The thought came to connecticut coach Jim Calhoun on Wednesday night last week. He was walking out of the Providence Civic Center, thinking about other times he had visited the place, about how-far he had traveled.
"I remembered going there long ago, as a high school coach, just to watch the games," he said. "This was the mecca, the home of New England college basketball. Providence College. This was where the good teams played. To be there then and to see those teams...and now, to go there. Favored. Expected to win."
The idea was almost startling. His team, the Huskies, was ranked seventh in the country and featured a pair of guards, senior Chris Smith and junior Scott Burrell, who could play for anybody. A 97-86 win over Providence in overtime that night had been greeted with hard questions. What was the matter? Why hadn't Connecticut won by more? Was someone hurt? The improbable dream of a decade ago, beating Providence in Providence, was regarded today as the norm. An overtime win was somehow disappointing. Calhoun's Huskies occupied the seat of regional basketball excellence. His team. "It's crazy, isn't it?" he said. "You start out, and everyone's just happy to win. Now people wonder why you don't win by more. Crazy."
Another overtime win, 83-77 over Boston College in Hartford last Saturday, moved Connecticut's record to 15-1, the best start in its history. The drums would grow louder. Calhoun's team now had the noisiest following in New England. His team had one of the largest contingents of sportswriters, sportscasters, people wearing sponge-rubber bones on their heads. His team was at the top of the Big East standings.
"Joe Concannon, a sportswriter for the Boston Globe, tells a story about me that describes the change," the 49-year-old Calhoun says. "I guess I've always talked a bit. Concannon tells how he came out of Punter's Pub in Boston the day after I got my first college job, coaching at Northeastern. He ran into me on the street. I started talking, telling him about how we were going to do this and do that and what an opportunity Northeastern was...and I didn't stop for an hour and a half, carried away. He says he was trying to get away and couldn't. Now, he says, he sees me, and I'm still talking, and people are all around me, writing this stuff down in notebooks!"
The casual talk on a street corner has become a nonstop basketball sermon. An entire state of true believers has gathered to listen. Huskymania. Smith, Connecticut's top scorer (22.8 points per game), dribbles right, stops, shoots. The 6'7" Burrell puts down a baseball glove after a summer of pitching Class A baseball in ?the Toronto Blue Jays' system—he was 1-2 and has a fastball that has been clocked at 95 mph—and becomes Connecticut's second-highest scorer and leader in steals with 47, also tops in the conference. A top-drawer class of freshmen arrives to provide instant help. One of them seems to play like...Dr. J? A small patch of good old Midwestern passion for the game seems to have broken out on the hard New England soil and stuck.
"It's one good thing after another," Tim Tolokan, Connecticut's associate director of athletics, says. "The TV ratings...we played Illinois on a Saturday afternoon. Four o'clock in the afternoon. We were opposite an NFL playoff game. The Hartford station did a 40 share. The press...we have so many papers in Connecticut covering us, I'm almost embarrassed to ask for so many credentials when we go on the road. We have as many as 20 papers staffing our games. The fans...we're sold out. All home games. You can't get a ticket. I've heard the Hartford City Council would like us to play all of our games in Hartford."
A two-year-old gym, Gampel Pavilion (8,241 seats), sits on the campus in Storrs, a college town 35 miles northeast of Hartford, where the Civic Center (16,294) is filled for nine Husky dates. All the pieces of a big-time sports program suddenly are in place. The merchandising. The corporate packages. The alumni contributions. The works.
" Leonard Hamilton became the coach of Miami last year after being at Kentucky," Calhoun said. "He came up here and said, T never knew all this existed.' A lot of people don't know, it's happened so fast. It's the phenomenon of television going into homes. It's the interest that always existed here in basketball. It's these kids playing the games. It's everything together. We have credibility. We can captivate this entire state."