HARTFORD, Conn. – As Jim Calhoun and his reborn basketball life have been celebrated, the bright light of national exposure has shined on a little West Hartford campus in the midst of a great transformation.
There was an ESPN documentary examining both Calhoun’s career at UConn and his return with Division III St. Joseph, which hired Calhoun to start a men’s basketball program and used his existence as the linchpin for an athletic endeavor that changed the trajectory of an entire university.
What a couple of years it has been. Male students were admitted in 2018 at the previously all-women’s institution. A $15 million basketball facility is being erected, an extraordinary if not unprecedented project for a program at this level. Calhoun was even named “Best Coach” at the glitzy ESPY Awards in Los Angeles back in July.
It was all fascinating. St. Joseph was living a public relations dream.
But as Calhoun, 77, returns to the sideline Saturday night – his 42nd season overall, his second at St. Joseph – that dream scenario has been damaged.
Because behind all the triumphant noise, out of view of that spotlight, in the cramped USJ athletic department offices, a delicate situation was not being managed properly. In fact, by all appearances, it was handled poorly.
That we know for sure.
Calhoun has been accused of sexual discrimination by Jaclyn Piscitelli, a former USJ associate athletic director who filed a federal lawsuit last month against the university, alleging violation of her Title IX rights.
Piscitelli claims that her complaints regarding Calhoun’s behavior and what she described as a “boys club” culture in the athletic department went ignored by her superiors until she was fired in June. Along the way, Piscitelli claims, Calhoun and assistant coach Glen Miller made inappropriate comments about her looks and directed her to perform menial tasks. Calhoun at one point asked her to clean up coffee grounds he had spilled, noting that his wife would if he were home. The allegations against Miller include a claim that he criticized her for not smiling enough, once allegedly saying: “I’d swipe left, too.”
“As for the accusations that have been reported,” Calhoun wrote in a statement, “I will say only this: I’m not sure when asking a colleague if they would mind opening the door because my hands were full became discrimination or when self-deprecation for being an aging, clumsy husband became an insult.”
Piscitelli’s claims can’t be ignored. If true, much of the behavior is inexcusable. And in that case the university and Calhoun must consider their flawed ways of treating people.
For the situation to even reach this point speaks to a lack of responsibility in the athletic department. At the very least, an employee’s concerns appear to have been taken less seriously than they should have been. University leadership looks inept. Calhoun and Miller look piggish and they know it. Their reputations are at stake. Former athletic director Bill Cardarelli comes across looking incompetent.
And, poof, the purity of a feel-good marriage between a larger-than-life Hall of Famer and a little university whose ambitions he steered has morphed into something uncomfortable.
Calhoun said he never “knowingly treated any woman unfairly because of her gender.”
USJ was rewarded handsomely for hiring Calhoun. The school’s athletic and academic profiles skyrocketed. Calhoun himself benefited from taking on the project in ways personal and professional, rejuvenated while bravely battling cancer. The man has done a lot of good for himself and those around him.
Calhoun’s return was so romantic, all about the joy of teaching and coaching and building. His team, loaded with freshmen, even made a run to the conference championship game and he has been incredibly influential on campus, usually working directly with the president’s office on a number of initiatives.
Calhoun wants to be judged on the totality of his contributions to the institutions he has worked for and to the state he has lived in for nearly half his life. He will be.
It doesn’t mean that after all these years Calhoun doesn’t have lessons to learn.
Calhoun is often sarcastic, sometimes rude, sometimes operating in a way that could make anyone feel slighted. His approach is part of what has made him equally successful, difficult and controversial and in a strange way his rough personality has been part of his charm.
I have no trouble believing that Calhoun built the men’s basketball program with power that probably extended beyond his title. I have no trouble believing that he would strong-arm anyone he deemed an inconvenience or obstacle. I have no trouble believing that the ways he operated at UConn for a quarter-century might not have gone over well in a new, private, very different setting. Whether he or those who worked with him crossed the line into sexual discrimination will be decided by the courts.
Calhoun’s workplace environments are demanding, sometimes turbulent. And here you had a school that spent years exclusively empowering women suddenly with one of the most famous and powerful men in state history helping steer the athletic bus. I doubt it took more than a few seconds for anyone in the Blue Jays’ athletic office to realize who was actually in charge once Calhoun walked through the door, and now he is facing allegations that can’t be brushed off as the quirky personality traits of a domineering boss.
Calhoun is imperfect, with warts and scars from a lifetime of leadership and he has made mistakes – at UConn, and probably again at USJ. Those mistakes don’t define him. They don’t even define the final chapter that he continues to write.
But they are part of his legacy and harmful to his reputation. USJ has lived a PR dream. Now it must deal with that dream being damaged.
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