UConn Men's Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie: The Overachiever
Images by Peter Hvizdak
Editor's note: The UConn men's basketball team just won the NCAA national championship, capping an incredible season that started with our preseason profile of Coach Kevin Ollie. Enjoy!
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.
Many of his colleagues in the coaching fraternity loudly volunteered that Ollie deserved a long-term deal immediately. Some people, though, wondered if Ollie, of all the potential candidates, was the best man to lead UConn in the long-term.
Calhoun even acknowledges that had there been an open search, Ollie might not have emerged as the strongest candidate. Manuel says he got inquiries from people connected to some top coaches. “The bar is high here,” he says. “It’s a good job . . . it would bring out people who wanted to test the waters.”
Ollie, wasn’t happy with the “interim tag.” But that title didn’t last long.
On the sidelines, Ollie is animated, clapping, yelling encouragement to his team. Like his predecessor, he is connecting with each player each moment. He has the same fire, but without the flares. There are no fits of rage. He does not get in players’ faces, nor yank them. He rarely stamps. Ollie, 40, has a graceful manner; he walks with a smooth gait. He’s long and lean, with intense dark eyes and a melancholy expression on his face.
But in temperament, Ollie is a bull. In college, he had to prove himself year after year to Calhoun, who had envisioned Doron Sheffer as his point guard until Ollie’s grit and hard work forced the coach to move the Israeli phenom to shooting guard.
When he was only given 10-day contracts in the NBA, he made it clear he intended to stick around. “I told them ‘they better get used to me,’” he says.
Manuel made it clear early on that, with a depleted roster and no hope of postseason play, Ollie would be judged less on wins and losses last season than on his overall command of the program. The wins, though, were there. Had the Huskies been tournament-eligible, they almost certainly would have been granted a bid to the Big Dance.
UConn finished 20-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big East—the latter good enough to finish eighth in the 15-team conference.
One of those wins, though, went further than any other in securing Ollie a long-term contract. It took place Nov. 9 in a cavernous airplane hangar packed with cheering GIs stationed at a massive U.S. Air Force Base in southwest Germany, where the Huskies opened the season against 14th-ranked Michigan State in the first-ever Armed Forces Classic.
Unranked and with only seven active players, UConn emerged with a surprising 66-62 win sealed by junior guard Shabazz Napier’s four free throws in the final seconds.
With a nod to the past, Napier walked over to the sidelines to hug Calhoun. He then joined his jubilant teammates as they mobbed their new coach, each player rubbing Ollie’s head as if it was Aladdin’s lamp.
After the game, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo joined a growing chorus urging Manuel, who was there, to extend Ollie’s contract beyond a season.
“We won the Michigan State game and I saw how the team pulled around Kevin during an adverse situation: Their coach retired, no postseason and all the transfers,” Manuel says. “I saw how Kevin could get the support of the team and how he supported our academic mission. I saw everything I needed to see to know he could lead this program and take it into the future.”
Less than three months later, Manuel signed Ollie through April 2018. It is one of the longest contracts he has had in his basketball career.
A year after Ollie’s introductory press conference, the Big East is essentially gone. UConn was passed over yet again by the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference, and is stuck in a league called the American Athletic Conference, whose name reflects its complete lack of regional identity. (Conference rivalries with Syracuse, Georgetown and Villanova are gone, replaced by emotionless battles with the likes of Houston, Central Florida and Memphis.)
UConn’s postseason ban has been lifted, but with the possibility of postseason glory comes an added pressure to win, and an element of scrutiny that was largely absent during Ollie’s first year on the sidelines.
Every season at UConn begins with the expectation that, at the very least, the Huskies will be playing in the NCAA tournament. Yet when practice begins Oct. 15, Ollie will be up against both short-term and long-term expectations: In the short-term, finish near the top of the AAC and go to the Big Dance.
