The distant whirring of saws and drills provided the background noise as St. Joseph men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun — yes, his role and title are certain now — sat in his office Monday and talked, talked, talked for an hour and a half about life, his basketball past, his basketball future.
“People say, ‘I remember what your office [at UConn] was like,” Calhoun said. “You know, I don’t need much more than a phone and a cup of coffee.”
Calhoun’s sprawling office inside Gampel Pavilion had been built over time like his program in Storrs. Sneakers of his most accomplished players were prominently displayed, dozens of photos representing achievements and relationships, trophies here and there, keepsakes spread across his large desk, arranged on walls between two entrances and in showcases adjacent to a conference table that could comfortably seat eight.
His tiny office in St. Joe’s O’Connell Center, where renovation is geared toward proper support of Calhoun’s new basketball program and a bold overall athletic endeavor, probably isn’t much bigger than where he set up as a teacher in Old Lyme some 50 years ago. Concrete block walls are lined with a few mementos speaking to what Calhoun has done and what he is about to do.
There are framed letters from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Sports Illustrated covers, photos of his UConn teams. On an easel to Calhoun’s right is a computerized rendering of the building that will be the new St. Joseph basketball home. Shovels will soon go into the ground and the whirring of saws and drills will continue a year and a half as the building is constructed and connected to the existing athletic center.
The project, with a final cost expected to be $14-18 million, has been approved and a ribbon-cutting can be expected in January 2020. State of the art in every way, especially for Division III, it will hold about 3,000 fans, a seat for every student at the university and then some.
Calhoun has told decision makers at St. Joe’s over the past year, “If you try to do this halfway, you'll fail.”
“I said that about building a legacy to sustain,” Calhoun said. “When I'm not coaching here in two, three [years], whatever it may be, I want St. Joe's to sustain excellence. Greatness is determined by what kind of kids you get, the way the program is run and by the support you get from the university.”
St. Joe’s, with an enrollment of 2,500, is accepting male students and establishing men’s athletic programs — with Calhoun and men’s basketball at the forefront, the project’s driving force. Calhoun remains a full-time employee at UConn in an advisory role, and a part-time consultant at St. Joe’s. But the finishing touches are being applied to new contracts at both institutions, essentially flipping Calhoun’s existence so he can coach the Blue Jays and remain a part-time consultant at UConn. The process should be finalized by the end of August.
“I fully plan to coach the team,” Calhoun said. “At St. Joe's, they've said do [it however long] you want. I said, two-year contract, let's do it that way. I would like to coach in the new building. That's kind of my goal, and then we'll see what happens. … [Coaching] is clearly feeding something I need. I'm addicted. I'm addicted to basketball. I'm addicted to kids. There was a void in my life, a terrible void.”
Calhoun, 76, sounds and looks great, ready to battle on the court like he’s battled on the recruiting trail. He’s all in now. It’s killing him to wait until Oct. 15, per Division III rules, to actually instruct players on the court.
“I've been over to watch Danny [Hurley] work his kids out [at UConn], and he does a terrific job,” Calhoun said. “They can go out and know exactly what they want to do. We don't have a clue.”
Calhoun mellowed — just a little — over the final handful of his 26 years at UConn. Now five years removed from the bench, he will have to consider another approach.
“The kids at UConn have a little different thought when they come in — to play in the NBA,” Calhoun said. “[St. Joe’s players] want to be as good as Kemba Walker, or Ray [Allen] or Ben [Gordon]. But I think the key element is to understand that we have five honor students. One wants to be a dentist. The options on the other side are just as important. The kids at UConn, yes, life was important, but the immediacy was basketball. [St. Joe’s players] are coming into a situation, culturally, where they're the first of their kind to ever come here, males. There are a lot of things to go through. I'd be foolish to think I could treat them the same.”
Make no mistake, though. This is a serious operation.
“I don’t want this to be a recreation program,” Calhoun tells athletic director Bill Cardarelli.
Calhoun has recruited players to form a team that will run and press. The weight room is already under reconstruction. This is the third construction project for one of the best program-builders in basketball history.
“It brings me back to when I took over at Northeastern,” he said. “We were Division II and I was handed a Division I schedule. It was a whole new world. … And at UConn, when [Gampel] came, then stepping into the greatest league [The Big East] in the history of college basketball, that was special and exciting. Here it's even more exciting because we've never done this before. We'll have missteps. The culture has to be what you can do to help us and what we can do to help you.”
Calhoun’s presence as a consultant since September 2017 has already helped St. Joe’s tremendously. Applications are up, as are test scores for incoming students. A film crew waited outside Calhoun’s office Monday, and a documentary is being considered. ESPN3 might broadcast some games online. Expecting big crowds, the Blue Jays are looking into playing home games at The State Armory in Hartford because the existing USJ gym has a capacity of just 750.
Wait until Calhoun is doing more than talking, talking, talking. He’ll soon be coaching, coaching, coaching. It’s real now. USJ’s first game, Nov. 9 at home against William Patterson, is three months away. The first practice is less than 10 weeks away.
Those kids will love the box-out drill.