Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis

For the all-women University of Saint Joseph to survive, it had to turn to a guy like legendary coach Jim Calhoun.

The sign reading "Welcome Coach Calhoun" is crooked. But you can't miss it, slung across a glass trophy case inside the O'Connell Athletic Center, a squat building that's more small-town post office than big-time hoops gym on the edge of the University of Saint Joseph campus.

Outside, just ahead of a cramped parking lot, a painted rock displays the names of the school's most recent graduates, all women.

It's March 2018, and this school, founded by the Sisters of Mercy of Connecticut in 1932, is five months from breaking from its past. It hired legendary University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, 76, to coach its Division III men's basketball team. He's best known for helping lift UConn from a school in a cow pasture to blue-blood status. Now he's prepared to commence a new era for a university that badly needs one.

His charge isn't so simple. Not only has St. Joe's never had men's basketball, but it also has never had undergraduate men.

E:60 examines how Hall of Fame basketball coach Jim Calhoun is changing the culture at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut.

St. Joe's decided that with the start of the 2018-19 academic year, it would become coeducational. Enrollment is declining at an unsustainable pace. The student body is almost strictly local, bringing in 98 percent from Connecticut and having just three first-year students from outside the Northeast in its last single-sex year.

Just months after its decision in 2017 to enroll men, St. Joe's hired Calhoun as a consultant and, eventually, its first men's basketball coach, solidifying the school's bet on the Calhoun Effect.

UConn had won four NCAA tournament games before Calhoun arrived in 1986; it now has four national championships -- Calhoun was the coach for three. That's more than Duke, more than North Carolina, more than anyone has won in the past 20 years. In the process, Calhoun helped transform UConn from a regional school to one of the nation's top public universities.

His newest relationship, with this tiny, private, Catholic school in West Hartford, Connecticut, three miles from where his UConn teams played in the state's capital city of Hartford, is a symbiotic one. Calhoun, who retains a part-time job in UConn's athletic department, gets to coach again. And St. Joe's makes the splash it needs, in hopes of achieving sustainable growth and, they pray, long-term financial stability.

There's one caveat to this quid pro quo: St. Joe's wants to continue its mission of empowering women. But to do so, it is leveraging Connecticut's most famous man.

IN A FIRST-floor corridor inside Mercy Hall, which feels like an old statehouse and smells like an old church, portraits of past St. Joe's leaders -- Mary Rosa McDonough, Mary Theodore Kelleher, Mary Consolata O'Connor -- adorn the walls. At the end of a long, blue carpet, glass double-doors lead to the other face of this change: St. Joe's president Rhona Free.

A labor economist and advocate for the university's women's leadership center, Free has helmed the school since July 2015. She was previously an administrator at Eastern Connecticut State University, where she also taught economics for 25 years. Free attended Sarah Lawrence College, arriving there shortly after it added men in 1968. She says her alma mater went coed without a well-thought-out plan. St. Joe's, she says, will be different.

University of St. Joseph's president Rhona Free says she knew she had to take a risk to make a splash.

"We ran all the numbers many times with many experts," the president says. "We don't even have to grow a lot."

Free says the school consulted a 2013 study from the College Board that concluded that only about 2 to 3 percent of prospective college students even consider a single-sex institution. St. Joe's could not continue to dive into a shallow pool.

"There will be some women's colleges that thrive," Free says. "They have big endowments. They have the ability to award scholarships. For institutions like ours, it would have been an increasing struggle."

Free and Calhoun seem like an odd couple -- one a veteran of academia who speaks in measured tones and describes herself as naturally cautious and the other a rough-and-tumble coaching lifer in blue Nikes who stomps his feet, spikes water bottles and describes himself as mean and ornery.

But in the board of trustees' decision to turn coed, Free says she understood that she needed to take some risks. So she told St. Joe's athletic director Bill Cardarelli, an assistant under Calhoun for the 1986-87 season, to get the highest-profile person he could find from UConn to lead the men's basketball program, not thinking it would be Calhoun himself.

