Kevin Ollie aces the job interview
Second-year coach remakes UConn in his own image during Final Four run
NEW YORK -- Everywhere around him, there was joyful chaos -- players piling atop one another for a mosh pit group photo, cheerleaders jumping up and down, administrators bear-hugging and high-fiving each other.
And yet he was still. Kevin Ollie, the man who hops, skips and jumps down the sideline like a jackrabbit on a pogo stick, who claps his hands so hard they surely must ache the next day, who coaches from a defensive crouch as if his perfect positioning might somehow transmit to his players. Kevin Ollie, of all people, was still.
Minutes after Connecticut stunned Michigan State to advance to an improbable Final Four, the Huskies' second-year coach simply turned around behind his bench, donned a new Final Four hat, and walked alone to the middle of the court.
"I don't even know what to say," he said, a broad grin growing on his face. "I can't believe it yet. I can't believe it."
Eventually, he found his mentor and predecessor, Jim Calhoun, to hug. Later his wife, Stephanie, was there, too.
But for a brief minute he was alone, the quiet in the middle of the storm.
Which, really, is what Ollie has been all along.
Shabazz Napier led the Huskies to Arlington with his play on the court, but Ollie's steady stewardship has truly guided UConn to the Final Four.
"He has been amazing, absolutely amazing," assistant coach Glenn Miller said. "He's so positive all the time. No matter what was going on, he was positive. He had a lot thrown at him. I'm not sure a lot of people could have handled it like he has."
To succeed The Man, you must be strong, blessed with an unusual combination of humility and arrogance to make it work -- the humility to recognize while the job title might be yours, the job itself isn't quite yet, and the arrogance to believe that eventually it will be.
When Ollie was tabbed to replace Calhoun in September 2012, first as the interim head coach and eventually as the full-time man in charge at UConn, the talk centered around what Ollie wasn't. He wasn't terribly experienced (just two years as an assistant); he wasn't very old (only 40 when he was hired); and most of all, he wasn't Calhoun.
What people failed to appreciate was what Ollie is.
Beneath all of that demonstrative sideline behavior is a steely confidence. Take him away from a game setting, turn off the clock, and he is quiet and thoughtful. Ignore the pitter-patter of his Yogi Berra slogans and clichés and you'll hear a man who is comfortable and confident in who he is and not terribly worried about being someone else.
"I can't be Coach Calhoun," he said. "I can't build this program up like he did. I can't do that. But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and forge my own program. And that's all I'm trying to do."
That's what Calhoun tried to tell people: In Ollie, UConn would get a man of high principle and integrity, and a coach who could relate to his players yet ignore the inevitable scrutiny.
"They never agree with anything I say," Calhoun joked when given the chance for an I-told-you-so after the regional final.
He wanted Ollie to be named his coach-in-waiting, but a new athletic director and relatively new university president understandably weren't interested in creating a monarchy.
But Calhoun being Calhoun -- a man whose South Boston grit still simmers beneath his 71-year-old skin -- he found a way to get his way. He retired in mid-September, essentially robbing UConn of any chance to conduct a coaching search.
So the same administrators gave Ollie the job, but only with the promise of a seven-month contract. Before turning over the keys to his departmental Maserati, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel thought it would be wise to see if Ollie could drive first.
"It was basically an internship," Huskies guard Ryan Boatright said.
But Ollie, who studied scouting reports and game film to stretch a bunch of 10-minute game appearances into a 13-year NBA career, never minded playing without a guarantee. He didn't really want to be handed the job, anyway.
He preferred to earn it.
And so on the first day he gathered his team as its head coach, he delivered a simple message.
"He just said, 'We're going to rebuild this program. Nothing is going to be easy. Nothing is going to be handed to us,'" DeAndre Daniels said. "He told us the only thing we could do was work."
And then he took away the basketballs and made his players run for 30 minutes.
"Be yourself." That was the piece of advice another successor gave Ollie when the new UConn coach took to the sideline in his first game.
Nineteen years ago, Tom Izzo had the tall task of replacing Jud Heathcote at Michigan State. When the Huskies and Spartans met on an Air Force base in Germany to kick off the 2012-13 season, Izzo saw a lot of his past in Ollie's present.
There was Calhoun, doing radio that day, still present if not still coaching, and there was Ollie, trying to prove he was the right man for the job.
"I just told Kevin to embrace it because [Calhoun's] got a lot of knowledge and can really help you," Izzo said. "Jud's still coaching my team 19 years later, and I actually enjoy that."
That is exactly what Ollie has done, navigating what could otherwise be a tricky tightrope of leading the program Calhoun built with Calhoun still lingering in the background.
He welcomes Calhoun's input and welcomes him to practices and games, but he also does his own thing.
Ollie says repeatedly -- because he is asked regularly -- that he is forever indebted to Calhoun. The coach took a flier on a kid from South Central Los Angeles and trusted him to be his point guard. He hired Ollie when he wanted to get into coaching, and of course, pushed and insisted he was ready to be a head coach when no one else agreed.
But they are not the same. Ollie is off the Calhoun coaching tree, but he is a different kind of apple. Because of his NBA background, he favors a pro-style offense, and because of his genetic makeup, he generates enthusiasm.
Calhoun occasionally liked to call timeouts and not talk to his team, his silence sending his message. Ollie doesn't do the silent treatment.
"KO is a real positive dude," Boatright said. "Any negative he's going to try and make into a positive. Coach Calhoun is going to get on you, cuss you out, challenge you, call you names. If you were tough and could handle it, he'd bring the best out of you. They're both tough, but in different ways."
Old habits die hard. When Ollie finally found Calhoun on Sunday afternoon on the Garden floor, the first thing he said to his old coach was, ''We did it."
Calhoun quickly corrected him.
"No, you did it," he said.
That might just be the last lesson the mentor has to give to his protégé.
The Man will always and rightfully have a place at Connecticut, but it is the New Man's turn now.
And he has earned it.
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