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.
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."
"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.
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."
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."
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