Instead, Jim Calhoun sat in a tiny locker room inside the O’Connell Center at the University of Saint Joseph, a school of a little more than 1,000 undergraduates that began admitting men in the fall.
“It’s all the same,” he said, twisting his hands nervously in front of him. “And it’s not the same.”
“Five minutes, Coach,” called Ben Wallek, his team manager.
There would be about 500 people in the building, almost a sellout, for the game between Saint Joseph and Johnson & Wales. This is Calhoun’s team now — his life, one he eagerly chose — more than six years after retiring from Connecticut, nearly eight years coaching it to the national title in front of 75,421 in Houston’s Reliant Stadium and almost 14 years after his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 26 seasons at U-Conn., Calhoun built from next to nothing a program that won three national championships and produced NBA players by the bushel. “Nineteen lottery picks,” Calhoun likes to point out. Which is why it made sense for him to quietly move full time to his home on Hilton Head in South Carolina after he stepped down in 2012. He’d had myriad health problems, including three bouts with cancer and two serious bicycle accidents.
“I was beat up when I stopped,” he admitted, sitting in the tiny office he occupies at O’Connell Center. “I was hobbling badly because of the bike accident I’d had and I was tired. I was 70. It was the right time.”
Calhoun’s last couple of years at U-Conn. were the best of times and the worst of times. There was the out-of-nowhere national title in 2011, when Connecticut went into the Big East tournament as the No. 9 seed and then won 11 consecutive postseason games to claim Calhoun’s third national championship, leaving him behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp on the all-time list and tied with Bob Knight. (Roy Williams has since won a third title.)
But there was also an embarrassing NCAA investigation involving a former manager offering illegal inducements to a recruit, and academic issues during Calhoun’s final years that landed the school on probation during Kevin Ollie’s first season as Calhoun’s successor.
Even with his iconic status in Connecticut sealed, Calhoun was restless. He worked about 30 games a year for ESPN, keeping his hand in the game, but it wasn’t the same.
“I missed the highs and I missed the lows,” he said. “More than anything I missed having something at stake. I never felt any pressure going to do a game on TV. I had an itch that needed scratching.”
He flirted with Boston College in 2014, but ultimately decided it was too soon to come back, especially to an ACC program that would need a deep-dive effort to rebuild.
Then came a call from Bill Cardarelli, an old friend, who had been the longtime athletic director at Saint Joseph. The school, founded in 1932, was planning to admit men for the first time beginning in the fall of 2018. Cardarelli want to know if Calhoun would help him put together a men’s basketball team.
“I have no idea how many games we’ll win or how long I’ll stay,” he said. “But I feel like I can make a mark here — on the school, on the kids. That means something to me.”
It wasn’t until this past September that the school formally announced that Calhoun would coach. By then, he had spent months scouting players and recruiting a team. ESPN had a camera crew begin following him in April. The New York Times did a long story on Calhoun’s return. WTIC, the 50,000-watt Hartford radio station, signed on to broadcast home games. Joe D’Ambrosio, the play-by-play man throughout Calhoun’s U-Conn. tenure, does the play-by-play.
“If nothing else, Saint Joseph has to be the only D-III team in history with its games on a 50,000-watt radio station,” D’Ambrosio said laughing, after taping, by his estimate, his 853rd pregame show with Calhoun.
When word got out that Calhoun would coach the basketball team, applications jumped at Saint Joseph. “They told me it was 115 percent higher,” Calhoun said. “They call it the Calhoun Effect.”
There was just one roadblock in the way of his return: another bout with cancer. This time it was stomach cancer, unrelated to the previous bouts with prostate cancer and skin cancer. Calhoun had been undergoing chemotherapy until this past fall when his doctors told him surgery was the best option. And so, on Oct. 8 — a week before the start of practice — Calhoun had about 60 percent of his stomach removed.
Nine days later, he was on the sideline for practice, watching Glenn Miller, the former Brown and Penn head coach and Calhoun’s longtime assistant at U-Conn., run the workouts with a roster of 18 freshmen and one sophomore — a Division I transfer. Since there are no scholarships in Division III, Calhoun could bring in as many players as he wanted.
When the season opened Nov. 6, Calhoun was 100 percent Calhoun, pushing everyone in his orbit to the limit.
“I always believed in creating a certain amount of chaos when I coached,” he said. “Some years, I pushed the chaos too far. But the players have to know that I need them to care as much as I care.”
In the season opener, a victory over William Paterson, it took Calhoun less than 16 minutes to draw his first technical foul. Six weeks later, he got tossed out of a loss to LaGrange. The next night, he calmed down and only drew one technical during a win over Rockford.
Since then, he hasn’t been teed up, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t all over the officials. On Thursday, during a 98-97 double overtime loss to Johnson & Wales, he spent more time on the court than in the coach’s box. At one point, he screamed, “You guys are going to have to throw me out of here if you don’t start calling them for fouling my guys on those rebounds!”
Johnson & Wales Coach Jamie Benton, who played for Gary Williams at Boston College when Calhoun was at Northeastern, remembers the two coaches going at it in those days.
“It was intense to say the least,” he said, laughing after his team had barely survived on Thursday. “Now, I’m coaching against him and when I shake hands with him before the game I think, ‘Wow, there’s the legend.’ Then the game starts and I see the same young coach I remember at Northeastern.”
He shook his head. “He’s coaching basically an all-freshman team. You look at them and know they’re going to get a lot better with him coaching in a hurry.”
The argument can be made that trying to coax wins from a bunch of non-scholarship freshmen can keep a 76-year-old legend young. After the rollercoaster loss on Thursday, Calhoun sat with his four assistant coaches and reviewed the long night.
Finally, looking up from the stat sheet he’d been staring at, he shrugged. “We came, we saw, we lost,” he said. “Didn’t get the job done. That’s about all I’ve got to say.”
Then he went to talk to his players. He had plenty to say to them. “Practice 3:30 tomorrow,” he said, finally. “This one’s gone. We have to be emotionally read to play again Saturday.”
The players nodded. There was only one certainty about Saturday: Their coach would be emotionally ready
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.