UConn On Defensive As It Aims For Championship

The University of Connecticut men's basketball team plays Saturday night to reach the NCAA championship game. Coach Jim Calhoun has brought UConn to the semifinals twice before. Each time he's gone on to win a title. But this year the team has had to contend with a recruiting scandal — one of several controversies that have marred the program in recent years.

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As Tom just pointed out, UConn Coach Jim Calhoun has a recruiting scandal on his hands as he prepares for tonight's game. Coach Calhoun has taken UConn to the semifinals twice before, each time gone on to win the title, even as controversies have marred his program. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: The hallmark of the current vintage UConn Husky basketball team is to play any style. They can run, they can slow it down. No matter the tempo, they're unfazed. That has proven to be a useful trait off the court too, as head coach Jim Calhoun has been forced to answer questions of dirty recruiting.

At issue is Yahoo.com's report about player Nate Miles, who was given a scholarship but then expelled for assaulting a female student. At a press conference last week, Calhoun emphasized that Miles never played for the school.

Mr. JIM CALHOUN (UConn Coach): There's a blog story, I guess, that appeared on something that I probably can't get a hold of, which is Yahoo, and (unintelligible) involved with our program. He was cleared by the compliance people, an outside source, legal source, and the NCAA.

PESCA: The issue that Calhoun was discussing there, Miles' academic credentials, wasn't the crux of the report. It was the possibility that a former UConn student manager had shepherded Miles to the school, perhaps paying him along the way. The report came about a month after a blogger and self-described political activist put Calhoun on the spot about being the state's highest-paid employee.

Mr. CALHOUN: Get some facts and come back and see me. Don't throw out the salaries or other things. Get some facts and come back and see me. We turn over over $12 million to the University of Connecticut, which is state run.

PESCA: On substance, Calhoun actually underestimated. His basketball team grossed more than $14 million and its success has caused a rise in applications and the quality of incoming students. Still, Connecticut's Governor Jodi Rell described Calhoun's tone as an embarrassment.

Gavin Keith has covered Calhoun for 18 years with the New London Day.

Mr. GAVIN KEITH (New London Day): With him, he's a fighter. One of the assistant coaches once said to him a few years ago that he wakes up throwing punches. He will battle to the end if he thinks he's right.

PESCA: Calhoun battled back critics four years when two of his players were arrested. Here's Calhoun's description of that incident from his memoir, "A Passion to Lead."

Mr. CALHOUN: A.J. Price and Marcus Williams were caught accepting stolen merchandise - laptop computers pilfered from a dormitory room. It was a black eye for the university, the basketball program and the kids, who had never been in trouble before.

PESCA: That description contains a few misleading statements. For one, Price had been arrested before. Also, the players did more than receive stolen merchandise; they unsuccessfully tried to pawn the laptops. Williams was allowed to come back in time for the entire Big East Conference schedule; and Price, who was given a year's suspension, was medically unable to play anyway.

Many, even Connecticut's students, criticized the sanctions as too lenient. Here's Calhoun's explanation.

Mr. CALHOUN: I had nothing to do with the punishment handed down to the players, which incidentally was fair and consistent with punishment meted out by UConn and other universities for similar misdemeanor student offenses.

PESCA: In fact, the two were charged with felony larceny. They then completed a probation program, which wiped their records clean. Reporter Gavin Keith notes that A.J. Price, who is currently the team's leading scorer, does seem to have grown from the experience, as have many of the players Calhoun has championed.

Mr. KEITH: Sometimes I think Coach Calhoun thinks he can, you know, take these kids and he can make them into productive human beings and turn their lives around, and it's not always the case.

PESCA: Keith does note that the Calhoun ministry benefits the nation's best basketball players, not the last man on the bench. In Detroit this week, UConn's players say they aren't distracted by the new scrutiny. Calhoun has pointed to his second battle with cancer this past year as an example of a real fight.

To be one of the top programs in the country, he says, you have to inhale the heat.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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