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Mike Anthony: Jim Calhoun Sounding, Acting, Like A Coach Again

Mike Anthony
Contact Reportermanthony@courant.com

Jim Calhoun was a basketball coach again Wednesday afternoon in the ways Jim Calhoun was always a basketball coach, embracing and fueling hype, getting folksy behind a podium, mixing a joke here and there with talk of love for the game and the process and even the politics.

The last speaker during a wide-ranging press conference to update progress on a revamped academic and athletic structure at the University of St. Joseph, Calhoun was introduced this way by athletic director Bill Cardarelli: “Jim Calhoun is our, I always get confused on how to say this, by the way … Jim is with us right now, and we’re really enjoying him.”

There was no game Wednesday, of course, no whistle around Calhoun’s neck, no mock applause for officials and no practice orders, either. There aren’t even officially players on the roster of a team that is one of four new men’s programs set to debut in 2018-19 at USJ, previously a women’s institution.

Calhoun remains, officially, a consultant at the Division III school while he spearheads its move into the men’s basketball world at his familiar redline rate. He turned 76 last week and looks healthy and happy, sounds eager to compete and teach, appears ready to build another program.

He gnawed on gum, like he always did pre-game, while waiting to speak to a group of 100 or so in the O'Connell Athletic Center Gymnasium. He then addressed Sister Pat Rooney, a board of trustees member in the audience, requesting her guidance in developing acceptable sideline behavior and language. He made grand statements.

“To me, Division 3, 4, 7, 1 makes no difference,” Calhoun said. “The game is the game, the kids are the kids, the education is the education.”

Yes, he was Coach Jim Calhoun again Wednesday, not in title, but in behavior and for all practical purposes.

Heck, he even talked about expanding facilities to include an arena that would hold 2,500-3,000 and yelled “Not a dime back!” in closing remarks, a reference to his infamous postgame tirade in 2009. Later, he mentioned conversations with Netflix and ESPN regarding a documentary series “about the process, coming back, all that sort of stuff."

“Nothing official, but I can tell you what: Every single day I get more excited about the kids,” Calhoun said during his speech. Afterward, he said, “I fully expect to be the coach at St. Joe's next year. I fully expect to. And we'll leave it at that.”

There are some complications to work out. Calhoun is under contract as a full-time state employee at UConn, in an advisory role. He’s a consultant at St. Joseph. Coaching would essentially mean reversing those roles. Calhoun would have to assume a part-time role at UConn while working full-time at USJ, and he’ll have to make sure the Office of State Ethics sees no issue with any arrangement. He expects resolution within a month, and his official start date at USJ would be Sept. 1.

Calhoun’s passion for UConn has not diminished. He does not want to lose the ability to help a program looking to right itself after Dan Hurley replaced Kevin Ollie.

“Since Danny's come aboard he's had about 10 workouts, and I've been at about six of them,” Calhoun said. “As you know, I wasn't doing much of that with Kevin. Kevin is my guy, and I'll continue to say that. But like anything else, change was needed and we made a change. I wish him the best of luck. I'm sure he'll do well. Danny is going to do a great job, and it's good to see my favorite politician, Tom Moore, back.”

In the meantime, Calhoun will continue … well, coaching. Because what he’s doing is what coaches do in the offseason. He and assistant Glen Miller have already assembled a team and a handful of those players were in attendance Wednesday.

“They want to do great things,” Calhoun said. “Do some aspire to play in the NBA? Sure. Will they? Chances are less. But I'm not going to ever cut anybody's dreams off. We recruited 12 or 13 pretty good players, some all-state players, guys we really like.”

Calhoun said he attended 63 games last season. He’s traveled to recruit with Miller and Cardarelli, who was a member of Calhoun’s first staff at UConn in 1986-87.

Recruiting was and will always be about identifying players who are talented and the right fit. But beyond the basics, that part of the job has changed. Calhoun is having to get creative with financial aid agreements, as there are no scholarships at this level. And his past has become a more unique advantage than it was at UConn, where he competed with so many other nationally known coaches.

“We did tell kids you'll get more attention here than you would at the average Division III school,” Calhoun said. “We walk into a gym, the kid knows I'm there. That's a big deal. The other thing is, if I'm rolling Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, Rudy Gay, Shabazz [Napier] off my lips, they're going to listen a lot more. We can talk about development, talk about the school. I believe in what we're doing. I really do. I went to a small school.”

This American International College grad is giving little USJ, enrollment 2,500 with grad students, a big presence. The Blue Jays will play the upcoming season in the tiny gym where Calhoun spoke Wednesday, but he’s already begun talks with the XL Center and Mohegan Sun Arena about hosting some games, maybe multiday events that include schools such as Trinity and Wesleyan. He’s also started reaching out to Division I programs about scheduling future exhibitions — Providence and Central Connecticut among them.

“My competitive fire is the same,” Calhoun said.

All that’s left is for Calhoun’s title to change, and for practice to begin.

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