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Six years after he retired, Hall of Fame men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun is back on the sidelines. He is a championship coach at college basketball's highest level with 873 wins. But he's not coming back to navigate a powerhouse program. As Connecticut Public Radio's Frankie Graziano reports, Calhoun is coaching at a tiny Division III school that until now didn't even have a men's basketball program.
FRANKIE GRAZIANO, BYLINE: Calhoun left the game in 2012 with three NCAA championships at the University of Connecticut.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: You got to believe because just when people say you can't, you can. And UConn has won the national championship.
GRAZIANO: Now the 76-year-old is running practice with a crop of unheralded Division III players in the kind of gym where the fire marshal might get mad if more than 400 people show up. They're going through the same kind of routine that would get 10-time NBA all-star Ray Allen open shots when he played college ball for Calhoun in the 1990s.
JIM CALHOUN: We're going to show you an isolation which also sets up a 3-point shot at the time.
GRAZIANO: Calhoun now coaches at the University of Saint Joseph just 30 miles from Yukon, where he racked up all those wins and titles. His new team is made up mostly of local freshmen at a school that only recently played its first-ever men's college basketball game. But Calhoun says basketball is basketball. The opportunity to be around that kind of excitement was too good to pass up.
CALHOUN: I'm seduced by the game I love. I'm seduced by the idea of teaching. I'm seduced by the idea of watching kids grow and seeing how athletics can fit into that. And so if you want to call me an addict, I'm an addict to the game that did so much for my life.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: T-shirts are over here - free T-shirts, guys.
GRAZIANO: It's the night USJ will play its first game in program history, a home game but at a different, larger venue. USJ athletic director Bill Cardarelli is a former assistant under Calhoun and was instrumental in plucking the coach from retirement to lead the Blue Jays.
BILL CARDARELLI: He's a program builder. So - and he really, really enjoys that. You know, he did it at Northeastern. He did it at Yukon. And he saw that challenge here. And, yeah, I think he's having some fun. We'll see. I haven't seen him smile at all today, so - (laughter).
GRAZIANO: It didn't take long for the veteran in his first game to transform into the Jim Calhoun of old.
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GRAZIANO: He called a timeout with a 4-point lead a minute into the game. As his team went down by double digits, he went after the refs. And then he picked up a technical foul.
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GRAZIANO: In the stands, Keith Amato and Mike Biehl were sitting together just as they had as season ticket holders at Yukon for Calhoun's entire run there.
KEITH AMATO: Yeah, he's back home.
MIKE BIEHL: He's bringing the passion back.
GRAZIANO: Amato marvels at watching Calhoun coach from a wooden stool.
AMATO: He's up and down. He's working the refs hard. He's giving the team a hard time. He's back where he needs to be.
GRAZIANO: Calhoun's men fired up and attacked the dribble in the second half and went on to win by five in front of 1,800 people, a ton for a DIII game.
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GRAZIANO: Calhoun admitted afterwards that he was amped for the first game. He also addressed a reporter's question about whether he'd be nicer after being away for six years.
CALHOUN: A kinder, gentler Jim.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yeah.
CALHOUN: Got you - wrong.
GRAZIANO: He knows his team won't be in the national spotlight anytime soon, but that's not why he took the job. While some might see him now as a big-time coach at a small-time school, for Calhoun, it's about getting back on the court with 20 players who just want to play. For NPR News, I'm Frankie Graziano in Hartford, Conn.
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