Coaching one season at Westport High a stepping stone to Jim Calhoun's Hall of Fame career

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Editor's note: Spotlight is the theme for the latest installment in the Buddy’s Best series, which kicked off last year and continues this summer. Former athletes, coaches and pioneers are among the people who will be highlighted.

The entire athletic program at Westport High School was in turmoil.

A salary dispute had induced the coaching staffs of every team to quit, putting school athletics in a serious bind heading into the 1969-70 school year. John Mello had been the school’s head coach of boys basketball and senior guard Manny Cabral was expected to be back on the bench for his final high school season.

“He (Mello) had been my coach since the seventh grade and he was also our teacher,” Cabral was quoted as saying in a 1987 newspaper interview with The Standard-Times. “(But) It was a transition year at Westport.”

So ... what does the school do?

It hires some guy named Calhoun who had coached his Old Lyme High School (of Connecticut) team to a record of 6-12 the year before to be the new head basketball coach at Westport.

Jim Calhoun
Jim Calhoun

Jim Calhoun didn’t have much of a coaching resume.

That losing record the season before was it!

In fact Calhoun was reportedly all set to join head coach John Pacheco’s staff at Southeastern Massachusetts University as an assistant before the head coaching position at Westport opened.

Calhoun grew up in Braintree and was a three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) standout at Braintree High. He was a guard on the basketball team and earned a scholarship to Lowell State, but left the school after just three months to return home and help support his family following the unexpected death of his father.

Twenty months later, Calhoun enrolled at American International College in Springfield, where he starred in basketball and eventually graduated.

He joined the coaching fraternity after accepting a sixth grade teaching position in the Old Lyme school system in 1968 and, after leading the team’s high school basketball team to a 6-12 record in his only coaching season there, was on his way to Westport.

From a won-lost perspective, the 1969-70 season was one to forget. For Calhoun, however, it turned out to be the stepping stone to what would become a Hall of Fame coaching career.

The Wildcats ended the season with a dismal record of 1-17 … the worst in would become Calhoun’s long and distinguished career. The one win was a two-point nail-biter over a mediocre Apponequet team early in the schedule. Other than that, the won-lost record was pretty much dominated by no-doubt losses. But, for Calhoun, the experience was both humbling and enlightening.

“That whole experience was part of my maturing as a man,” Calhoun was quoted as saying in the aforementioned newspaper interview. “I remember driving to a game one night and thinking ‘no matter what I do, no matter how well I coach, no matter how hard the kids work, no matter how much we practice, we are not going to beat teams like Holy Family.’ It was while I was coaching at Westport that I truly realized why certain teams win and certain coaches like Skip Karam (Durfee High of Fall River) and Jack Nobrega (Holy Family) were so successful. It was the first time I realized there was a lot more to coaching than just coaching . You had to have a program. You had to have a feeder system — a summer program.”

That was something Westport didn’t have and it became more obvious to the school’s first-year coach as the season crept on.

Not only did Calhoun take notice, he filed the information away in his mind and took it with him when he took over as head coach of the Dedham High School boys basketball team the following year.

“After Westport I started thinking like a coach,” he was quoted as saying. “At Dedham I put together a program, I mean a youth program, a summer league, the whole bit. I was a little more experienced now.”

Dedham had a losing record the year before Calhoun arrived. But in his first two seasons there, his teams compiled records of 12-6 and 21-1, the latter producing a Bay State League Championship.

Northeastern University was paying attention and introduced Calhoun to the college coaching ranks by hiring him prior to the 1972-73 season. In his 14 years there, the Huskies won at least 12 games every season and qualified for the NCAA postseason tournament in five of his last six years.

The man that produced just one win in his first and only season as coach at Westport High School was nearing admission to the fraternity of college coaching greats. And that reputation would continue to expand in 1986-87 when Calhoun took the coaching reins at the University of Connecticut, where he remained for 26 seasons before going into temporary retirement in 2012.

Under his leadership, UConn won three NCAA National Championships, appeared in the Final Four four times, won the 1988 NIT title and claimed seven Big East Tournament Championships. When his team claimed the 2011 NCAA championship, the 68-year-old Calhoun became the oldest coach to win a Div. 1 men’s basketball title. He finished his NCAA, Div. 1 coaching career with 873 victories.

Calhoun returned to coaching in 2018 when he was named head coach at the University of St. Joseph’s in Hartford, a Div. 3 school.

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: Jim Calhoun coached Westport boys basketball for the 1969-70 season