UConn Men's Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie: The Overachiever
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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.