Cardarelli and Calhoun had kept in touch. Cardarelli went to see his old friend, hoping for direction on how to make something out of nothing. "You have to create a buzz," Cardarelli remembers Calhoun telling him about the new program.

But Calhoun said something else: He missed being with the guys. Sensing an opening, Cardarelli said he had some guys Calhoun could coach. Calhoun asked Cardarelli to give him three reasons. Cardarelli was recruiting an old recruiter.

Cardarelli brought Calhoun to meet Free. The veteran athletic director said, at first, he wasn't sure it was going to work. "Then all of a sudden, they both clicked just talking to each other," Cardarelli says. "It's like when you recruit someone. He gets them pumped up about playing."

"I think [when there's] a challenge, Coach Calhoun is going to be better than anyone else," Free says.

Calhoun's office at St. Joe's is past the weight room, which is accessible to the West Hartford public, and beyond the antiquated gym, which makes the fire marshal nervous when just a few hundred people are inside. If you're not paying attention, you'll miss the training room, which is the size of a closet. Calhoun is just around the corner.

Calhoun shares this space with his associate head coach, Glen Miller, who played for him at Northeastern and coached with him at UConn. On the wall, there's a signed photo of Kemba Walker's 2011 Big East tournament buzzer-beater. Ray Allen's autobiography, with a personalized inscription, sits on Calhoun's desk. Calhoun looks at home here, crammed into this hole in the wall, where he can build things from the ground up.

He doesn't take his past for granted. His former players swear by him: Allen considers him a father figure, and Walker is why Calhoun has NBA League Pass. Former Huskies, men and women, return en masse for his annual charity game -- enough to fill four rosters.

But his record isn't all rosy. Calhoun's coaching style is gruff and in-your-face, a whirl of four-letter words and knee-jerk substitutions, a manner that has alienated some over the years. The NCAA suspended him for three games in 2011-12 in his last UConn season because of NCAA infractions. The school was banned from the 2013 postseason the year after he retired because of poor Academic Progress Rate scores under his watch. He doesn't agree with it all but takes responsibility. St. Joe's, he says, isn't a do-over.

There were other opportunities to come back at big Division I schools. So why here, and why now?

Calhoun is a Connecticut celebrity. In 1998, The New York Times wrote that he could run for governor.

He says he owes basketball everything and knows what it can do for people and places. "I saw it as a way to feed my addiction," Calhoun says of his return. "And my addiction is basketball and kids and people and education, and if I don't have that hands-on ability to do it, I feel unfulfilled."

In its fight for relevance, St. Joe's has Calhoun on its side. Calhoun's daughter-in-law graduated from St. Joe's. She told him that she came to the school because she wanted a place where she'd be heard. Calhoun knows what's in the St. Joe's DNA -- and that that DNA can't get lost in this rush to change.

"We are going to have to prove that we can only enhance the school," Calhoun says. "Having 40 years in higher education and coaching, I think on any campus, male athletes do change the culture. ... But we're good for St. Joe's, and St. Joe's is good for us."

TOWARD THE END of the last academic year that St. Joe's is a single-sex school, about a dozen women sit around a conference room table in its student center, McGovern Hall. The majority are members of the Student Programming and Events Council (SPEC), an all-women's leadership group that these women cherish, and they've come here to discuss the future.

Outside, the spacious quad is mostly empty, a familiar site on most days. Two people play KanJam. No more than 30 total mill about. You wouldn't know you're on a college campus on a glorious spring day.

For some in the room, the quiet is a selling point. One student notes that the addition of men might bring in more women and, perhaps, a different clientele altogether. Another worries about things turning raucous; remember, she says, the overturned cars after championship celebrations in Storrs? Taken as a whole, the group is apprehensive.

Why, then, did little St. Joe's decide to add men? The women in the room respond in unison.

"Money," one says.

"Funding," another says.

"Interest," a third chimes in.

“The news about our women's unique, specialized education -- it's about a male coach.”

