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