Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Jim Calhoun still loves the game, even at the D-III level
PITTSFIELD — Jim Calhoun came out of a pretty comfortable retirement to coach again last year. But what a difference it was. Calhoun spent 40 seasons coaching at the Division I level, winning three NCAA championships at UConn and winning 625 games with the former Big East Conference power. But he retired after the 2012, spending time working for ESPN. But last year, he came out of retirement to join schools like Williams, MCLA and Springfield at the NCAA Division III level.
Calhoun went 16-12 at the University of Saint Joseph in Hartford, Conn. The Blue Jays came up five points short in a bid to get to the D-III tournament in Calhoun's first year.
"There are as many knuckleheads in Division III as there are in Division I," Calhoun said with a laugh, when I asked him what he learned about D-III basketball.
As many of you recall, Calhoun came to Pittsfield last week to be the guest speaker at the New England Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Boys and Girls Club. I was one of the fortunate inductees into the Class of 2019.
"Those kids want to be as good as everybody else," Calhoun said to me.
The coach will hit the court next week with his Blue Jays when NCAA Division III teams open their season.
He did, however, discover, some differences.
"They could be late because of labs. You couldn't do that at UConn because of the competition," he said. "When they throw the ball up, you still try to win."
Instead of playing St. John's and Georgetown, Calhoun's Blue Jays played teams like Albertus Magnus, Suffolk and even MCLA. Calhoun admitted that the level of play and the competition surprised him.
"It was a lot better. There were a lot of good players," Calhoun said. "I know for sure, if you look at our All League team last year, six of the kids certainly could have played Division I someplace. They're good enough players.
"The bottom line is there are so darn many good kids."
Calhoun had one of them in Great Northeast Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year Delshawn Jackson Jr., who also was the D3hoops.com New England rookie of the year.
The veteran coach also discovered that there are top coaches throughout New England, and not just ones who show up on television every week.
"There are a lot of good coaches out there," Calhoun told me. "We have Williams coming in this year, we go to Trinity, we play Bates in Florida. It's a pretty good schedule. The point being that they really do good things. It's a very interesting thing to me to watch. Coaching is coaching and kids are kids, and the game is the game. There are a lot of things in between. To motivate a kid to be good doesn't really start out with a pay check, like Kemba [Walker] signing a $151 million contract. It starts out with a love of the game and a reason to be good.
"Our job is to give them a reason to be good."
Saint Joseph will play four NESCAC teams in all, going to Trinity and Tufts, hosting Williams and playing Bates over the holidays in the D3 Holiday Shootout in Miami.
The game against Kevin App's Ephs will be on Tuesday, Jan. 14.
The obvious question is how much longer will Calhoun stay on the sidelines. He is surrounded on the Saint Joseph bench by familiar faces. Glen Miller worked with him at UConn, and Miller used to coach at Connecticut College, Brown and Penn. Rashamel Jones and Ryan Olander both played at UConn, while Calhoun's son Jeff is also on staff.
"Until I listen to my wife or my accountant. I work for a Catholic school and Catholics take a vow of poverty, and they expect everybody who works for them to do the same," Calhoun said with a twinkle in his eye. "My accountant said ESPN was a lot better for you. But it isn't. I loved ESPN. I enjoyed doing the games. I still want to have a little sweat and skin in the game.
"I'll do it until it's time to leave."
On the subject of leaving and returning, it wouldn't be an interview with Jim Calhoun if I didn't ask him about his former school's return to the Big East Conference.
UConn had been in the American Athletic Conference since the old Big East splintered apart. The move back to the Big East happened quickly in the spring. Now, the Huskies will play one final season in the AAC.
"I think it's great for them, because there's an apathy now," he said. "You want them to love you or hate you, but nothing in between. By in between, I mean apathy. It took 30 years to build a program. Championships, 17 Big East championships, national championships, we didn't want to go anywhere."
So, I guess I'll see Coach Calhoun in Hartford in January.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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