Holly Mirabella, 2012 St. Joe's graduate

It's a familiar refrain for women's colleges around the country; 29 have gone coed since 2000. The school wouldn't have closed immediately if it had opted for status quo, but the full-time undergraduate enrollment's 18 percent atrophy over a three-year period -- 987 students in 2014 fell to a startling 810 in 2017 -- was unsustainable.

It sounds even worse taken from the women themselves.

Mary Joerg is one of only four English majors on campus. Megan Burke is one of nine to major in math and, she says, the only one who has a concentration in actuarial science.

"My computer programming class next semester is two students," Burke says, "and it didn't fit in one of the other student's schedules, so they changed the time completely. Otherwise, it would be just me."

That's what Calhoun has been brought in to change. The women in this conference room, months before the first male undergraduate steps on campus, pledge to keep an open mind. They know the school has needs and hope this is the best way to fulfill them. These women also worry about losing field time with the eventual arrival of five men's sports.

"The fear of going back to high school, where boys are dominant," says Megan Ricci, who plays softball and soccer. "You have that field ready first, before the girls'."

And there are worries about losing attention on, well, everything else.

Ricci also mentions the school being a safe place for international students. Sarah Palko adds that St. Joe's is a comfortable spot for adult learners. The school is intimate. They don't want to lose that. Everyone here wants the 98 incoming men to acclimate to instead of eradicate that atmosphere.

Joerg, a lacrosse player, remembers a recent away game. A man stopped her and instantly recognized her school as where Jim Calhoun had just landed. "And I was like, 'No, the University of St. Joseph, where we have an amazing nursing program,'" Joerg said. "Now we're going to be known as the school that Jim Calhoun just dropped in on.

"USJ. University of Saint Jim."

St. Joe's legacy to date is supporting and empowering women. Calhoun and his player Chris Childs, far right, say they understand the importance of that tradition.

JIM CALHOUN STEPS up to a lectern at center court in the O'Connell Center. This May news conference is for all the school's sports, with the coaches sitting on a dais as a group, even though it's Calhoun everyone is here to see.

About 60 people sit in O'Connell's wooden bleachers, including current student-athletes. Metal folding chairs for the media stand in rows on the hardwood. Sister Patricia Rooney, a 1958 graduate who's in her 22nd year on the school's board of trustees, sits on one of them.

Four days ago, the school held its commencement ceremony, its last as a single-sex institution. Calhoun, wearing a national championship ring, stands out among the other coaches. There are news trucks outside and UConn beat writers inside. It's a scene this school has never seen.

Calhoun, of course, has a history with news conferences.

In 2009, he clashed with freelance journalist and political activist Ken Krayeske, producing one of college basketball's more memorable soundbites. Krayeske wanted to know how much of his $1.6 million salary the coach was willing to give back in light of the state's growing budget deficit. "Not a dime back," Calhoun said at the time, going on to discuss the millions his program brought to the university. "Get some facts, and come back and see me," Calhoun continued. It got heated. At one point, Calhoun asked Krayeske, "You're not really that stupid, are you?"

In O'Connell, Calhoun stands at the podium. Are there any questions?


It's a moment in need of an ice-breaker.

"Not a dime back," Calhoun says.

He smiles; those who get it laugh. It breaks the tension.

When Calhoun started at UConn, a remarkable 12 daily newspapers covered the program. They were called "The Horde." The interest was there, but the winning wasn't. Calhoun leveraged UConn's place in the Big East, a famed basketball powerhouse, to wake a sleeping giant.

By December 1998, months before his first title, The New York Times had written that Calhoun could run for governor. With the NHL's Hartford Whalers gone, UConn became the state's most high-profile team. In Storrs, the energy generated by UConn's basketball programs allowed the university to pump $2.3 billion into campus improvements starting in 1995, right after Geno Auriemma's women's team won the school's first national title. Once a school that didn't offer meals on weekends, UConn peaked in 2017 as the nation's No. 18 public university.

"If you went on the campus of UConn 25 years ago, today you would not know where you are going," Calhoun says of the sprawl.

