Jim Calhoun is back on the sideline, this time coaching a Division 3 team
FRANKLIN — The only concession to age Jim Calhoun will allow is the barstool set up next to the bench. At 76, getting up and down from a folding chair is difficult after knee surgery a few years ago.
Not that the stool gets much use. The 16 players on the roster for the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn., need as much coaching as they can get. All but three are freshmen as the school is fielding a men’s team for the first time after going co-ed this fall.
Calhoun initially signed on as a consultant to help get the program started. Then he took the next step and became its first coach, returning to the game six years into retirement after winning three national championships at the University of Connecticut.
Calhoun could be playing golf near his vacation home in South Carolina, spoiling his six grandchildren, or making easy money calling games for ESPN. But that didn’t stick when he tried it.
The thump, thump, thump of the ball always has been the backbeat to his life. That it’s Division 3 doesn’t matter.
“It’s what he loves. The size of the gym and the rest of it never really drove him,” said Jeff Calhoun, who is equal parts assistant coach and guardian, making sure his father doesn’t venture too far onto the court to work the officials. “He likes being around the players and teaching.”
He must. Only 90 or so fans turned out at Pieri Gym on Tuesday night to see Dean College beat Saint Joseph, 94-75.
Calhoun stayed on his stool for less than a minute before jumping up to implore his players to rebound. The Blue Jays played hard, but not particularly well, and fell to 3-1.
Then the unshowered players piled onto the bus for the trip back to Hartford. Nobody plays or coaches in Division 3 for attention or glory.
“They just stopped playing,” Calhoun said, looking down at a stat sheet that showed his team gave up 50 points in the second half. “Tomorrow will be a tough practice.
“I can’t wait to get in the gym. It’s easy when you haven’t lost a game. It gets difficult once you have. Now there’s self-doubt. But they have exuberance.”
Down by 20 with 1:12 left, Calhoun called time to coach just a little bit more. Then, walking with a pronounced limp, he made his way down the length of the bench and got all the subs in the game.
The Blue Jays have a solid point guard in freshman Chris Childs. Power forward Mike Sagay, who played for Boston College two years ago, is a force inside. Freshman Nadir Dixon-Thompson of Dorchester shows promise.
“We’ll see what happens, maybe get these kids into their sophomore year and see what happens. We have a chance to be pretty good,” Calhoun said.
Tuesday was the first road game for the Blue Jays, part of a schedule that will send Saint Joseph to Rhode Island College on Sunday afternoon, then to schools such as Colby-Sawyer, Suffolk, and Anna Maria over the course of the winter.
It will be familiar terrain for Calhoun, who grew up in Braintree and coached at Westport and Dedham High before building then-Division 2 Northeastern into a mid-major powerhouse. That led to UConn, where he rebuilt a dying program into a three-time national champion.
The gyms are smaller, but Calhoun is the same coach he was with the Huskies, furiously chewing a wad of gum and incredulous about every call that goes against his players.
His language is salty as ever, but it’s how he coached Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, and Richard Hamilton on their way to the NBA.
“It’s great. Nights like this aren’t fun, but I like being with the kids and trying to win,” Calhoun said. “My wife said I was crazy but she knew that 52 years ago when she married me. What’s different? I love the game and losing is part of the game. We’ll be OK.”
For Dean coach Rico Cabral, coaching against Calhoun was something he had looked forward to.
“It’s really good for our team and our school,” Cabral said. “He’s a legend. I give him a lot of credit for doing this. You can see he still has the passion.”
In 1972, when Cabral was a junior college player, he tried out for Northeastern. Calhoun, in his first year with the Huskies, cut Cabral but recommended him to Jim Loscutoff, the coach at Boston State.
“He’s back to his roots,” Cabral said. “At his age, you have to admire it.”
The original plan was for Calhoun to get the program started then turn the team over to assistant coach Glen Miller, who has been part of his circle since the Northeastern days.
But Calhoun is enjoying himself and is already talking about sticking around for another year if his health allows. He had stomach surgery six weeks ago — the latest in what have been several bouts with cancer — but feels fine now.
“It’s not the paycheck or the entourage or anything else,” Calhoun said. “The essence of the game is still the game. The one thing I never did was play for my legacy. I never faked anything in my life.
“It’s pure. It’s passion. It’s what I love.”