Jim Calhoun builds another winner with D-III Saint Joseph

Jim Calhoun led University of Saint Joseph to the Division-III NCAA tournament in the program's second year of existence. Steve McLaughlin/USJ Athletics

It's the first day of March in Connecticut, and there's a line to see Jim Calhoun's team play for a championship. The fans, men and women, young and old, shuffle down a dimly lit hallway that leads to a dimly lit gym that houses the best team in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) -- a team that didn't exist two years ago.

Walk into that 350-person bandbox, past the ticket collectors at the foldout table and into the wooden bleachers that rise on one side, and you'll see why the University of Saint Joseph, formerly all women, started a men's basketball program during the 2018-19 academic year.

It wasn't for a berth in the Division III NCAA tournament, which is on the line today, and it wasn't for the 24-game winning streak, which started before Thanksgiving. Or the wins by double digits, which came in all but two games entering this one.

It was for the headliner who gets everyone in the door.

"Sometimes," says Dom Skrelja, a sophomore soccer player, "I just look at him for five or 10 minutes. It's a show."

It stars the 77-year-old Calhoun, who guided the University of Connecticut to three national championships with a relentlessness that he aims at both players and referees. He's in the Basketball Hall of Fame, has more than 900 wins and has coached two rosters full of NBA players. Now he's here, at this West Hartford, Connecticut, school that needs a shot in the arm.

Calhoun has delivered.

"It's exciting people, and that's important," Calhoun says, leaning back in his office chair, a signed Kemba Walker photo on the wall, a commemorative basketball for win No. 900 on his shelf. "Everybody wants to be part of something."

Tickets for the GNAC title game rematch against in-state rival Albertus Magnus -- which beat USJ at home last year -- sell out in under two minutes. The elevated track above the court holds an overflow of donors and friends of Calhoun, including current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

After Calhoun was hired by the school in 2017, months after its decision to admit men, St. Joe's literally had to buy men's basketballs. Now students line up an hour before the game just to get a glimpse of Calhoun's crew bouncing them.

Two sophomores in line, Natalie Amato and Abby Dillon, say they're regulars, a concept so inconceivable a year ago that fans were lured to games with the promise of free T-shirts. Such is life under Calhoun, who, as he did at UConn, makes over programs by using force of will.

On that elevated track, ahead of the biggest game in St. Joe's brief history, where high-top tables are pushed together to form a makeshift press box, the buzz is about Calhoun. Will he make it through that afternoon's game?

Calhoun's stomach issues can intensify when the game does. It's a consequence of a surgery that removed a cancerous tumor -- and half his stomach -- in the fall of 2018, right before he made his return after retiring from UConn after the 2011-12 season.

Though he's now cancer-free, Calhoun has sought a respite during the second half of many games this year. As it turns out, this one is no different.

With USJ leading by 14 points with 18 minutes left in the game, the headliner exits, stage right.

To find Jim Calhoun's office at the O'Connell Center, you've got to walk past piles of gravel and around the black-curtained fence, then head on by the new field turf, on which the school's inaugural men's lacrosse team plays. You'll have to enter through the back way.

St. Joe's is under construction.

In February 2021, the Blue Jays will debut their new 744-seat gym, which is part of a new athletic facility, which is part of a $33 million project that includes that turf field and a revamped student center with a renovated cafeteria. They're building it now.

The old place, the one that has housed Calhoun's crew in its first two years, will remain -- but it will flow into the new one, an extension of the past that remakes the future.

St. Joe's is up to 904 students after falling to 810 in 2017. The school added 98 male students in 2018 and 78 more in 2019. At one time bringing in 98% of its students from Connecticut, USJ gets applications from 30 states and more than 20 countries. The school also says it's on pace to exceed its $38 million comprehensive fundraising campaign, of which athletics is a driver. This was all part of the plan when former athletic director Bill Cardarelli officially hired Calhoun in 2018.

"Regardless of what happens here," says school president Rhona Free before the GNAC title game, "things are good."

It's too early to tell if the school's decision to go coed has obscured its longtime mission to empower women. But an ex-employee, Jaclyn Piscitelli, alleged that it has.

A former associate athletic director, Piscitelli was let go in June 2019 and filed a lawsuit against USJ four months later. She alleged the school was in violation of Title IX, claiming, "Almost immediately after Calhoun and [assistant coach Glen] Miller began their full-time employment ... the athletic department became a male-dominated, hostile work environment." She also alleged, among other things, that Calhoun called her "hot."

In a January court filing, the school said it "did not engage in any discriminatory practices with reckless indifference to [Piscitelli's] rights," and it "exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any alleged discriminatory behavior, and [Piscitelli] failed to take advantage of the preventative and corrective opportunities offered by [Saint Joseph] or to otherwise avoid her alleged harm."

