and just ponder,” Napier added. “When he told the team, it hit like a rock. I started tearing up, because coach really means so much to me.”

As always, Napier is going to be fun to watch for fans and interesting for reporters such as myself to speak with after games.

— UNLIKE THE numerous messy divorces that have gone on around the country related to conference realignment, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey seems to think the Irish’s departure from the Big East (in two years?) will be smooth.

“I’ve had unbelievably mixed emotions as we move toward the ACC and made the decision. And they’ve been more mixed being in this city the last day,” Brey said. “Because we’ve built a heck of a program in this league, a consistent program.

“I’m as proud of being a Big East guy as I am a Notre Dame guy,” Brey added. “I really believe that. My identity has been in this league, coming to play in the Garden, and earning your stripes to be one of the elder statesmen in this league. I just don’t want to necessarily run and leave that.”

“Now, for business reasons we’ll do that. And when we get there it’ll be a new challenge and it’ll be great,” Brey said. “But I really am going to savor my last moments in the Big East. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind being here another year after this year. And I think there’s a good chance we could be. I’m not rushing to get out the door. I love this league and I’m going to miss it.”

Neill

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About Neill

Neill Ostrout covers the UConn men's basketball team for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester. He has been a member of the "Horde" for more than 16 years.
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