David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Calhoun will be the first to tell you that, contrary to what you may have heard, he did not “build” the men’s basketball program at the University of Connecticut. Sure, he lifted UConn from a regional success into a national power, winning three national titles along the way, but that was possible only thanks to the sturdy foundation he inherited from generations of predecessors.
No, true “building” is what Calhoun, 75, is now attempting at the University of St. Joseph, a tiny Division III school in West Hartford, Connecticut that currently has no men’s basketball players—and in fact no male students at all. In September, St. Joseph announced it had hired Calhoun to launch its new hoops program. Now, he’s the face of a university that will go coed next fall after 86 years as an all-women’s institution.
Calhoun sits at his desk one morning in January, gripping a foam coffee cup in a hand decorated by a bulky ring. Over his left shoulder hangs a framed letter from Barack Obama, alongside photos of UConn’s championship teams visiting three different presidents. To his right stands a mock-up of the new arena St. Joseph plans to erect. Calhoun’s contract as a special adviser at UConn doesn’t expire until March, so for now his official position here is “consultant,” but unofficially he is the program’s head coach. Come fall, he will stand on the sidelines and direct a yet-unassembled Blue Jays roster against Great Northeast Athletic Conference competition.
Compared to UConn, this might as well be in basketball Siberia. Calhoun shares a modest white-walled office with associate head coach Glen Miller, in a cramped athletic-department building attached to a musty, 500-person gym. He meets people who mistake St. Joseph for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia or even St. Joseph’s College in Maine. He has far less support staff than any major-conference Division-I coach. And no matter how much success he enjoys at his new home, his games will never be broadcast on ESPN or bantered about on national radio.
Calhoun, a 2005 National Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, is not here for the glamor, and he quickly makes clear he is not in it for the money either. “The Catholics have this great thing about the fact that they take a vow of poverty and expect you to do the same,” he cracks. Instead, he’s here because he wanted a program to call his own and because a school with no men’s basketball history to speak of offered the perfect chance to construct something he can be proud of.
Calhoun’s return to coaching began last summer with a text message from St. Joseph athletic director Bill Cardarelli, who had briefly worked as an assistant under Calhoun at UConn back in 1986-87. With St. Joseph having decided to go coed, Cardarelli needed someone to lead his new men’s basketball program, and he figured he’d solicit recommendations from the Hall of Famer. The athletic director’s goals were modest. Cardarelli simply hoped to find a coach with experience who could handle recruiting a team from scratch.
But Cardarelli asked Calhoun whether he missed coaching and was somewhat surprised to hear his former boss answer affirmatively. So Cardarelli tossed out what seemed like a far-fetched idea. “I said, ‘Jim, we’ve got a job open for you,’” Cardarelli recalls. “I was kind of expecting, ‘Come on Bill, take a hike.’”
After retiring from UConn in 2012, in part due to health issues, Calhoun had spent three seasons calling college games for ESPN. The gig had allowed him to remain close to the sport he loves but left him longing for the feeling of ownership and accomplishment that came with running his own program. “I found that the more I went to practice of other teams, the more I missed it,” he says now. “Because it wasn’t our team. It wasn’t a group of us trying to get together to do something uncommon.”
Of course, just because Calhoun wanted to coach again didn’t mean he had to take a gig at a D-III school with zero male players. Surely a man with 877 career wins could have landed somewhere with a higher profile and more resources. In fact, Calhoun claims he was courted by USC, Cal and other high-level programs in the years after his retirement. But whereas those schools were far away from his Connecticut residence, St. Joseph was smack in the middle of a state Calhoun had learned to call home. His daughter-in-law had graduated from St. Joseph, he was friendly with the school’s Board of Trustees chairman, and he had known Cardarelli for years. The opportunity felt comfortable in a way others wouldn’t be. Plus, there was something alluring about the basketball program’s completely blank slate. When Calhoun’s longtime UConn consigliere George Blaney suggested he was crazy for accepting the job, the coach replied, “Well you knew that a long time ago.” Calhoun told Cardarelli he was in, and after sorting through some logistics, St. Joseph announced the hire on September 27.
In the four months since, Calhoun has been busy. He convinced Miller, released from the UConn staff last spring, to join him at St. Joseph, and the duo quickly hit the recruiting trail with less than a year to assemble an entire roster. Unlike in his previous job, where he could chase the top high schoolers in the country, Calhoun has been forced to seek players who are overlooked or disregarded by major schools, then figure out how to get them admitted and enrolled without the benefit of athletic scholarships. That means sweating players’ academic qualifications and navigating the maze of financial aid paperwork in a way he never had to before. Calhoun and Miller say they have “four or five” committed recruits so far, but without letters of intent, the coaches won’t count their chickens until they’re lined up on the baseline.