Calhoun, who previously did broadcast work for ESPN, denies the allegations and says he was "shocked" to hear them. "I don't have a single ounce of apology about anything that's happened here at St Joe's," he says. (A message left for Piscitelli's attorney was not immediately returned.) The litigation is ongoing.

On the court, Calhoun's program is flourishing. One of his best players from last season, Chris Childs, has landed a scholarship to Division I Bryant University in Rhode Island. He was replaced by Jaecee Martin, a Division I transfer from Sacred Heart, who averages 7.7 assists, which would make him the Division III leader if he played enough games. Calhoun's leading scorer, dynamic guard Delshawn Jackson, surpassed 1,000 points for his career in just 54 games.

More to the point, Calhoun has built this St. Joe's team like those at UConn. It presses and runs and competes like playing time depends on it. During the GNAC slate, the Blue Jays led in scoring (95.5 points per game) and rebounding margin (plus-11.5), more than doubling their closest competitor.

"Our starting center is 174 pounds," Calhoun says of 6-foot-6 Jordan Powell, who connects on an eye-popping 70.3% of his shots from the field. "So we have to play quick."

It's that competitiveness that the players get from their coach. But there's another reason Year 2 has been such a success.

"They owe me more," Calhoun says. "And I owe them more."

With a historic win within their grasp, St. Joe's begins to fall apart.

After Albertus Magnus' Jahmerikah Green-Younger and Andrew Rice score five quick points, what was once a 19-point halftime lead is now down to two with 4:35 left. Those five points are sandwiched by two USJ turnovers, one by Jake Sullivan, the team's steady captain, and the other by Jackson, its best player.

Then, he appears.

Calhoun opens a creaking door and walks slowly along the baseline, water bottle in hand and scowl on face. With 4:20 left in the championship game, Calhoun can't stay away. As Calhoun heads toward the bench, he picks up his head and squints.

When he left early in the second half, it seemed unlikely we'd see him again. But his team has nearly blown a 14-point lead over the nearly 14 minutes of game time since Calhoun walked through those double doors. The Blue Jays need their leader.

When he arrives on the bench, legs crossed in blue Nikes, Calhoun stews and sweats for four full minutes. He watches Jackson score 10 of his school-record 46 points down the stretch, an onslaught Calhoun would later compare to former UConn star Kemba Walker dominating the 2010 Maui Invitational. The 5-10 guard stops on a dime for pull-up jumpers and spins layups off the glass, the last of which gives USJ a four-point lead with 39 seconds left.

Now up by two with 30 seconds remaining, USJ's Ryan O'Neill is inbounding on the baseline underneath his own basket. He can't get it in and turns it over. Calhoun slams his bottle to the floor, water spraying like a geyser. He's soon nose-to-nose with O'Neill, hands behind his back. A timeout, he screams, call a timeout.

This is why Jim Calhoun can't stay away.

His palms still sweat. He tosses and turns at night until he sits up in bed and tells his wife, Pat, about this player or that referee. He likes being nose-to-nose, building better players and programs. Nothing left to prove, he wants it more than ever.

After Albertus commits its own turnover on the next possession, Calhoun's team holds on for an 88-84 victory. And after a standing-room-only crowd celebrates and chants, after Hurley, phone in hand, captures the moment with reverence, Calhoun cuts down the nets.

He'll go through the motions of March. A day later, 24 chairs are set up in front of a large projector screen in the cafeteria within USJ's student center. In January, the school had a ribbon-cutting for that renovated café. Two months later, it hosts a Selection Show party.

Calhoun's players, wearing clipped pieces of net underneath their championship hats, wait eagerly. As the brackets are revealed, it's a different world for Calhoun. There's no Duke, North Carolina or Michigan State; it's Swarthmore, Babson and Pomona Pitzer.

When St. Joe's finally appears on the screen, it's for a March 6 first-round matchup with Hobart. If the Blue Jays win, they'll face the winner of Springfield and SUNY Canton the next day. No one, Calhoun says a friend tells him, could have written this script.

A crowd had assembled behind the players. The USJ community, in places four or five deep, stands and watches -- women with backpacks and turkey wraps and men with chicken guacamole BLTs -- standing in a sparkling new space supporting the campus' new stars.

Everyone cheers.

"Bottom line," Calhoun says with local news cameras in his face, "to watch the evolution of this school is what I thought about when I first got here. Can we help this school be [what] it can be? And certainly, we're working hard to do that."

Oh yeah, and he wins too: at Northeastern, where his program transitioned from Division II to mid-major power; at UConn, which went from regional doormat to national champion, winning more titles in the past two decades than any other program.

And now St. Joe's, which has 25 straight wins and a clean sweep in conference play, a program that first stepped onto a court only 16 months ago. For Calhoun, falling short of this unfathomable ticket to the dance would have left him, at 77, tossing and turning.

He pauses. He has a story. He always has a story.

"I had a good friend of mine say to me," Calhoun says, "'That proves you're f---ing crazy.'"