Kevin Ollie’s greener than a stack of C-notes when it comes to being a HC at the collegiate level. But so far the second-year coach has made replacing a living legend, navigating UConn through potential chaos and NCAA heat and doing Final Four damage in his first Big Dance look easy.
When legendary Huskies coach Jim Calhoun abruptly retired in 2012 and the program was then banned from post season participation by the NCAA in 2013 due to poor graduation rates, it’s safe to say that Huskies Nation went into panic mode. Fortunately, Calhoun, who has brought so many gifts to Storrs while building a national powerhouse, left them with one lasting present on his way out.
He insisted that Ollie be his replacement, and with that move, ensured a smooth transition of power to a guy who played and starred at UConn, coached at the university and understands Coach Calhoun’s principles for success.
Taking over for a legend can be challenging without the extra baggage (conference realignment, suspension, possible defections) Ollie had to deal with when he took over. Ollie was in a Catch-22 situation from the beginning. Although he was a beloved former player, if he failed most people would say he couldn’t fill the great Calhoun’s shoes. Now that he’s found almost immediate success, some haters say he was handed a championship caliber college squad from his predecessor. Ollie appreciates the tutelage and opportunity Calhoun gave him, but he was a mentor and somewhat of an assistant coach towards the end of his NBA career—before he ever grabbed the clipboard for UConn. He says his greater faith lies in his own abilities and living by the code of a higher power.
“You can't take it for granted or say I stepped into a basketball powerhouse situation,” Ollie said. “I thank Coach for giving me this opportunity. I knew what I had, though. I had faith in my players, I had a great coaching staff, two of my coaches coached me and have head coach experience, and my belief in God. I thank Him for this opportunity. I thank Coach for always being there. I thank my AD and my president for their faith in me. I just want to make these kids better people. If we can do that and win a National Championship on the way, that's good.”
Seeing Calhoun in the stands stressing each loose ball from a distance, with the rest of the fans, was odd. In the post game conference after beating Michigan State to advance to the Final Four, Ollie was asked what Calhoun said to him after the game, and if there was ever a time that he felt the task ahead was too looming.
“It's always in the back of your mind…thinking about certain things,” Ollie reflected. ‘You asked yourself, is this the right job? Should I stay in the NBA?’
“You have those thoughts going on in your mind. But at the end of the day I wanted to be close to my family and I wanted to come back to my second family, which is my UCONN family. And just to be around Coach all the time and him believing in me, even before this coaching thing…as a 17 year old and believing that I could be a point guard. And passing up on a lot of guards to have me come way from Los Angeles to Connecticut is like unbelievable. And that's what I told him in his ear. "Thank you for believing in me."
Calhoun left a legacy that forever identifies UConn with exceptional college basketball and Ollie’s making sure that “reputation” won’t being tarnished anytime soon. Only the future will tell if Ollie can captivate a recruit, engage his parents and have them believe that Ollie will take care of their prized offspring for four years. Calhoun was a master at it and eventually his resume spoke for itself when he walked through a recruit’s door. If he even had to walk through the door.
"I can't be Coach Calhoun,” Ollie said shaking his head. “I can't build his program from '86 when he arrived, I can't do that. But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own, forge my own program going forward…that's all I'm trying to do. We're going to build it on love. We're going to build it on toughness and togetherness. And one thing I learned from Coach is it's all about family. Your brothers, they all have each other's back, no matter if it's down times or no matter if it's up times, we're going to have each other's back and that's how these guys are playing right now.”
No. 7 seed Connecticut doesn’t have the truck-load of McDonald’s All-Americans that lower-seeded Kentucky (8) has. They don’t have the recent tournament experience that two-seed Wisconsin and one-seed Florida have. It would be almost blasphemous to consider UConn a “Cinderella” team under any circumstances because the talented trio of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels can most def wreck the rim. But it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe their Final Four run as “highly improbable,” and you could tell that Ollie’s journey to the top of the ladder to cut the nets was as enjoyable an experience as he’s had – even rivaling his 13 years in the NBA as the consummate team-first floor general.
“That was just a great experience,” Ollie said. “It's a great time when you can get on that ladder, but I was really taking my time. One step at a time. And that's what you got to do to get up top of the ladder. And the last two years we didn't skip no steps. I keep telling you that and that's what it's all about. Guys didn't get out of their roles and they believe in each other, and we call it Level Five and that's a championship mentality, and if we can have Level Five all the time, and not only on the basketball court, in the classroom, too, we're going to be fine. We don't play for what's on the back of our jersey; we play for what's on the front.”
That much was obvious as Madison Square Garden – scene of The East Regional Final – was packed with UConn fans and players, from current NBA stars to heroes of yesteryear.
“You can see everybody come back,” Ollie boasted with pride. “Andre Drummond, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Richard Hamilton, even players that you don't even know in the NBA. It's a big family. And that's what Coach created and I'm glad he passed me the baton, and I'm just trying to run with it and try to still create that environment.”
Florida is patiently waiting to crush this crazy ride UConn is on. The Gators have been in the elite mix all season and Billy Donovan, the last college coach to lead a squad to back-to-back-c’hips, is a master in these moments. Ollie may have learned from a legend, but he’s a newbie when it comes to tossing X’s and O’s, especially in a Final Four situation. But now that the adversity is behind them and they conquered it together, the extent of UConn’s future greatness will be purely dictated by UConn.
