I was rummaging through the back of the car the other day when I happened upon an old hat, crushed and bleached by the sun into a bluish gray. I pulled it out and read the faded label: Penn State Nittany Lions.
Right, I thought. Of course.
It figures that I’d find the hat this week, when all of Connecticut is showing their gratitude to the man who put UConn basketball on the map. Legendary basketball coach Jim Calhoun is calling it a career after leading the men’s team to national glory, and everyone’s taking a moment to laud him for all he’s done. Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant thinks there ought to be a national search for top talent to replace him.
I think there should be no such thing. The reason why was sitting in my hands, a fading reminder of what can happen when an athletic program becomes the most important thing at a university, when unpaid players become superstars, and head coaches become gods.
I bought that hat new at cavernous Beaver Stadium, home of Penn State football, more than a decade ago. I bought it for way too much money at a kiosk inside the new addition to the stadium, where you could come inside to get warm and have an overpriced burger or hot dog. My dad had season tickets. Every year from the time I was little until after I’d graduated from college, he and I would get up early to drive out to State College from my grandmother’s home beside a Pennsylvania lake.
I remember the green of the field, so unlike anything anywhere else. I remember the lines of cars snaking through the farmlands, the anticipation of frost in the air, and the rolling, thunderous noise of 100,000 people shouting as one. I remember the bands, the pageantry, the ritual and the splendor. On game Saturdays a quiet valley in the Pennsylvania countryside became the center of the universe, and everything seemed absolutely perfect. One time in the early 1990s there was a Bill Clinton impersonator, who I thought it was the real deal. After all, where else would he be?
But most of all, I remember the coach leading the team onto the field; the players changed, but he was always the same. He was the star. Fifty thousand cried, “We are,” and fifty thousand more responded, “Penn State!” What they meant was bound up in that field, that stadium, and crucially, that man: Joe Paterno.
We all know about Paterno’s breathtaking fall from grace, thanks to his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Depending upon which story you believe, Paterno either turned a blind eye to what was going on or actively worked to cover it up. But what it revealed in a particularly horrible way was how all-powerful and all-consuming big-time college sports programs are. The football program at Penn State lured in Sandusky’s victims, and it was the preeminence of the football program and Paterno himself which caused people who should have known better to look the other way. If there was ever a case study in how top-tier college athletics warps reality, this is it.
When I heard that Jim Calhoun was retiring earlier this week, my first thought was of Paterno. Now, let’s be clear: Calhoun is no Joe Paterno and UConn is not Penn State. But the same reality-warping field exists here. The program he runs is, along with the women’s team, the face of the university, and Storrs revolves around him. Thursday’s gushing tributes ought to make that clear enough. And yet it’s interesting that Calhoun is retiring before the current season, in which the team won’t be eligible for postseason play thanks to low academic performance. The program also was cited for recruitment violations, but those were not related to the program’s suspension from post-season play. Sure, the NCAA’s enforcement of its own rules is spotty and often media-driven at best, but the Huskies aren’t clean. Likely, no Division I program is completely free of violations.
The problem is that the big athletic programs like UConn’s aren’t about physical education or fostering scholar-athletes as much as they’re all about making fans happy, putting butts in the seats, and selling merchandise. The sports programs aren’t about the university at all, but the people who will pay to watch the games. Don’t believe me? Then why is there a football stadium in East Hartford, more than 20 miles away from campus? Why does UConn basketball play some of its home games in Hartford’s XL Center? Why was Jim Calhoun Connecticut’s highest-paid state employee?
Other people can debate Jim Calhoun’s legacy. But the university can decide, right now, to make a change in the way it conducts athletics. Big-time coaches, with their huge egos, outrageous salaries, outsize influence, and everything else that comes with them, should be shown the door. The University of Connecticut has excellent academic programs. The main campus and its satellites all over the state provide quality, affordable higher education, and are the source of our state’s next generation of leaders. That should be what people think of when they think about UConn, not Jim Calhoun or whomever follows him. That’s the point of having public universities. Kudos to Jim Calhoun, he did his job well. But it’s past time for the era of the big-time college coach to end.
My old Penn State hat’s still rotting away in the back of the car. I can’t bring myself to throw it away, even though I’m sure I’ll never wear it again. Maybe I’ll keep it around for a while, to remind myself that some illusions, no matter how happy, aren’t worth the price.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.