Calhoun's roots are deep at the University of Connecticut, where he coached for 26 years and won three national titles.

He hopes to use that blueprint on a smaller scale at St. Joe's.

That's why St. Joe's updated its Wi-Fi to accommodate interest, including from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and CBS News, that never existed before. "I've had more media inquiries in four or five months than in the one and a half years before," St. Joe's sports information director Josh Ingham says.

After the news conference concludes, Calhoun takes photos with his incoming players. The team is coming together. He's excited. But what about those who have concerns? What about the woman who worries that rowdy fans will start flipping cars in front of O'Connell like they did near UConn's Gampel Pavilion?

Calhoun leans in close.

Tongue planted in cheek, he says, "I hope they do."

Before the fall of 2018, male students were absent from St. Joe's classrooms.

"WELCOME TO YOUR first college class," professor Kristin Cistulli says on Aug. 27, 2018, the first day of a new era at St. Joe's. "We are going to spend the whole semester talking about prejudice."

The class in Lynch Hall Room 207 is, in part, an intro to college. It aims to prepare students for the next four years. The school hoped to enroll 50 men this year. Instead, it added 98, bringing the school's enrollment to more than 900 for the first time in three years. Six of those men are in this class. Like on any first day of school, everyone is feeling the others out.

Cistulli describes the school's changing mission, which used to specify a commitment to women. Now, it's to the development of the whole person.

But in Cistulli's experience as a student and as a teacher -- she previously taught at Central Connecticut and Western Connecticut, both coed institutions -- women defer to men in classrooms. If St. Joe's wants to maintain that commitment, she says, it will be done not by excluding men but by making sure women's voices don't go quiet while men's get louder.

It'll be a work in progress amid all that's changing.

Chris Childs, who will go on to become Calhoun's leading scorer, sits in the back row of Cistulli's class and takes it all in. Throughout the semester, Cistulli says, they'll discuss current events. For the first time on the St. Joe's campus, male and female undergraduate voices will compete.

Childs doesn't say much in class. He seems nervous; he barely ate breakfast. Of being one of those first male voices, Childs says, so far, so good. He says being a resident assistant has helped. He's in charge of a male floor, but it's a coed building, so he's responsible for everyone. His mother is a sociology professor at Hunter College, so that helps, too.

Many of Calhoun's players, at least, are trying to incorporate themselves in the St. Joe's environment. Childs is an RA; his teammate, Brad Landry, gives tours and plans to run for student government president. Noreaga Davis, one of Calhoun's captains, works in the admissions office.

If you ask about the assimilation process, you get different answers. One student-athlete, sitting in the foyer of O'Connell at a barbecue the school hosted for all its athletes on that first day of class, says some women give off the energy that the change is an unwelcomed one. Just steps away, a woman says the warming-up process has been immediate.

But at this barbecue, two men's soccer players reflect on the changes around them. One, Kamar Mullings, says he'll use any pushback about the change as motivation. He says he wants to justify why they're here.

His teammate, Kevin Bilbraut, looks up from his dinner.

"With any new thing," Bilbraut says, "there's a potential for rejection."

A WEEK BEFORE the first men's basketball practice in St. Joe's history, Jim Calhoun has a four-hour procedure that removes a tumor and about half of his stomach. He had been battling Stage 4 stomach cancer for two years but told no one publicly.

Doctors previously thought the tumor to be inoperable; his family thought it'd be what ended his life. But a combination of treatment and Calhoun's perseverance allowed a window to emerge for the surgery that beat his fourth bout with the disease.

"I did the best I could, psychologically, to make sure it wasn't getting to me," the coach says of working through his two-year fight.

The team finds out about Calhoun's cancer and his procedure just days before it takes place. Calhoun gathers the team in a trailer behind O'Connell -- where some of the St. Joe's athletic offices, in need of space, moved temporarily -- and delivers the news. He will be down for two weeks, one in the hospital and another to recover at home.

According to Ingham, his players might not have fully understood the severity of it. "'Make sure you guys take care of what you need to take care of, and I'll take care of what I need to take care of,'" Ingham remembers Calhoun saying. "'Don't worry about me. I'll be back ASAP.'"