The long-term goals are more daunting: He’ll have to show that UConn, post-Big East and post-Jim Calhoun, is still a program with a bright future and an upward trajectory. Between its men’s and women’s programs, UConn has won 11 national championships in 18 years. Mediocrity is not an option. “We can’t go and lay on our past success,” he says. “I thought we were an NCAA tournament team last year, but we have a lot to play for next year.”
Ollie’s long-term contract came as a relief to Stephanie Ollie, who married the coach after the two met while students at UConn in the mid-90s. The couple has maintained a home in
Glastonbury for the past eight years so their son, Jalen, a two-sport athlete at Glastonbury High School, their daughter Cheyenne and Stephanie’s teenage nephew, who lives with them, could go to the same schools.
Stephanie Ollie’s occupation as a nurse in the cardiac arrest unit of Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital is even more intense than her husband’s. The morning after a UConn game many patients joke that her husband almost gave them a heart attack. The roller-coaster career, she says, has toughened her husband.
“He has had experience. His players can learn from him,” she says. “This is all he’s ever wanted to do.”
It’s not just Stephanie who believes in Ollie.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino—a recent Hall-of-Fame inductee—stated that belief last year, after his Cardinals, on their way to winning the national title, beat UConn 73-58.
“I’ll be long dead, but Kevin Ollie is going to be an unbelievable coach,” the 62-year-old Pitino told reporters after the game. “The guys who have played professional basketball, who did it through hunger and pain and work and travel overseas and play on 13 one-year contracts, they make the best coaches because they have to fight every year of their life to make it.”
Longtime pro and college coach Larry Brown, another Hall-of-Famer who coached Ollie from 1999 to 2001 with the Philadelphia 76ers and is entering his second year as the head coach at Southern Methodist University (another of UConn’s new conference mates), says Ollie has “every quality you would want in a coach: passion, teaching, the ability to relate to young people.”
He’ll need to lean on the lessons learned in the pros if he’s going to succeed long-term at UConn. Ollie was a role model for younger players the caliber of LeBron James (when the two played together in Cleveland) and Kevin Durant (in Oklahoma City). “You can’t put a price on his work ethic and feel for the game,” Brown says.
NBA teams don’t have the resources or roster spots to keep someone who isn’t making a contribution. “If you aren’t playing you’d better have a big reason to be on that team,” Calhoun says.
Ollie averaged 15 minutes in 662 games and earned more than $20 million in those 13 years. His UConn contract calls for $400,000 yearly base pay, plus more than $800,000 annually in media and public-relations commitments. There are bonuses for academic and athletic success and penalties if the team fails to meet minimum NCAA scholastic standards.
When Ollie called Brown several years ago about whether he should stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he had played for two years, or take the assistant position at UConn, his mentor advised him to return to his basketball roots.
“I told him ‘you know you want to coach, and now you have the opportunity to go back with Calhoun, who has handpicked you and has your back’,” Brown says. “It was a no-brainer in my mind.”
Brown says when he and Ollie were going after the same players during summer recruiting, families would tell him that the UConn coach said nice things about his potential rival. “You don’t see that happen so much in our profession, where coaches champion other guys,” Brown says.
The life of an NBA nomad was not wasted on Ollie.
Undrafted out of college, Ollie opted to skip the standard route and play in Europe, and instead spent several years with the Connecticut Pride in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. At age 25, five years older than the average age of an NBA rookie, the Dallas Mavericks signed him to his first NBA contract.
Ollie’s stint in Dallas lasted all of 16 games. His next NBA stop, with the Orlando Magic, lasted 19. In all, Ollie was with 11 NBA teams (three times with Philadelphia and twice with Orlando), wore seven numbers and was on four playoff teams.
Ollie’s best season came in 2002-03 with the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle SuperSonics, when he played in all 82 games, averaging 6.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.2 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. Ollie ended his career in 2010 with Oklahoma City, where he played 25 games, but more importantly for his career, became a valuable asset in the locker room.
