Calhoun T’d up but wins coaching debut in D-III

HARTFORD, Conn. — Nearly seven years since he last appeared on the sideline, Jim Calhoun coached a basketball game in Connecticut on Friday night — and led the University of St. Joseph to a win in its first-ever men’s game.

The legendary former UConn coach, third on the career wins list among active coaches, returned to the game as the head man at the University of St. Joseph in a 79-74 victory over William Paterson.

“It’s what I missed,” said Calhoun, a three-time national champion, in a sweaty and cramped postgame presser.

Calhoun, who spent 26 seasons at UConn, last coached the Huskies in the 2012 NCAA tournament in a loss to Iowa State.

With an enrollment of about 900 students, St. Joseph went coed for the first time this year, with undergraduate males arriving on campus in August — many of them Calhoun’s basketball players. The school planned on adding 50 males, but thanks to what many around campus have termed “The Calhoun Effect,” that number nearly doubled.

Fired-up St. Joseph students, a majority of them female, were among the sold-out crowd of 1,800. They wore T-shirts that said “Our House” — ironic because it literally wasn’t. The home opener was moved to Trinity College’s gym because the Blue Jays’ tiny home in nearby West Hartford could not accommodate the crowd. The school said it turned away more than 70 who walked up seeking tickets.

Those who made it inside were treated to a throwback night from Calhoun, who played the hits.

He called a timeout 41 seconds into the game to bench one of his best players, Mike Sagay. He ranted and raved, pleaded for answers from his assistants and, of course, picked up a technical foul with 4:17 remaining in the first half, which ended with the Blue Jays trailing by 11.

It was a different story after halftime, when St. Joseph outscored William Paterson 49-33, shooting 50 percent — including five 3s — in the second 20 minutes.

Calhoun admitted to giving his team a tongue-lashing in the locker room. It came out in the second half like a typical Calhoun team, with a hounding defense that created fast-break opportunities.

On one of them, Sagay fumbled the ball off his leg and out of bounds on what would have been a wide-open dunk. Calhoun picked up and slammed the high chair he was sitting on next to the bench. His assistant and son, Jeff Calhoun, made sure it was safe to sit down again.

“A kinder, gentler Jim Calhoun? Gotcha,” the 76-year-old coach said in response to a question about whether he was supposed to tone down his sideline act. “Wrong.”

About three minutes later, Sagay — who finished with 13 points — kept Calhoun happy. He rammed home two straight dunks, the first off a steal and the second after the break was ignited by a blocked shot pinned against the glass. Sagay roared as he landed, and the student section chanted, “I believe that we will win.”

“I sold [my players] on the opportunity to do something special,” Calhoun said. “You’re going to make an imprint on the school going forward.”

Ryan O’Neill led the Blue Jays with 25 points.

“All-time leading scorer,” Calhoun said.

Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005, Calhoun signed on as a consultant to the St. Joseph’s men’s basketball program in September 2017. At that point, he held a full-time position in UConn’s athletic department. He became, officially, the men’s basketball coach a year later, when he worked out a switch to part time in Storrs.

Including Friday’s game and a stint at Northeastern, his 874 wins rank behind only Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim among active coaches. Calhoun is considered one of college basketball’s great program builders. He took UConn, previously nothing more than a rural and regional power, to national titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011. The program won a fourth title under one of Calhoun’s former players, Kevin Ollie, in 2014.

It hasn’t been all smooth for Calhoun over the years. His program did not participate in the 2013 NCAA tournament thanks to poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores. He also served a three-game suspension in Big East play during his final season for recruiting violations under his watch. Calhoun also has battled cancer four times, including over the past two years. He had a procedure to remove a tumor from his stomach in early October and is now cancer-free.

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