With Calhoun resting, Miller runs the team's first practice on Oct. 15. Alongside him on the staff are Rashamel Jones, his former co-captain; Calhoun's son, Jeff, who also played at UConn; and Ryan Olander, the brother of Tyler, who won two championships with the Huskies. It's a mini Storrs in West Hartford.

Calhoun waits in the bathroom section of the locker room with his son, Jeff, while his associate head coach, Glen Miller, talks to the team.

But West Hartford, or at least this school, had never seen this.

Above the court, on O'Connell's elevated track, Noelani Liz, a women's soccer player and men's hoops manager, is filming practice for the coaches.

"It's been a smoother transition than expected," she says of the campus welcoming men. "There are definitely some people who remember what it was. But I don't feel hostility."

Calhoun returns from his two-week hiatus later in October. On Nov. 1, there's the first Basketball Welcome Dinner, and the next night, there's an inaugural Midnight Madness. A week later, St. Joe's plays its first game, a win over William Paterson in front of 2,000 fans at Hartford's Trinity College. Joe D'Ambrosio, UConn's play-by-play man for 26 years, is on the call. It's a Division III team on 50,000 watts. The St. Joe's student section chants, "I believe that we will win!"

Two days after that, there are 300 people inside O'Connell, where St. Joe's softball players sell snacks in the foyer. The pomp and circumstance are gone, but the reality of the first on-campus game is here.

"It's exciting," says Kelsey Walicki, a freshman who sits in the bleachers. "It feels like the boys have always been here in a way."

Holly and Kate Mirabella, sisters and St. Joe's alumni, don't share that enthusiasm. They wish their school's big move had been something -- anything -- geared toward women. "The news about our women's unique, specialized education -- it's about a male coach," says Holly, a 2012 St. Joe's graduate with a law degree.

"We take athletics seriously because men are here," says Kate, who graduated in 2015 with an English degree. They say they've heard from like-minded current students and alumnae with similar concerns. What's more, plans for a new athletic facility might require the celebrated alumnae rock to be relocated.

Still, as the school year and the basketball season progress, the university's annual fund tracks evenly with that of the previous year -- a victory, says Maggie Pinney, the university's vice president for institutional advancement, because many schools that transition take an immediate hit before recovering. She says there has been about $100,000 donated in support of athletics.

By season's end, donors sit along O'Connell's track like they're in a makeshift luxury box. One of them owns a local Dunkin' Donuts franchise. Sometimes, he ventures downstairs to sit at the end of the bench. Those in the bleachers become a mix of students, both men and women, UConn fans and road team supporters who want to root for and against a familiar face. Calhoun's team packs the small place all season.

And, boy, do fans get their money's worth.

On Dec. 8, Calhoun stops the postgame handshake line to tell Pine Manor's coach that he shouldn't call timeout with 19 seconds left and his team up by 13. Immediately after a Jan. 10 loss, Calhoun exchanges words with an Emmanuel fan after the coach thought he heard something derogatory as he made his way off the floor. There are three technicals in two days at a tournament in Florida. "I said to the official," Calhoun says of one particularly rigid ref at the Daytona Beach Shootout, "you've been reading too many f---ing books."

Calhoun isn't going through the motions. He is still the fast-talking, gum-chewing, "r"-dropping taskmaster from outside Boston who used his famous disposition to set the tone for a program -- and a school.

In early February, Calhoun lights into his 13-9 team in Anna Maria's cramped locker room -- inside a drab gym, past a table selling Tootsie pops -- that his men share with the St. Joe's women's team during a doubleheader. This is the full Division III experience. Calhoun wants more for St. Joe's.

"You think Chris shoots a lot?" Calhoun says, referring to Childs' practice routine. "That's a warm-up for Ray Allen. ... You're setting the pace at a university that's 100 years old. You've got to care."

One thing that followed Calhoun from UConn to St. Joe's: his rough-and-tumble coaching style.

