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At chaotic UConn, Ollie deserves more

12/4/2012

You can understand why Warde Manuel couldn't take the leap.

The UConn athletic director was new to his job, too. His flagship inheritance -- UConn basketball -- was suddenly struggling, not only from the departure of monolithic former coach Jim Calhoun, but by the academic penalties the NCAA imposed on UConn for falling short of its Academic Progress Rate standards. Now faced with the most important hire of his career, Manuel didn't even really have a choice, at least not in the short term. Calhoun had made it clear he wanted beloved former player and assistant coach Kevin Ollie. Fans had heard the news. What was Manuel going to do, say no?

Instead, on Sept. 13, he did the closest thing: He gave Ollie a seven-month contract. At the time, this seemed like a clever workaround. Ollie would sink or swim on his own merits, not on the wishes of his legendary predecessor. If Ollie proved himself under difficult circumstances, he could get a long-term deal. If Ollie flailed, Manuel would know -- and could make his big move -- before any real damage was done.

A few months later, it looks like Manuel might have to swallow his pride, give Ollie his due, and take the leap after all. Because things at UConn are starting to get weird.

The first reason Manuel should hire Ollie is super simple: Ollie has done a nice job so far. Despite major offseason turnover, his team is playing well, but most importantly it is playing hard, and Ollie has been pitch-perfect on and off the court to date.

The other reasons are probably more persuasive. (Two months is a small sample size, after all. So is seven, but I digress.) The first is the current state of UConn basketball, and UConn athletics, and where the Huskies as an athletics entity are right now. Last week, the folks at The UConn Blog covered this in excellent detail (and described how much they love Ollie's passion), but it is summed pretty well by the following tweet:

Yes, I'd say that about sums it up. UConn would have loved to get to the ACC, but John Swofford & Co. took Louisville instead. The Big East is crumbling. (How do I know? Two words: Tu. Lane.) Connecticut isn't playing the best football in the world, and its basketball program just saw the one common denominator to its historical success retire.

And by the way? Mr. Common Denominator? You're not helping. From the Associated Press:

Calhoun, who had spinal surgery in February [and just-revealed surgery in May to remove an apparent cancerous growth from his lungs], retired in September weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured hip suffered in an August bicycling accident.

The three surgeries "took a toll on my body," Calhoun told YES, "and I was tired. Now, the energy level I feel is much different."

The 70-year-old Calhoun, who is still using a cane while recovering from that surgery, also told YES that he has not completely ruled out a return to coaching.

"I would never say never," Calhoun told YES.

Maybe Calhoun would come back at some random school; maybe he's talking about coaching a 10-and-under rec league. But until he fully dismisses the notion that he might come back to UConn specifically, Ollie isn't going to get a fair shot at doing things his way.

It was already difficult, succeeding Calhoun, trying to live up to what he built, while the master broadcasts from the sideline. Now Ollie has to contend with his suddenly healthy, vocally re-energized mentor talking about how he may or may not be done coaching just yet. As if the seven-month contract wasn't bad enough. As if UConn's precarious realignment position wasn't frightening already. As if the APR sanctions and tourney ban weren't an adequate challenge. As if Calhoun's wake wasn't choppy enough.

Ollie deserves a contract, not only because it would be best for him, or because he deserves it (he probably does), but because it would put at least one thing about UConn's swirling athletics program in a fixed position.

If Manuel doesn't want to take that leap of faith, I suppose that's his prerogative. But if he doesn't, we'll know this much: Ollie's shot was never a fair one.