As reported by the Catholic Transcript, March 2, 2010.

Calhoun: Family, Faith Come Before Hoops

By Mary Chalupsky

PLAINVILLE Ė Itís basketball season, and Connecticutís Hall of Fame basketball coach Jim Calhoun continues to lead the University of Connecticut menís program to national prominence. For more than two decades, Coach Calhounís image has been recognizable everywhere through televised games, newspaper accounts, billboards, television ads and public appearances.

But success and celebrity aside, when it comes to personal time off the court, he counts family, friends and faith as the important foundations for his life.

"My greatest achievements are my two sons, my six grandchildren and being married to the most wonderful woman I could ever imagine," he told the Catholic Transcript at the 24th annual Franciscan Sports Banquet at the Aqua Turf in June.

"I think faith is what gets us through some of those difficult times,"he said, referring to his recent battle with prostate and skin cancer. "I had no idea what the results were going to be. But I had great faith and the desire of my family that I would be able to watch my grandchildren grow up."

"If you donít have faith when the tough times come," he added, "you wonít have a core, a foundation to lean on."

Among his friends is Mother Shaun Vergauwen, co-foundress of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, a community he calls "angels on earth." He attended her election as mother general in 2005 and has spoken at the communityís annual sports banquet for the past 22 years.

"Itís a thrill," he said. "I spoke the first time [at the banquet] in 1988 with the late Floyd Patterson, former heavyweight champion of the world, and I met the sisters," he recalled.

"I left that night with my jar of cookies, having listened to a very inspired speech by Floyd Patterson. And I was very impressed by the sisters themselves. Being brought up Catholic in Boston, I remember feeling very proud; and it kind of restored my faith."

As a boy, he said, "I remember my dad and I used to walk down to Sacred Heart Church at Weymouthís Landing in Weymouth, Massachusetts, for Mass from about the time I was 8 to 15," when his father died of a heart attack and he was needed to help take care of his five siblings.

"What motivates me is my quest to emulate my dad, who was my hero," he said. "My most life-changing moment was the death of my father. It was the most negative part of my life, but it gave me a reason to keep on going to accomplish great things."

Though given a basketball scholarship to attend what is now UMass Lowell, he was called back home to help his mother take care of his five siblings, working as a granite cutter, headstone engraver and scrap yard worker, among other jobs.

Today, a big part of his faith is expressed in the causes he and his wife have championed for nearly two decades at UConn, raising millions of dollars for cancer and cardiology research and education, as well as other charities.

"Weíve always tried to reach out," he said. "My wifeís family had seven children and they were always taking in kids from Catholic Charities."

In 1998, the couple, both of whom lost parents to heart disease, established the Calhoun Cardiology Research Fund with a $125,000 gift to the UConn Health Center. In 2004, the entire program was renamed the Jim and Pat Calhoun Cardiology Center. The couple also have helped to raise $6 million over the last 10 years through the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic Golf Tournament, launched in 1999 in support of the endowment fund and other events.

Coach Calhoun was the driving force behind the Cancer Challenge Ride, a statewide event that started in 2007 and benefits the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the UConn Health Center. The ride raised over $225,000 in its first year.

In fact, last June, when he was 12 miles into his 50-mile charity bike race for cancer research, he hit a pothole and fell. After getting back on his bike, he crossed the finish line only to faint from dehydration. Upon being hospitalized, it was discovered that the 67-year-old head coach had broken five ribs.

As a result of other health issues, including his battles with prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer in 2008, Coach Calhoun helped St. Vincent Medical Center raise funds by speaking at the sixth annual SWIM Prostate Cancer Institute Celebrity Dinner last June.

In 2008, he received the Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the programís highest honor.

He and his family (two grandchildren were diagnosed with autism) have also been involved with Autism Speaks. And starting in 1994, Coach Calhoun began serving as honorary chairman for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, which has raised over $4.5 million to fund diabetes research.

The annual Jim Calhoun Holiday Food Drive has raised nearly $1 million for the Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare, providing about 1.6 million meals to families in need. And in 2004, the coach spoke at a fund raiser for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Waterbury; it was attended by Archbishop Henry J. Mansell and its founder, the late Father Philip Cascia. In 2008, Coach Calhoun was presented the Michael J. McGivney Award by the Connecticut State Council of the Knights of Columbus for his service.

In other philanthropic causes, Coach Calhoun has also served as an honorary chairperson/director for charitable programs, including the Ronald McDonald House Kids Classic Golf Tournament, the Ray of Hope Foundation Golf Tournament, the Connecticut Childrenís Medical Center and Childrenís Miracle Network, and the "Character Counts" program in the state of Connecticut.

Coach Calhounís drive and intensity have spurred his players to three NCAA championships (1999, 2004, 2009) with more than 800 career wins. In 2005, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, basketballís highest honor, while still an active coach; and in 2006, he was among the greats of the game to be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Sixty of his former players attended the induction.

Originally from Braintree, Mass., he coached six years of high school basketball (including at Old Lyme High School), before being hired at UConn after 14 years as coach at Bostonís Northeastern University. His only losing season at UConn was his first. In his second, 1987-88, he coached UConn to the NIT championship. Twenty of his players have gone on to play in the National Basketball Association.

His dramatic career prompted Sports Illustrated (Seth Davis, 1/20/10) to write, "When he took over at the University of Connecticut in 1986, the school barely had any kind of basketball program, yet Coach Calhoun transformed it into a winner in one of the more remarkable building jobs the sport has seen."

Just back on the bench after taking a three-week medical leave, he is making $1.6 million in the final year of a six-year contract. Before starting the leave in January, he had agreed to sign a reported five-year extension.

Married in 1967, Coach Calhoun and his wife, Pat, live in Pomfret and have two sons, James and Jeffrey, and six grandchildren.

"I touch kids at one of the most important times in their lives," he said. "Iíve been fortunate to be an educator for 37 years, and hopefully my presence will be felt in their livesÖas much as my fatherís was in mine."

He believes that his purpose is to use his achievements to benefit others. "Many times Iím the voice who cannot speak," he said. "Iím the person for those who cannot be seen. Thatís who I am."