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Tara Sullivan

Jim Calhoun finds winners everywhere

The 77-year-old Hall of Fame coach came out of retirement to coach the University of St. Joseph.

Now coaching Division 3 basketball with the same fire he stalked the sidelines at UConn, Jim Calhoun's University of St. Joseph lost to Hobart Friday in the first round of the NCAAs.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

One of Jim Calhoun’s current favorite anecdotes isn’t actually his, but borrowed from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K was working with USA Basketball a few years back in Las Vegas, when the entire contingent was going to attend a Drake concert. Only the coach couldn’t make it. Instead, he was able to watch one of Drake’s rehearsals and what he witnessed that night made a lasting impression. Not for the music, but for the effort.

“At the end of it two hours, Drake was soaking wet,” Calhoun recalls Krzyzewski telling him. “He was working so hard on his craft, at being good at what he does. I like using that story on my kids. If they can understand that being true about Drake, someone who they know, then idea about him being soaking wet in rehearsal can mean something to them.”

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Whatever they choose, be it music or basketball, Calhoun hopes those under his watch will work as hard at their craft as someone who has already reached the pinnacle of his. They could look at Drake. Or they could look at Calhoun.

What better inspiration could the players on this relatively unknown basketball team find than their own coach, the Hall of Fame clinician who came out of retirement to help build this program at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn.? As the Blue Jays took the court Friday afternoon against Hobart in the first round of the Division 3 NCAA tournament, they did so behind a coach who has written the most unlikely coda to a career that had already landed him in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

They did so behind the magic of an undefeated season in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, behind a 25-game winning streak built on the Calhoun trademarks of high-flying precision offense and hard-charging aggressive defense. They do so in the image of a 77-year-old coach who is a four-time cancer survivor and three-time NCAA men’s basketball champion, a man who asks nothing more of them than what he demands of himself – be here and be invested.

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“As I say to them, ‘Don’t tell me you don’t love this, otherwise you’re a fool to come here to this gym every week, to be here when it’s so hot in the summer. Don’t tell me that. This is about making yourself the best you can me,' ” Calhoun says. “There is no sense coming into a gym for two hours of practice every day and not loving it.”

He might as well have been speaking to himself. Because he sure as heck was speaking about himself. In just his second year at a school that only began admitting men last year and persuaded Calhoun to first oversee and then go ahead and coach the fledgling men’s basketball program, Calhoun has proven yet again that a coach is a coach, and a good coach is a good coach, no matter where he plies is trade. Like he once led Northeastern from the Division 2 ranks to Division 1 success, like he raised UConn from the depths of anonymity to three-time national champs, like he molded two rosters worth of NBA players in his time in Storrs, so too has he laid a foundation here.

His season ended Friday afternoon in Springfield, his Blue Jays losing 78-74 to Hobart, which controlled the boards, 42-31, and had five players score in double digits.

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“Watching themselves develop as men and people, to be dedicated to things beyond you, those lessons may sound corny to people but they really aren’t,” he said from his office, just a few hours before the team was to bus up to Springfield. “A 26-2 team that’s won 25 in a row? That’s hard to do. You don’t just don’t say, ‘Let’s win every game.' You have to work, to sacrifice to be a part of something. These kids have been really great for me. I may have some stripes on my shoulders that say I should at least be listened to, but these kids really, really bought in. That’s not that easy.”

Nothing that matters is. He has kids who work jobs on campus to help pay tuition – there are no athletic scholarships here. He has pre-med majors who can’t miss class. He has a gym that seats 350 (the school is building athletic facilities as we speak). But he had an overflow, standing-room crowd for the league championship win over Albertus Magnus, a game that, according to an ESPN story, sold out in under two minutes.

He’s had some hurdles, even beyond his own health. (Calhoun, who had to have part of his stomach surgically removed, said he is a year and 17 months cancer free.) The school’s transition led to a lawsuit by a former female employee who named Calhoun in her claim of a hostile work environment. He denies the charges, remaining focused on his work on the court.

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It is there he finds purpose. There he channels the kid who once spent two years working as a stone cutter in Quincy. There he remembers the Braintree boy who lost his father at 15, earned himself a scholarship to college, returned home to help with an ailing mom and four sisters and was eventually persuaded by his neighbors to go back to school.

“I really, really need purpose in life,” he says. “In this case, I can get my palms wet before every game. I can help get this kid to class, or that kid with a job. Some people see those as problems, but I’m in position to help solve those problems. That’s a gift. That’s purposeful.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.