Back when Jim Calhoun was a kid growing up in Braintree, Mass., boys played only football, baseball and basketball.
The UConn basketball coaching legend didn’t know much about lacrosse until his oldest son, Jim, started playing at Noble & Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., in the 1980s. Calhoun took Jim and his brother, Jeff, to an NCAA championship game in Maryland when they were children, and the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Saint Joseph (Conn.) has been a fan ever since.
“It’s a terrific sport; it combines basketball with some of football’s physical aspects,” Calhoun said. “They run picks and plays; it’s fun to watch.”
Calhoun, who coached UConn to three Division 1 national championships, will be able to watch his new favorite sport at USJ soon. St. Joseph’s began admitting men this fall, meaning men’s lacrosse will be available for the 2020 season, competing at the Division 3 level.
Blue Jays head coach Andrew Fink (East Greenwich, R.I.) has had plenty of help in getting the word out about USJ lacrosse, as having Calhoun’s name attached to the school has led to a boon in admissions and recruits visiting the campus in West Hartford, Conn.
Fink, who comes to St. Joseph’s after serving as head coach at Mount Ida (Newton, Mass.) for 15 seasons, has recruited kids from Texas to Arizona to Washington so far. He says Calhoun, a 2005 inductee of the National Basketball Hall of Fame, is “100 percent” the reason for the extended reach.
“This guy walks on water here. He has a huge hand in showing people the legitimacy that this is a real athletic department, why else would he be here?” Fink says. “He’d only be here if it’s the real deal.”
Calhoun spent 14 successful seasons as the head coach at Northeastern in the 1970s and ’80s, but it was the 26 seasons that followed, as the head coach at UConn, that made him a basketball figure of national renown.
‘This guy walks on water here. He has a huge hand in showing people the legitimacy that this is a real athletic department, why else would he be here? He’d only be here if it’s the real deal.’
— St. Joseph’s men’s coach Andrew Fink (East Greenwich, R.I.) on Jim Calhoun (above)
His teams went 625-243, for a .720 winning percentage. He led the Huskies to national championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011, reached four Final Fours and won seven Big East tournament titles. He retired in 2012 and served as assistant to the director of athletics after that.
USJ athletic director Bill Cardarelli, an assistant coach under Calhoun in the ’80s, knew how much his former boss missed coaching. With St. Joseph’s launching men’s basketball, cross country, swimming and soccer teams this fall, Cardarelli asked Calhoun if he wanted to get back on the bench.
He had been offered other Div. 1 jobs out of the area, but Calhoun, 76, was intrigued by the chance to build a Div. 3 program just 30 miles from his old campus in Storrs, Conn.
“At this time in my life, I didn’t want to travel, uproot myself and my wife,” Calhoun said. “It wasn’t just convenience; the fact that the school’s 93 years old and didn’t have a male athletic program was fascinating.”
It was the perfect pairing, as Calhoun got to return to coaching and St. Joseph’s started creating buzz around its athletics department. Calhoun joined St. Joseph in 2017 as a special consultant and officially was named men’s basketball coach in September.
Meanwhile, Fink was out of a job after UMass bought out Mount Ida earlier this year. A two-time Great Northeast Athletic Conference champion with a 171-91 overall coaching record, the Rhode Island native suddenly was scrambling to find a job.
Cardarelli offered Fink the job of interim women’s lacrosse head coach for the 2019 season before taking over the men’s squad in its inaugural season. A 2002 graduate of the University of Hartford, Fink knew the location well and wanted to stay in the GNAC, the league he’s coached in since it was founded in 2011.
“USJ comes out and offers me the opportunity where one door closes, another door opens,” Fink said. “They were looking for someone to come in and get it up and running pretty fast.”
Though he helped build Mount Ida lacrosse into a respectable Div. 3 program, creating a team from scratch is different. As soon as he agreed to the job in July, he was at work trying to get eyeballs on the small private school.
“We have a heck of a challenge here to build something brand new,” Fink said. “If you knew anything about the school, a historic women’s college, you wouldn’t know it has men’s lacrosse.”
Luckily for Fink, Calhoun’s decision to join St. Joseph’s changed everything. This summer, with admissions on the rise, the school announced plans to build a basketball arena, which includes new weight rooms and locker rooms. There also will be groundbreaking for a new athletic department in the spring.
In October, USJ committed to replacing the small grass field the teams played on with turf. Fink says none of these upgrades happen without having a presence such as Calhoun roaming the athletic department.
“It went from a very small job, to within the calendar year, this should be a monster,” Fink said. “I didn’t sign on with them having turf. I signed on to stay in coaching; I wanted a new challenge. Now I’m sitting back like, ‘Jeez, we have something here.’”
Sure enough, people are starting to take note of the private school with the legendary coach in West Hartford. University officials note that freshman applications are up 83 percent, while transfer applications have doubled.
Even while preparing for the upcoming women’s lacrosse season, Fink has remained diligent on the recruiting trail. Turns out there are plenty of budding athletes who want to be linked to history.
“People want to be part of the first goal, the first win, the first GNAC championship,” Fink said. “It’s a beautiful area, a great academic school, but they really want to be the first group. It’s been great so far.”
Fink has said publicly that he expects to compete for a GNAC title right out of the gate. He’s an aggressive coach and a proven winner, a perfect recipe for working alongside Calhoun, who also stated that he wants to win a Division 3 basketball championship in his first season.
It may take longer than expected for St. Joseph’s lacrosse to develop into a winning program, but the process has been expedited thanks to the school’s new basketball coach.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if you can get the people through the front porch and then they come and see all the things we have, we can become a very attractive small school,” Calhoun said. “I think lacrosse is going to be a terrific place to get kids.”