When Thunder general manager Sam Presti signed Ollie, he said Ollie’s greatest contributions were his off-the-court leadership and understanding of player personnel. When he was named an assistant coach at UConn, Ollie was given a two-year contract—a highly unusual deal since assistants are normally year to year. But Ollie was close with the Oklahoma front office, where he was being groomed for a job, and UConn had long-term ideas in mind.
In a 2009-10 survey, Ollie was the least-known active player to receive votes among the likes of Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash in a poll asking NBA general managers who would make the best coach someday.
His NBA career, Ollie says, gave him “character and resiliency. “It gives you the ability to fall down and get back up,” he says. “I like hitting the wall. You know your limits, you can test yourself.”
Ollie has been a fighter since his early days growing up in the roughest section of south-central Los Angeles. “I walked out my door and I’d be confronted by colors—one block would be the blue gang, one block the red gang,” he says. Athletics gave Ollie protection. “When I walked through the neighborhood, they’d say ‘he plays basketball,’” he says. Some of his former youth teammates are dead, others are in jail. One, David Fizdale, is an assistant coach with the Miami Heat.
Dorothy Ollie, Kevin’s mother, an assistant minister in the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Los Angeles, provided her own support system, instilling the power of religion in her three children. Religion, Ollie says, “is the center of life . . . everyone peaks off of their faith in God and Jesus Christ. Money, women, alcohol can’t fill a void. Religion can help you overcome obstacles.”
When Ollie was 7, his parents divorced and his father moved to Dallas. He spent summers there, cutting lawns and doing other odd jobs so he could be with him for some length of time. “I’m grateful to my mom because she gave me a relationship with my father,” he says.
Outside of his family, the person he looks up to most is Calhoun. This past summer, when he entered the homes of recruits, he had behind him the Calhoun legacy of 27 years of winning basketball, three national championships and the great NBA players who have played in Storrs.
He also had personal experience. “I told them, ‘I stayed in the same dorms you’ll be in, I sat in the same seats, you’ll sit in,’” he says. The Husky tradition and his experiences “give us separation” from other schools, he says. But most of all, watching Calhoun go after players . . . “the pride he had in this university” impressed him. “I’d think ‘if I could just touch the hem of his garment,’” he says with a wry smile.
Ollie has been successful in recruiting quality players who otherwise might have avoided UConn because of its 2013 postseason issues.
Among them are 6-foot-9 forward Kentan Facey of Glen Head, Long Island, and 6-4 guard Terrence Samuel of Brooklyn, N.Y., teammates on the highly regarded New York Rens AAU program.
Facey, ranked among the top 100 high school seniors, says the fact that the team needed big men factored into his decision to choose UConn over UCLA and Rhode Island, among others.
Ollie was another factor. “I watched UConn all last year and felt that they kept playing hard, which showed the personality of the coaching staff,” he says. “They could have given up, but they didn’t.”
Ollie’s skill at reaching out to individual players is clear in the way he has treated Rodney Purvis, a 6-foot-4 sophomore transfer from N.C. State, who has been the recipient of the coach’s encouragement and counsel. On campus this past summer to take courses and begin workouts, Purvis discovered quickly that he had to pick up his work ethic. “Everything here is much more intense,” he says. Every day, Ollie stops Purvis in the hall. “To see how I’m doing,” Purvis says.
Perhaps the most prized Ollie recruit is Daniel Hamilton, a senior at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., who verbally committed to the program for the 2014-15 season. Ollie had been pursuing the 6-foot-7 swingman, who is ranked among the top 30 juniors in the country. When he announced his decision, Hamilton, whose older brother Jordan plays for the Denver Nuggets, said the team “looked like a brotherhood” when they beat Michigan State.
It’s a description of his team that Ollie uses frequently. “We weren’t playing for a national championship,” he said after the final game of the season against Providence. “We were playing for each other. This team was a brotherhood.”