“And that FIST always for us is “Fight.” It's our “Identity,” that's the I. And the S is “State” and then the T is “Together,” Ollie added. “And that's why we always hold that fist in every time we bring it in. That's what we did. I just wanted to show them, you know, Florida was No. 1 and we can beat No. 1. We have already proved it. But I love Billy Donovan, what he does with his program and he's just an amazing coach. And their team is amazing and it's going to take 40 full again. And that's kind of been our mantra throughout this tournament.”
A lot of coaches would have succumbed to the pressure, but in Ollie’s case, he embraced the challenge. That competitive NBA mentality didn’t dissipate when he chucked the shorts and sneakers for a suit, tie and clipboard. Any negative feedback along the way, he’s simply ignored.
“Those are things I can't control,” said Ollie. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, our effort and passion. And I knew the talent we had in our locker room. I knew what type of character we had in our locker room. So we did those different things and we brought that character leadership to the floor.”
“I knew we were going to win and I knew we were going to stay. Like I said the last season, people didn't see us. We were just lapping everybody. We were just lapping them. And last season we wanted teams to be like, why are they working so hard? Why are they playing so hard? Everybody was saying we weren't playing for anything and a lot of media outlets were saying we weren't playing for anything, but we were playing for something.”
Keeping an open mind and staying true to the principles he was taught as a player has been one of Ollie’s best attributes. It was almost destiny for him to end up back in Storrs, and the timing was perfect.
“I didn't expect Jim to retire when he did because he was in there, Ollie said. “We were recruiting very hard and one day he said, ‘All right, it's time for me to retire. I want to spend a little time with my grandchildren and go play a little golf in January.’ And I was surprised with that, because his energy was good, his health was good. But at the end of the day I just wanted to be who I am. I knew I had a great passion for this university, and it's a lot of things that are involved in it. But I have a great coaching staff. That coaching staff when I took over had probably about 40 years of headcoaching experience. We had Coach Blaney; I had Coach Miller, Coach Hobbs. Then I had two wonderful young assistants that know what it is to be national champions. They were our first national champions in 1999, and that's Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman. So it made my job easier. I had Coach Calhoun there. I had Geno Auriemma there. I had the great Dee Rowe there.”
“All these guys I can go and use them as a sounding board, and it was just a great situation for me, but at the end of the day you take suggestions, but you got to make the decisions. And as a coach, I wanted to make the right decisions. I wanted to stay hungry, but I always wanted to stay humble. It's about a team effort. And that's what I continue to try to establish in my young men.”
The same veteran leadership and O.G. mentoring skills Ollie’s flexed to keep UConn’s juggernaut afloat, he exhibited as a veteran guard offering guidance to a young Kevin Durant and Westbrook when the incredible tandem had first blessed the NBA. Durant recently said in an interview that Ollie (who played for Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-2010) “taught him the ropes” and shaped the culture of the team.
“Kevin Ollie, he was a game changer for us, Durant said in a Grantland piece.” I think he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City. Just his mind set, professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that, and we all wanted to be like that. It rubbed off on Russell Westbrook, myself, Jeff Green, James Harden. And then everybody who comes through now, it’s the standard that you’ve got to live up to as a Thunder player. And it all started with Kevin Ollie.”
That’s major props and Ollie isn’t co-signing that statement, but he doesn’t have to. It’s not like his momma said it.
“I sure didn't teach him how to score 30 points a game,” Ollie insisted. “So I don't know…Kevin and Russell, you don't have to teach those guys too much. I appreciate the comment, but them guys are just, they're just workers. They taught me more than I believe I taught them, just a player for his magnitude to be so humble. In that interview, I know a lot of people caught on to what he said about me, but I caught on to what he said about the end, that he wants to be known as a servant. And that's what I believe. A player of his magnitude to say "I want to be a servant" is pretty big time. And the humility that he shows, I want all our players to have that humility, and I think that's why he's such a great player. And if I can just bring a little something to the table, that's good, but he gave me probably more than I gave him.”
It’s been quite a journey for The Cali Kid. He says he always knew he wanted to stay in basketball after he finished playing. The same preparation that had him hording scouting reports late in his NBA career is what he uses to get his UConn squad ready for any challenge.
“I always wanted to stay in basketball. I used to get a little flak from my teammates and with the Timberwolves, with Oklahoma City towards the end of my career I wanted to keep the scouting reports. So every scouting report I had, I still got them to this day. And different plays that they ran, looking at timeouts, look what the coach drew up, looking at film. I wasn't the greatest player, so I always had to watch film and try to get an advantage on my opponent. So if Coach threw me in there for five minutes, I better know my assignment. And I always just prided myself on dedication. But I kind of knew I wanted to be a coach, so I used to hold those scouting reports of different teams and different plays. So when I got in that position I'd have the knowledge—the XandO knowledge—but also the knowledge to get my guys prepared for the battles each and every game. “
With all this talk about how UConn can’t handle Donovan’s tourney savvy and Florida’s experience, some basketball heads are forgetting that UConn has an equal advantage in Kevin Ollie. Calhoun may be gone, but the UConn administration made sure not to botch up this exchange of power. Too many schools have dropped the ball on naming a replacement for a legend. UConn basically took one of their ribs and made him a heart. That way they know the same blood runs through his veins as every student, fan and faculty member in attendance. Now let’s see how Ollie puts the finishing touches on his own masterpiece.