Join author Peter Burns as he chronicles Huskies hoops in his new book, “Shock the World: UConn Basketball in the Calhoun Era.”
A professor of political science at Loyola University New Orleans and a graduate of UConn, Burns takes readers through the past quarter century in Storrs. You can order the book here on Amazon.com and check out an excerpt from the first chapter below.
As the 1986–1987 Huskies walked into the first practice in the Calhoun era at UConn, Guyer Gym was hotter than usual. The windows had been taped shut, newspapers blocked all views, and large garbage pails dotted the gym floor. The doors had been barred so that no one could get in; no one could get out, either. The windows behind the baskets were caged, which gave a prisonlike motif to Guyer. The curved ceiling and structure made the place feel like a Quonset hut. When people complained that UConn basketball had subpar facilities, they had Guyer Gym in mind. The players wore gray t-shirts and tiny shorts. They weren’t worthy of official practice gear. They saw no basketballs.
At 3 p.m. on October 15, 1986, Coach Calhoun entered Guyer Gym, slammed the door shut, and his era began. Greg Economou, a walk-on in his first season of basketball after two years on the baseball team, talked to Calhoun before the season. The meetings were cordial and Economou regarded Calhoun as a nice, reserved man. The person in front of Economou now was not the one he met before the season began. This guy was all business.
Calhoun told his new charges that UConn was not the most talented team, but it would be the hardest-working team in the country. Then, he said, “I didn’t want my managers to clean up vomit, so if anyone had to puke, use the pails.” To start practice, Calhoun told the players to run dozens of laps at “full f***ing speed” around the gym, which held four basketball courts. That distance was the warm-up. Calhoun held a list of the drills he wanted to run.
Between activities, players got little to no rest time and had to run another two to three laps around Guyer. Dean Smith conducted practice in the same way at Carolina. During the few seconds of break at Guyer, many players puked or dry-heaved into the trash cans. As the players sprinted around the courts, Calhoun consulted the list of basketball drills. When the players returned, the next activity began.
As his heart raced while he ran around and across Guyer Gym, Economou saw that his new coach devised down-to-the-second plans for basketball drills, running exercises, and water breaks. To intensify practice and create hardworking players, Calhoun kept everyone moving. On day one, he went to ludicrous speed.
Assistant Coach Dave Leitao transformed into a mad man during the Guyer Gym practice. “Down! Up! Down! Up!” Leitao yelled as the players ran in place, fell, and rose in response to his commands. Then, Coach Leitao ran a foot-fire drill, in which players pumped their feet up and down as if their lower extremities were ablaze. “Start again. Too slow,” Leitao said.
“It was like death,” freshman point guard Tate George said of the practice.
He remembers how hot Guyer was that day and how often players threw up. The most difficult part of the first practice was that “no one could tell you what to expect. Everyone was there for the first time. We didn’t have someone [a player] who could say, don’t worry, only twenty minutes left .” At that time, George said that he didn’t understand what it meant to be committed. He would learn.
Calhoun had a long way to go and a short time to get there. He wanted to do what they said couldn’t be done. The initial practices started a culture of hard work into which future Husky players stepped.
Another assistant coach, Glen Miller, played at UConn in the early days of the Big East and transferred to play for Calhoun at Northeastern. He said that the first practice established expectations for a work ethic and commitment level. It showed the players what it meant to be a Calhoun-coached Husky. It set the tone for a season and a program.
The players in the basketball torture chamber that day shared similar feelings and emotions — pain, anxiety, and resentment. They started to develop a strong dislike for their new coach and his relentless style. This anger created a shared experience among the players, each of whom had now been Calhouned.
For the rest of their lives, these players had a common bond; they were a family created by a crazy coach, who was more like a fox than they knew. These players would share this experience with future Huskies who participated in Camp Calhoun.