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October 22, 2018

University of St. Joseph builds men's athletics program to diversify, boost enrollment

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free and Glen Miller, assistant men's basketball coach, standing in the soon-to-be expanded O'Connell Athletic Center.
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper Former UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun was named the head coach of USJ’s first-ever men’s basketball squad in September. Calhoun held the team’s first practice Oct. 15.
Photo | Contributed

The University of St. Joseph is taking on a new look as it implements strategies to battle shrinking undergraduate enrollment.

The private Catholic college last month enrolled male students for the first time in its 86-year history, and it's investing millions of dollars to build up its athletics program, which it hopes will attract more male and female students alike.

That investment includes a new $16 million athletics venue for men's and women's basketball and student use, slated to break ground next year and open in early 2020. It will attach to the school's existing athletic center. The school is also forming five Division III men's teams, and it made a high-profile hire last month — former UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun — to lead its newly formed men's basketball team. The roster already includes student athletes from Puerto Rico, Nebraska, Texas and Florida.

The West Hartford-based university enrolled 96 male undergraduates this fall, increasing its total undergraduate enrollment to 910. That's a five-year high for USJ, which plans to add another 250 or more male students in the coming years when enrollment peaks at 1,100 pupils. Approximately 60 percent of the new male enrollees are involved in school sports, USJ said.

“Just like a business that wants to expand its geographic reach, athletics was a way for us to do that,” said USJ President Rhona Free, who is in her third year leading the school.

Click here to read Jim Calhoun’s Q&A about his return to coaching

The coed transition introduces gender diversity in the classroom, but school officials also say adding men's sports provides new marketing, revenue and recruiting opportunities for USJ to lure a wider range of applicants.

The athletics expansion also meets the needs of a growing number of students either looking to continue their sports careers or others pursuing degrees in athletic training, sports management or physical education and sports studies, school officials said.

“There is no doubt that it was very strategic when we looked at the changing interests of students, we realized that just like the university has changed since 1932, we have to change in ways that accommodates students interested in sports,” Free said. “Many athletes will come here who wouldn't otherwise.”

University officials said they were careful about adding new teams while considering cost and popularity. The enrollment uptick expected to result from adding four NCAA Division III men's teams this year will likely pay for new coaching and athletic-training hires, in addition to smaller expenses such as uniforms, field equipment and transportation costs.

“Because of the sports we have added, there hasn't been any huge big-ticket items,” Free said, adding that men's and women's teams are sharing facilities, which cuts down on costs.

USJ's men's cross country, swimming and diving teams share facilities, coaches and practice schedules with the women's squads. Meantime, the men's and women's soccer teams share practice and game fields, which will also house a new men's lacrosse team in 2019.

While revenue from ticket sales, student gym memberships, and sports-related fundraising through the school's Blue and Gold Club are all expected to rise, the new teams and facility are an investment that likely won't pay for themselves immediately.

Several new men's teams, however, have been hopeful indicators for ticket revenue and fan interest. The soccer team (7-3-2), has drawn large crowds during a strong season, and the basketball team sold more than 200 tickets for its Nov. 9 debut on the first day tickets went on sale. As a result, the men's basketball team's opener vs. William Paterson University will be played at Hartford's Trinity College to accommodate a larger capacity crowd.

“Not only are we trying to build a basketball program, we are trying to build a solid athletic program,” Free said.

Cost neutral

Despite declining enrollment in recent years, the University of St. Joseph was able to grow financially from an increase in tuition revenues, grants, donor money and other contributions.

From the 2012-13 to 2017-18 school years, USJ increased in-state tuition by 19.3 percent to $36,273. The school's enrollment declined by 24 percent over that time, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

This fall, with the help of its newly accepted male students, USJ started to chip away at that enrollment backslide, enrolling 901 undergraduate students, up from 810 a year prior.

Stacey Brook, a sports economist and lecturer at Chicago's Depaul University, said overhead costs are low for Division III athletic programs without football. On average, those schools report revenues of almost $1.3 million and expenses over $1.2 million, he said.

USJ broke even on women's athletics in 2016-2017, with revenues and expenses equal at $601,961 in 2016-17, Education Department data show.

That school year, almost 25 percent of the women's athletics' budget, or $142,809, was spent on salaries for assistant and head coaches. Another $134,828 was used for game-day operations, the report said.

Calhoun will earn significantly less at USJ compared to his multimillion-dollar contracts at Division I UConn. USJ would not disclose Calhoun's pay package, however, coaches and faculty earn about the same rates at the university.

Brook said Calhoun will help the school in other ways than just his penchant for winning games. The three-time national champion will gain the school exposure and even encourage an uptick in undergraduate applications.

“Hiring Calhoun is going to make people take a look at them athletically,” Brook said. “Calhoun is a big name with years of experience and lots of network ties, and people get excited about that.”

Campus buzz

USJ is already benefiting as a coed institution. More students are staying on campus on weekends and participation at on-campus events has surged this fall, school officials said.

Student bus passes are also being swiped more for undergraduates traveling to downtown West Hartford and Hartford, and venues like Westfarms mall and Dunkin' Donuts Park for Hartford Yard Goat games.

The university's dining hall, the O'Connell Athletic Center and home sports games have also gained more foot traffic, officials said. This year's alumni event even drew a near-record crowd.

Free says higher energy levels on campus give school officials confidence it can create a “game-night” atmosphere when Calhoun's team takes the floor next month.

Adding to the excitement, USJ recently announced it signed a one-year contract with Entercom to broadcast home men's basketball games on WTIC-AM. The former radio voice of UConn men's basketball, Joe D'Ambrosio, will lead the play-by-play.

Men's basketball assistant coach Glen Miller, Calhoun's long-time assistant at UConn, is optimistic USJ's basketball startup can compete at the national level.

Despite starting from scratch, Miller and Calhoun have been able to leverage assets other startup programs are not typically afforded: A conference spot. The men's hoops team will compete in the 11-member Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC), meaning a conference championship gives the Blue Jays an automatic Division III tournament invite.

Miller and Calhoun, currently the only coaches on staff, began practices Oct. 15 with a majority freshmen roster of 21 players. Other players transferred from Division I Central Connecticut State University and a West Hartford native transferred to USJ from Division II College of St. Joseph in Vermont.

Miller, a Groton native, has seen how a successful Division III men's basketball team can excite a campus. As a head coach, he led Connecticut College's men's basketball team to a Final Four appearance in 1999.

The 28-1 season sent the student body into a frenzy and the team even earned a positive segment on 60 Minutes.

Creating a similar winning culture is important at USJ, but Miller says he and Calhoun are striving for something even greater.

“For us it's not just about building a men's basketball program, it's about building a men's athletic department,” he said. “It is going to have an impact on the growth of the university.”

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