Jim and Pat Calhoun were standing in the hallway, outside the cozy, little gym at the University of St. Joseph, about to begin their newest adventure together.
As always, Pat knew the right thing to say. “You haven’t forgotten a thing,” she told her husband, “go in there and show ’em.”
And with that, Jim Calhoun, 76, walked back into the coaching arena at 12:52 p.m. Sunday, an arena much like the ones in which he began, as a high school coach at Old Lyme 50 years ago, but so far different than the gigantic stadiums he conquered in subsequent decades at UConn.
Six-plus years ago, he limped scowling out of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville following a loss to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the end of a disappointing UConn season. His back was killing him, having just had surgery for spinal stenosis; his knees were barking. A few months later, he fractured his hip in a cycling mishap, and in September of 2012, he left Gampel Pavilion – on crutches – for the last time as head coach of the Huskies. Off into the sunset he went, a Hall-of-Famer, winner of three national titles.
On Sunday, again limping some, Calhoun made his way across the floor to a new perch, a high stool next to the St. Joe’s bench to coach the Blue Jays, a startup Division III program at a school that was all female until the start of this semester. There were no doubts, as improbable – even surreal – as it seems, this was the right place, the right time.
“Just watching him operate,” said AD Bill Cardarelli, “up on that chair, it’s really a lot of fun.”
When Calhoun began at St. Joe’s more than a year ago, there were skeptics who wondered if he would ever coach a game here, given his mercurial nature, his strong UConn ties, his age and history. And, indeed, he has had medical issues that he is not yet ready to fully discuss, but that required surgery that caused him to miss the first week of practice.
“I had my stomach reduced by 50 percent,” he said, “and not for weight reasons, but they took something out. … It was not going to stop me. I just think it’s a good thing to do, to keep pushing on. I was determined. I have great-grandkids, a great wife, great sons, and I love life and nothing was going to get in my way, if at all possible.”
Two weeks after surgery, he has been given a clean bill of health and it is impossible to detect, from watching Calhoun, there has been anything wrong. Cardarelli shook his head and murmured, “He’s a warrior.”
Throughout the past year, before things were worked out with UConn that would allow him to be named coach at St. Joe’s, Calhoun pushed on with associate head coach Glen Miller, recruiting players to put this team together from scratch. They have 20, including 18 freshmen, and what is considered an army of assistants for Division III – Jeff Calhoun, his son; Rashamel Jones, the former Husky; and Ryan Olander, Tyler’s brother. When Calhoun was able to return to practice, he sat on the stool and watched as his offensive and defensive systems were taught. Each day, he became more active and vocal.
“He never makes an excuse,” Miller said, “never talks about [illness], never complains.”
On Sunday morning, he woke up feeling well, read all his newspapers, got in the car with Pat and drove the 45 or so miles from Pomfret to West Hartford. They arrived at the O’Connell Center at about 10 a.m., and for three hours or so he was anxious to get started. Exhibition games were sometimes tedious to him as UConn’s coach, but with a brand new team?
“My thoughts,” Calhoun said, “were ‘are they just not going to be good? Are some experienced college guys going to make them look bad?’ “
Pat Calhoun isn’t a fan of doing interviews, and didn’t want to do one on this day. But the smile on her face was ear-to-ear as Jim walked out, and it stayed on her face for hours as she sat in the bleachers. Perhaps she had different ideas for their post-UConn life, but she could see he her husband was happy now, and she was all in.
So was Jim. Within 58 seconds, Calhoun made his first “quick hook,” pulling Noreaga Davis, who had been called for a foul. Within 94 seconds, he was off the stool and barking at an official.
“I got punched three times on the bench,” Miller said “pretty good ones, too. He was all over the place. That hasn’t changed. He’s such a competitor, it doesn’t matter what level he’s coaching at. It was a big day for him, to come back and coach, and I think he had a lot of fun. You see the passion and energy he coached with? Just amazing.”
Turnovers, missed shots, mistakes were enough to get him to jump down off that stool and holler. “Rebound!” … “Box out!” … Push it!” Like an old UConn team, the Blue Jays struck like a torrent a few minutes into the game, to turn a two-point lead into 20, using defensive pressure to create offense. Like an old UConn team, an old Calhoun team. He called timeout 34 seconds into the second half, with a 19-point lead, and aired his players out over a fundamental mistake.
“We were up about 25,” Miller said, “and they made a little run to get it down to 22, and he turned to me and said, ‘Glen, we could lose this game.’ … I’ve heard that before.”
St. Joe’s beat Fisher College, the NAIA team from Boston, 85-62. There’s a scrimmage coming up vs. Brandeis, and then it’s for real, against William Paterson on Nov. 9 at Trinity.
And at the end of the day, Pat Calhoun was right. He hasn’t forgotten a thing. He’s still got it, and he’s good to go.
“I never thought I couldn’t get through to [today’s players],” Calhoun said, “but you won’t know until you start playing the games. You always think you will, but what if they think, ‘who is this old guy, this fossil, yelling and screaming at me?’ No one got really blasted that hard. I’ll sleep well tonight because, the best word I can use? They responded. They responded to what we asked them.”
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