T.J. Caouette earned every one of his 63 scholarship offers and the opportunity to play for the prestigious Villanova University men’s basketball team in Philadelphia.

T.J. Caouette, a Winthrop High School graduate, warms up prior to a game at Villanova University. Contributed photo

The 6-foot-6½ forward snatched rebounds and sank 3-pointers with ease, but he also immersed himself in his studies: He was at the top of his game in the Winthrop High School classroom and was named valedictorian.

College recruiters would ask the Caouette family if they could call at midnight to discuss his future.

“It got to the point where my dad actually had another landline installed in the house just for the recruiting process,” T.J. Caouette said. “I remember that being mind-blowing. By the way, it is not anything you expect growing up in Maine, either. … I happened to be blessed with being tall and athletic at a very young age.”

His success and modesty on and off a basketball court explains why he will be inducted into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday at Anah Shrine in Bangor, beginning at 11 a.m.

“I am actually looking forward to catching up with some of the folks, like (fellow inductee) Andy Bedard, who I played with in high school,” Caouette, who now resides in Florida, said. “We were friends back then, and when this got announced, he texted me, and I talked to his brother since then, so just catching up with some of the folks (like) coach Dave Poulin … will be cool.

“Hats off to the Maine State Hall of Fame and the whole board for pulling this together, because on the one hand the accolades are real nice, but the people side of things, I think that carries more weight for me than any accolade. The award is humbling for sure, but I am also very proud to receive it. It is a culmination of the work you put in growing up. You can’t get an award like this if you don’t have all the right supporting folks around you, including my old coach Poulin as well as my folks and all the teammates that I played with over the years.”

Winthrop standout TJ Caouette looks to make a move during a Feb. 24, 1996, game against Falmouth. Portland Press Herald file photo

Caouette was an impact player from the start of his Winthrop career. As a freshman, he was a member of a senior-laden team and had a hand in the Ramblers winning the gold ball in 1993. Beside graduating from Winthrop with high honors, he was named Mr. Basketball of Maine, Maine Gatorade Player of the Year and New England Gatorade Player of the Year his senior year in 1996. He also copped the Maine Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.

Poulin, Caouette’s coach at Winthrop, has a pile of Caouette stories that he would like to share with the world, but he has only three minutes to speak at the banquet.

“I am presenting him on Sunday,” he said. “They only give you three minutes. I can’t tell you all these stories. I was very fortunate to coach someone at that level and also such a great, great person — such a role model for the kids in that community.”

Poulin put in an answering machine when things got interesting and Caouette narrowed down his five schools, including Vanderbilt, Maryland, Notre Dame, Villanova and Boston College. Coaches from colleges would come up each day to Winthrop to make their pitch to Caouette during a 10-minute break.

“They would come up and come in my class, sit there, and of course I was still teaching,” Poulin said. “I remember one of the days, BC coach (Jim) O’Brien came up himself and he said, ‘Coach Poulin, you should stay for this. I would like you to hear when I talk to T.J. So he said, ‘T.J., this might be our last (trip) up here. We need you to commit right now. If you don’t, we are going to offer this scholarship to someone else. 

“T.J. said: ‘Coach, I love Boston College. I love the thought of going there, but I am going to go through the whole process, and I am going to wait.’ Coach O’Brien got in his car and left. I called T.J. that night. So I said, ‘It is over with BC?’ He said, ‘No, no. (BC) still called. I said, ‘Everything is fine. Don’t worry about it.’”

CITY OF BROTHERLY LOVE

In the end, Caouette chose to attend Villanova, where he played for coach Steve Lappas.

Caouette fondly looks back on playing for the Wildcats as a great experience, which reached an on-court high point when he was a junior.

“My freshman year, we were very highly ranked,” he said. “We had a lot of really good players on the team, and five actually played in the NBA at some point in time. That was probably our best team, while we were there, but then afterwards …we had more or less of a rebuilding (season) our sophomore year. That same sophomore year, we had the same nucleus of guys that came back as juniors.

“I kind of settled into a nice sixth man (role) … to support the system. Stat wise, we worked really hard. We went from not even making an NIT tournament to actually making the big tournament — same corps of players, too. For sure, stat-wise, junior year was the most comfortable that I had.”

Statistically speaking, Caouette scored 151 points coming off the bench his junior year, according to sports-reference.com. He went 37 for 44 from the free-throw line. He had 22 assists, 14 steals and 84 total rebounds. By the time he finished his career at Villanova, he scored 372 points, hit 79 of 102 free-throws, knocked down 53 3-pointers and grabbed 182 rebounds. He made the trip to two NCAA tournaments, his freshman and junior years.

TJ Caouette still has press clippings from his days at Winthrop. In this one, he is receiving a ball from coach Dave Poulin. Contributed photo

“I remembering my game transitioning quite a bit on two fronts,” he said. “One is just playing 12 months out of the year. Growing up in Maine, we played in the summer, but I didn’t make it a hobby. I was a golfer. I played golf in the summers. But basketball in college, it was 12 months of the year, every single day. It was a big adjustment from what I remember.” 

He said he used to go to the rim and attack in high school, but that certainly changed when he began play for Villanova.

“It is really difficult to attack against a, you know, a 7-footer,” he said with a laugh. “Your game morphs a little bit. I got kind of carved out into the 3-point shooter role. I was absolutely more of system player at the top-tier division. Foot speed at that level is very quick, and I didn’t necessarily have that so I needed to manage around it.”

LOVE FOR MAINE

Caouette has been working for IBM for nearly 10 years. He says it is competitive and he is involved in the cyber defense industry.

“I enjoy the mission side of it,” he said. “It is rewarding and challenging at the same time.”

TJ Caouette currently resides in Florida. Contributed photo

He and his wife, Jackie, and his two children, Tyler and Samantha, are content remaining in Florida, but there are times when the Winthrop standout pines for those cooler temperatures in Maine.

“We’ve been married 18 years now and she is from Sarasota, Florida,” he said. “We’ve lived down here 11 years. You appreciate (Maine) every time you go back. I love the state.”

“I always said that I wish every hard-working high school basketball coach in Maine would have the opportunity to go through that type of (recruiting rush),” Poulin said. “To not only be able to coach a player with that much talent and such a great person, but to get a chance to meet all those coaches.”

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