If his kids don't care about St. Joe's basketball, then no one will care about St. Joe's. Calhoun is here for himself, sure, but also to put the school on the map. The hope is that that will serve the women who were here before and the men who will come after.

Calhoun's message clicks.

A win against Regis in the Feb. 16 regular-season finale gives St. Joe's the seventh seed in an eight-team conference tournament. It then knocks off Suffolk, the tournament's No. 2 seed, and beats sixth-seeded Saint Joseph's College of Maine. Remarkably, St. Joe's will play in the GNAC championship game on Feb. 23 for a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Jim Calhoun has created a buzz.

"YOU CAN'T DO that! You can't do that!" That chant from St. Joe's fans, packed 10 rows high on the right side of the bleachers, echoes throughout "The Nest," Albertus Magnus' 760-person gym in New Haven, Connecticut. There's a championship on the line.

Their chorus, a venerable college basketball chant in response to an opposing team's foul, is distinctively higher-pitched. The overwhelming majority is women.

A day before Calhoun is expected in Hartford to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of UConn's 1999 national title, he's here on the sideline. Khalid El-Amin and Jake Voskuhl, starters on that famed team, sit behind the St. Joe's bench. The UConn beat writers are on hand. It has that big-game feel.

El-Amin, Calhoun's former point guard, stands for some of the game. He looks like he's coaching behind his old coach. The game is close throughout. Davon Warner, an Albertus sharpshooter, misses all six of his 3-point attempts in the first half but lands three 3-pointers during crucial moments in the second, and Calhoun's crew falls short.

A four-point loss leaves them shy of a miracle March run. After the game, everyone crams into a locker room that isn't big enough to accommodate the players, coaches, cameras and two former NBAers.

"Today was the end of the season," the coach says, "but it's just the beginning for us."

After their championship game, Calhoun encourages Childs, standing alongside former Huskies Khalid El-Amin and Jake Voskuhl, to work hard in the offseason so he's ready for next year.

The buzz appears to have an impact. In June 2018, the school approved funding for a new athletic facility, in which Calhoun's men will be the headliners. That is part of a $33 million project (funded mostly by a bond issuance) that includes a revamped student center and turf fields for soccer and lacrosse, the latter of which will bring in more men next academic year.

Enrollment rose 11 percent in the first coeducational year compared to the previous year; the number of applications received for 2018-19 increased by 85 percent from the year before. The school is on pace to best that next fall. There are four new majors, including computer science and sport management.

But Calhoun is noncommittal about returning as head coach. He has to take inventory before next season. His health is a factor; he has felt the effects of his cancer surgery throughout the season. He missed the second half of multiple games. The combination of his post-surgery treatment and the adrenaline can make him sick.

The Calhoun Effect has yet to fully play out. But president Free says that when the decision to go coed was made, Calhoun wasn't even on the school's radar. It has always been about increasing enrollment by adding men. Calhoun, perhaps the greatest builder in college basketball history, was just the front man. The Calhoun Effect can go on without him.

"We just couldn't see achieving the same outcomes -- in terms of providing opportunities for women students -- without becoming coeducational," Free says. "I just didn't see that there was a clear alternative."

She mentions the new majors and revamped facilities. She says even more is coming.

"We could offer more opportunities for women this way," Free says. "We've launched a women's learning community. The women who are here now have a lot more opportunities than they otherwise would have."

But neither Free nor Calhoun can predict if what has been altered will change the essence of the place.

At the last home game in mid-February, as the first regular season in St. Joe's men's basketball history is about to end, Free has some good news. It's about that rock, the one painted with the names of the women -- Annie and Mia and Jessica and Neena -- in the most recent graduating class.

It's in front of the parking lot on which the new athletic facility, an extension of the old one, will be built.

"We just found out," she says with a smile, "that we won't have to move it."

Editor's note: Rob King, ESPN senior vice president, Original Content, has served on the University of Saint Joseph Board of Trustees for the past three years.

Anthony Olivieri is a writer and reporter-researcher for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @AntOlivieri