UConn Men's Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie: The Overachiever
Images by Peter Hvizdak
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When Hall-of-Fame UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun retired in September 2012, Athletic Director Warde Manuel, on the job for seven months, was left with a dilemma.
Calhoun had taken the job in the fall of 1986, when UConn was a regional school with little name recognition beyond New England and a men’s basketball team that routinely finished last or next-to-last in the Big East conference. More than two decades later, he was leaving a program that had won three national championships and a school that, in no small part because of basketball, was inching toward the upper echelon of American research universities.
He was leaving all of that abruptly, about a month before the start of practice, denying Manuel the time he’d need to run a national search and have Calhoun’s successor in place for the start of the season. Calhoun was also leaving a program with significant issues.
UConn was banned from the 2013 NCAA tournament and any other postseason play because of substandard academic progress. Two of its biggest stars left early for the NBA, and two more transferred rather than play for a team with no shot at March Madness. Perhaps of more pressing long-term concern, UConn had been left out in the cold after conference realignment that put the Big East—the conference in which UConn grew up as a program—on the verge of extinction.
The next coach would have to prove UConn could thrive without Jim Calhoun and without the Big East. Calhoun had originally planned on retiring in July 2012 before deciding to stay for another season. Then came a hip injury, strenuous rehabilitation, time to think things over, and the assurance by Manuel that his voice would be heard in determining his successor.
Calhoun’s advice to Manuel centered entirely around Kevin Ollie. An overachieving former UConn point guard who pieced together a surprisingly successful 13-year NBA career before returning to Storrs to serve for two seasons on Calhoun’s staff, Ollie had no head coaching experience at any level. Yet he had Calhoun’s backing, and as the incumbent assistant head coach, he was the logical choice for at least a tryout as the head man.
“I wanted to make sure he got the contract and he got the extension,” Calhoun says.
In 1990, Ollie, a senior at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, had a questionable jump shot but enough promise that Calhoun, eyeing Ollie’s determination and leadership ability, lured him 3,000 miles away from his close-knit, religious family to attend UConn.
“The biggest thing I saw was his resiliency and tenacity,” Calhoun says. “He wasn’t flashy, not a great shooter, but he was relentless as a player and he didn’t seem to have a great ego. He took a risk putting himself in the hands of people 3,000 miles away, but we had built up a trust. The match was good.”
Manuel had apparently seen some of the same qualities in Ollie and so, when Calhoun announced his retirement Sept. 12, 2012, UConn announced at the same time that Ollie was being promoted to head coach, on a seven-month provisional contract.