On the surface, Calhoun says, his new gig is “worlds apart,” from his old one. But as he sees it, the essence of his work hasn’t really changed. “When you get on the phone with a kid or a kid comes here to meet us, it’s the same thing,” he says. “We had a kid come in today, a 6-7 kid, and I was as excited about him as I would be about Emeka Okafor coming to visit.”
Calhoun has plenty of plans for St. Joseph, and not all of them involve pick-and-roll offense and defensive rotations. He wants to schedule home games for Mohegan Sun Arena downstate or at the XL Center in downtown Hartford—maybe even as an opening act before a UConn game. And that building whose mock-up he keeps next to his desk? He says it will feature several thousand seats, along with new offices and weight rooms. “Things are happening here, and it’s fun being a part of it,” he says.
More than you might expect from a 75-year-old legend, Calhoun seems to embrace a role as ambassador for St. Joseph. While some coaches run their programs with single-minded intensity, Calhoun says he looks forward to engaging the communities in Hartford and West Hartford to generate awareness of and enthusiasm for his new school. When he started at Connecticut, he recalls, people on the other side of the state from Storrs didn’t identify much with the university, and he worried that the world heard “UConn” and thought only of the territory in Canada. As his teams found success, however, the whole state rallied behind the school and the entire nation learned its name. On a much smaller scale, he hopes to accomplish something similar at St. Joseph. “We have to get out and tell people our story. That’s a major, major part,” he says. “The biggest thing is that people start associating St. Joe’s with being a terrific, small academic school.”
President Rhona Free says Calhoun impressed upon her early on that he was interested in more than just winning basketball games. “In the very first conversation,” she says, “he made it clear that while celebrity and big-time sports was good to him and he enjoyed it, what he really loves is being apart of developing a program, working with young student athletes, and he loves working in a community.”
Calhoun’s presence has benefited St. Joseph in ways both subtle and obvious. He appears at community events, shaking hands and snapping pictures. He offers tips to other coaches in the school’s athletic department. He meets with soccer and field hockey recruits in addition to basketball ones. Free says sports were always going to be a key part of St. Joseph’s transition to co-ed, a way to raise awareness for the school and get male students in the door, but hiring Calhoun turned the basketball program into more than that. With a single announcement, the team became the most visible and talked-about aspect of the university, with local papers flocking to write about it and even national publications like ESPN and USA Today taking note.
Calhoun knows building up St. Joseph basketball won’t be easy—that “it doesn’t always end with parades in the spring”—but he does have a few things going for him. His celebrity and pedigree will almost surely attract some recruits St. Joseph would not otherwise land, as will his proximity to the NBA, where even Division-III players dream of winding up one day. Calhoun says he’s already floating to prospects the possibility of working out alongside Kemba Walker or Ray Allen during the summer. It also helps that Calhoun brings with him a deep Rolodex of high-school coaches and that Miller has recruiting experience as well, both at UConn and as a head coach at D-III Connecticut College.
As for expectations, Calhoun says his goal is to simply “be the best we can be,” and although that sounds uselessly vague, it might be the only possible target, given the uncharted territory he finds himself in. There’s simply no precedent for one of the greatest coaches ever starting a program from scratch at the D-III level.
Calhoun is coy about how long he’ll last at St. Joseph, but from what Miller can tell, the Hall of Famer hasn’t lost any of the enthusiasm that helped him turn UConn into a powerhouse. “He’s out every single night recruiting,” Miller says. “The passion, effort, determination to build something special, not just something average, that hasn’t changed one bit.”
By all obvious measures, Calhoun and St. Joseph seem like an odd marriage. A big name with a long men’s basketball resume meets a small school with no men’s basketball history. A 75-year-old reaching the end of his career meets a program just beginning its story. But in hearing Calhoun speak about his new job, extolling the joys of recruiting and brightly praising St. Joseph’s soccer and lacrosse squads, the fit begins to make sense on the simplest of levels. The university wanted a splash and the coach wanted a team, a home, a community. The fact his roster comes with a “some assembly required” label merely offers one more challenge in a remarkable career. Calhoun has proven he can elevate a program. Now he’ll show whether he can truly build one.