It didn’t take long for those of us associated with the University of Central Arkansas to note that this was no ordinary road trip.
The University of Central Arkansas men’s basketball team, in its first season of transitioning to NCAA Division in 2006, opened the season in a tournament at Hartford, Conn. The Bears’ first two opponents were Connecticut and Ole Miss.
During to the Ole Miss game, UCA broadcaster Monty Rowell and I glanced down press row and about the distance of the free-throw line away were UConn coach Jim Calhoun, national sports reporter Andy Katz and ESPN broadcaster Fran Frischella.
We realized then UCA had entered a different universe.
So did the Bears. In the first game of the tournament, UConn, five years away from another national championship, won 88-59, leading 44-28 at the half. The Huskies scored 28 points off turnovers, many with spectacular slam dunks.
Calhoun was rebuilding that year with eight freshmen and five sophomores on the roster. His guards were 6-foot-2 and 6-3, a far cry from the usual 5-10 and 5-11 the Bears were used to facing.
Yes, he was rebuilding.
UCA was building and discovering. Most everyone involved was a bit starstruck by a trip to a big time college basketball venue against perennially one of the nation’s best teams.
What was impressive was how Calhoun handled his visitors, some of the newest members of Division I whom he obviously had outclassed on the court.
During that weekend, he seemed to spend an unusual amount of time with UCA coach Rand Chappell, who was adjusting to an entirely different world. Calhoun and Chappell had several conversations, much of it concerning what to expect in Division I, coaching techniques and advice and the difference in transitioning to basketball at the highest collegiate level.
"He (Calhoun) couldn’t have been nicer to me," Chappell said at the time. "He was willing to take some time and give me some advice about coaching basketball and building a program. It meant a lot of me and our team and coaches that someone who was a legend was willing to take some time to help us."
Calhoun, the oldest basketball coach to win an NCAA title at age 68, announced his retirement Thursday.
He had his share of scars and controversy during his career.
But just from my close-up experience that November weekend about six years ago, he was a classy guy — when he didn’t have to be.
(Sports columnist David MCCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)