HARTFORD, Conn. — Jim Calhoun heard all the speculation that he would be a kinder, gentler coach at Division III University of Saint Joseph.
He is 76 years old, with health issues and no desire to offend the nuns at a small Catholic school that had only accepted women until this semester.
But a kinder, gentler Jim Calhoun?
"Wrong," he said. "When we are in the battle, we are fighting all together."
Six years after retiring from UConn, the Hall of Famer was in vintage form in his return to the sideline Friday night, knocking down chairs and confronting referees as his Blue Jays overcame a 13-point deficit in the second half to beat William Paterson 79-74 in the first men's college basketball game for St. Joe's.
With his team trailing 4-0 just 40 seconds into the game, Calhoun jumped from his seat, called his first timeout and loudly sent forward Mike Sagay to the bench. Sixteen minutes in, Calhoun picked up his first technical foul.
Down 41-30 at halftime, he told the ESPN crew making a documentary about his return to coaching that it would not be able to air what he was about to say in the locker room.
"These are my guys. This is my team," he said. "I told them, 'I take this stuff seriously.'"
His players responded, going on a 23-2 run and outscoring William Patterson 49-33 in the second half.
"The way they came back was really special to me," Calhoun said. "Sometimes you wonder why you coach the game. That's why I coach the game."
Calhoun, who retired from UConn in 2012 with three national titles, has spent the last year building this program from scratch. He recruited the team (17 freshmen and three transfers), put together the schedule and has led fundraising for a new gym.
The current one holds about 350 people. The school played Friday's game at nearby Trinity College to accommodate the 1,800 fans who braved a pouring rain to see Calhoun's career record improve to 874-380.
St. Joe's has an undergraduate enrollment of just more than 900 students, with 94 freshmen men, many of whom learned about the school when it was announced that Calhoun would be in charge of the fledgling basketball program.
"There is no question about it, the visibility that we got from having Jim Calhoun associated with the men's basketball program is priceless," school president Rhona Free said.
Calhoun had worked over the past six years as an ESPN analyst and a consultant at UConn. But he said he has missed coaching and it didn't take much for him to say yes when he was asked to come to Saint Joseph by the school's athletic director, Bill Cardarelli, once an assistant under Calhoun at UConn.
"Look at him," Cardarelli said as the Blue Jays were making their second-half run. "He's so happy. You can see he's back where he belongs."
Calhoun said his language Friday was a bit less salty. But he didn't spend much time sitting on the high-back stool he was given, even though he's acknowledged having a serious health problem, which he has declined to detail.
Being back coaching college kids, it appears, is just what the doctor ordered.
"When you see a group of people kind of bond together ... that's pretty special," Calhoun said. "It's what I missed."