Back in the Game
TAGS: Alumni StoryAthletics

It was December of 1960, and Jim Calhoun ’68,  Hon ’00 knew what he had to do—give up his basketball scholarship to Lowell State and drop out of college to help his family. He was one of six kids growing up without a father, who had passed away when Jim 15 years old.

For a time, he took whatever job he could get: granite cutter, junkyard worker, gravedigger. He even worked a stint in a shampoo factory.

Then, along came Gayton Salvucci, a Quincy, MA native who was coaching football at AIC. He knew of Calhoun’s career as a basketball star at Braintree High School and urged him to get back to college.

Calhoun playing basketball

“Sal approached me about giving AIC a look. I did that, and it all worked out for me. I got another basketball scholarship, and I became team captain in my senior year. I had some great teammates, and to this day, I’m still in touch with some of them.”

He led the team in scoring as junior and senior. In 1966, he helped AIC to its first Division II playoff appearance. His teammates included Henry Payne, Larry Freed, Moose Stronczek, Sal Sillari, Jim Miele, and Paul Procopio, all outstanding performers in their college days.

“No question, AIC was the springboard for me into my coaching career,” Calhoun said.

What a career. Forty years of college coaching—14 at Northeastern, 26 at the University of Connecticut. Three Division I national championships at UConn (1999, 2004, and 2011). A combined record of 873-369. Enshrinement in the AIC Athletic Hall of Fame and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, both in 2005. Also, Calhoun has seen 31 of his players go on to careers in the National Basketball Association.

All of that would seem to be enough for any coach, but it isn’t for Calhoun.

At the age of 75, his basketball career is still going. Five years of

retirement,

and he could take no more. He had to get back to coaching.

An opportunity came his way when the University of St. Joseph (USJ) in West Hartford decided to have male undergraduate students for the first time, starting with the 2018-19 academic year. Along with that, the school announced plans to institute an NCAA Division III men’s basketball program.

“He was a fierce competitor. If anybody had blood on his uniform at the end of a game, it would be Jim.” AIC – Hall of Famer Henry Payne ’68

Bill Cardarelli, a former Calhoun assistant at UConn, now serves as USJ athletic director. He first asked his old friend if he would help him get the program going. When Cardarelli began considering who to hire as coach of the new team, he decided to ask Calhoun if he might be interested. The answer was a resounding yes.

He signed on with USJ on Sept. 28, 2017. He was hired as a consultant rather than a coach, because he was still under contract with UConn until March 31, 2018.

“I fully expect to be coaching (at USJ) in the 2018-19 season,” he said.

Terms of Calhoun’s deal with the school were not announced. In an interview with the Associated Press, he joked that his contract was “in line with the Catholic teaching that poverty is a virtue.”

“For me, coaching is all about the players. I love being around them, working with them, helping them develop as student/athletes. I really miss that,” he said.

Yes, but what about stepping down from the heights of Division I?

Jim Calhoun cutting basketball net netting
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

“That doesn’t matter at all,” he said. “Basketball is basketball, whether you’re coaching the Celtics or a Division III team. It will be an honor to work with Dr. Rhona Free (USJ president) and the Sisters of Mercy, and play a role in starting something great with the school’s first men’s basketball team.”

Calhoun is not the first high-profile coach to switch to Division III. Rollie Massimino, who won a national title with Villanova in 1985, came out of retirement to coach Northwood (now Keiser University) of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, holding that post until he passed away last summer at 82. Jim O’Brien, who coached at Ohio State and Boston College, finished his career at Emerson College of Boston.

At Calhoun’s first St. Joseph press conference, Dr. Free said, “When our men’s basketball team is formed for its inaugural season, it will be founded on the principals and insights of someone who shares our commitment to preparing students for lifetime success. Coach Calhoun’s stature will be a game-changer in the awareness of USJ nationally and illustrates our commitment to overall excellence of faculty and staff throughout the institution.

“In 1986, when he accepted the job as head men’s basketball coach at UConn, he famously said he thought succeeding in that role and putting UConn on the college basketball map was ‘doable.’ We all know what a historic success that turned out to be. We are grateful that he will apply his expertise to set our program up for success from the start.”

AIC Hall of Famer Henry Payne ’68 said he was delighted when he heard that his old teammate would be returning to coaching—at a college with an enrollment of 1,220 full-time students.

“Whether it’s 1,200 or 12,000, it wouldn’t matter with Jim. He’ll do a great job because coaching is in his blood. If you want to see what kind of a coach he is, just look at the number of his former players who show up at any event involving him. They come back for their coach. That tells you a lot,” Payne said.

No question, AIC was the springboard for me into my coaching career.

In his AIC days, Calhoun’s teammates could sense that he was a coach in the making.

“He was a fierce competitor. If anybody had blood on his uniform at the end of a game, it would be Jim,” Payne said. “And he was very astute about basketball. In our time-outs, he’d always have an opinion about what we should do next.”

Calhoun and his wife, Pat, have been married since 1967, with two sons and six grandchildren. The couple, both of whom lost parents to heart disease, are known for their philanthropy, including the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at UConn and the annual Jim Calhoun Holiday Food Drive, which supports food assistance agencies that help families in need throughout Connecticut. In 1998, a $125,000 gift from Calhoun and his wife established the Jim and Pat Calhoun Cardiology Research Fund at UConn Health Center. The Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic Golf Tournament was launched in 1999, and has since raised millions in support of the endowment fund.

Come October, Coach Jim expects to be back where he belongs, on the sidelines, working with a basketball team.

“Will I be at Jim’s first game? You bet I will— wouldn’t miss it,” Payne said.

-By Gary Brown