PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The gym at Rhode Island College looks like a high school gym, maybe a little bigger.
The game is between RIC and the University of St. Joseph’s, a Division III school from West Hartford, Conn.
At first glance it looks just like what you might expect, a spirited game on a Sunday afternoon played between two small college teams in front of a smattering of a crowd.
Right out of Central Casting, right?
Except for the coach of St. Joseph’s.
Or would you believe Jim Calhoun, who already is in the Basketball of Fame, has three national titles at the University of Connecticut (in 1999, 2004, 2011) on his resumé, and has been one of the biggest names in the game for a long time now, is back coaching at the age of 76.
Probably not really, right?
But there he was standing in front of the St. Joseph’s bench in his blue shirt and tan pants, the same passion stamped all over his face that’s always been there whether it was a preseason scrimmage or playing for the national championship. It has never been just about the trappings for Calhoun in his long and storied career, though there have been many. Sunday proved that, if we ever needed any reminder.
You don’t coach Division III at 76 for the money, or the recognition, or anything except for the the enduring love of it.
And you don’t have to know anything about a zone trap to see how involved Calhoun is in the game. For it’s on his face, all but written into his body language, as though he’s lost in some private place, this man who once coached in some of the college game’s biggest moments. It’s as though nothing’s changed, except the venue. He’s back doing what he loves to do, back coaching a team, and that is the most important thing.
And next to him on the bench is Glen Miller, the former Brown University coach who once played for Calhoun.
So what if it’s a small school playing in a small conference?
It’s still coaching, right?
“The first year after I retired from UConn I read 48 books,” Calhoun said. “My life was great. But I really missed the contact with kids.”
“And I really missed the game.”
He had been chasing it for so long. It had defined him for so long. It had been his life for so long. And he had made such a big contribution to it. How about the fact that 31 kids who played for him went on to play professional basketball in one place or another. Plus, he had some health issues. It just seemed time.
But there he was on Sunday afternoon at Rhode Island College, there he was in an atmosphere that all but screamed out Division III. If you didn’t know any better you might think that this was just another old coach in the shadows of his career, just another old coach trying to hang onto his job. Just another old coach trying to get to the finish line, instead of one already in the Hall of Fame.
This is Calhoun in the twilight of a great career, and maybe one of the best things about it is it’s such a great New England story, a great New England basketball story, a blue-collar basketball story if you will.
For Calhoun never was a basketball blue-blood, one of those kids who was recruited early, and promised the moon. Not even close. He was the blue-collar kid from blue-collar Boston, who went to blue-collar American International College.
He began his coaching career at Lyme-Old Lyme High School in Old Lyme, Conn., then went to Westport High, then Dedham High in Massachusetts before moving on to Northeastern.
He fought and scrapped for everything he got.
It was the way he was taught as a kid. It was the way he grew up. It was the way he played. And it’s the way he coaches.
You could see that on Sunday afternoon. He was on the bench, and on the referees, too.
“You can’t run with the ball,” he yelled at a nearby referee, as an opposing player appeared to travel. “It’s a new rule. You must dribble.”
This might be Division III, light years away from where he used to roam the sidelines in Division I, but nothing’s really changed. Calhoun still stalks the sideline as if looking for prey, always on high alert, as if this is his terrain and he will do just about anything to protect it. He still continually barks at the referees, all but nonstop, either a nervous habit, or a constant reminder that this is still his world and they should just be thankful to hang out in it every once in awhile.