Jim Calhoun as fiery as ever in coaching D-III Saint Joseph to debut win
The legendary former UConn coach, third on the career wins list among active coaches, returned to the game as the head man at the Division III university and watched his team come back for a 79-74 victory over William Paterson.
"It's what I missed," Calhoun, a three-time national champion, said in a sweaty and cramped postgame news conference.
Calhoun, who spent 26 seasons at UConn, last coached the Huskies in the 2012 NCAA tournament, losing to Iowa State.
With an enrollment of about 900 students, Saint Joseph went coed for the first time this year, with undergraduate males arriving on campus in August. 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 Saint Joseph students, a majority of them female, were among the sold-out crowd of 1,800 on Friday night. They wore T-shirts that said "Our House" — ironic because it literally wasn't. The home opener was moved to the gym at Trinity College because the Blue Jays' tiny home in nearby West Hartford could not accommodate the crowd. The school said it turned away more than 70 people who walked up seeking tickets.
Those who made it inside — including Taliek Brown, Tyler Olander and Charles Okwondu, three former Calhoun players on UConn's title-winning teams — were treated to a throwback night from the 76-year-old coach, 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 after an exchange with an official 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 Saint Joseph outscored William Paterson 49-33, shooting 50 percent — including five 3-pointers — in the second 20 minutes.
Calhoun admitted to giving his team a tongue-lashing in the locker room at the break. 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 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 off a break that 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 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2005, Calhoun signed on as a consultant to the Saint Joseph's men's basketball program in September 2017. At that point, he held a full-time position in UConn's athletic department. He officially became the Blue Jays 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, Calhoun's 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 sailing 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 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.