Napier, who opted to stay in school this season to get his degree, says he was shocked when Calhoun retired. “Everyone had a chance to leave, but I dealt with it because I didn’t think Coach Calhoun would put me in bad hands,” he says.
“Ollie emphasized pride, trust, what’s on the front of the jersey, not the back,” says Boatright, who also stuck with UConn last season while others bailed. “Even though we weren’t playing for something, we still had a chip on our shoulder to win.”
Boatright had other issues when it came to playing a full season. His freshman year, the NCAA disputed his eligibility over questions about who paid for a plane ticket he used. After numerous interactions, some rancorous, it finally ruled him eligible in January 2012.
He says Ollie kept him afloat: “He helped me through things . . . he inspired me when I was down. I was depressed . . . [the NCAA] had taken away what I loved but KO kept telling me ‘this storm will pass.’”
That expression reflects Ollie’s tendency at times to sound like a preacher. “He has his professional side,” says Boatright, referring to formal press conferences and the like. “But he uses different language when he talks to us.”
The words Ollie chooses can be as concrete as when he told them after a win over Syracuse, “it’s time to change the channel and focus on Villanova” or as abstract as when he is speaking of his team’s “heart” and “passion.” “Heart” played a factor in the Huskies’ 5-2 record in seven overtime games (two of them double overtimes) as did Napier, who had 55 points in 45 minutes.
In an emotional ceremony following the last home game—students call the Gampel Pavilion “Olliewood”—he told fans, still on their feet, “we want to win games and tournaments but the real goal is to have the best attitude in America.” Then he added, “Tomorrow I’m going to church to thank God for blessing me and blessing this team.”
Each home game starts with a video of team highlights and a voiceover by Ollie: “We got a motto for this team: Ten toes in, not five, so when you step in this gym, you got ten toes in—if you don’t have it, then you got a problem with me.”
The question now is whether that passion and talent can translate into a successful season.
Thirteen days after the Huskies’ Nov. 8 Division I season opener against Maryland, they will meet former Big East rival Boson College, now in the ACC, in the semifinal of a tournament in Madison Square Garden to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior project. The next night, they could play in the final against Indiana.
Manuel says the non-conference schedule is deliberately tough to prepare UConn for the postseason tournaments and to give fans competitive games. Although the new league has been dismissed as a collection of leftovers, Ollie says the American is going to be tough. He is hopeful UConn will be able to shape it. Many teams, like Houston and Memphis, have solid returning players who sat out last season. Louisville, which is heading to the ACC for the 2014-15 season, will play in the American this year. Even SMU, coached by Brown and coming off a 15-17 season, will gain from two freshmen McDonald’s all-Americans.
UConn players think the team will be stronger than the previous season because of the new players and because Ollie will have had a year’s experience. “Like freshmen, he will learn from having a year under his belt,” Napier says. “We just have to continue playing together.”
Brown agrees. “Just look at that roster,” he says. “I don’t want to put pressure on Kevin, but he has great guards and he’s a coach that people respect and admire.
“When both his guards stayed,” he says, referring to Boatright and Napier, “that showed me they realized they have a chance to be a special team.”
Pitino says UConn has the potential to be a top 10 team. “They’re a great team and have two of the best guards in the nation,” he says. “Any time you have two great guards like that, you have a great team.”
Ollie is aware of the burden to maintain the winning tradition. Every day when he goes to his Gampel Pavilion office, he passes photographs of Calhoun’s three national championship teams at the White House, ceremoniously presenting the president with a No. 1 UConn shirt.
He sees his job as an odyssey, a book “we’re writin’,” a continuation of what’s come before.
Though the conference has changed, the stakes are ramped up and new players are coming into the fold, “we’ll keep the same recipe that wins championships,” Ollie says. “The journey’s not over. It’s just beginning.”
UConn Men's Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie: The Overachiever