By: Michael Sivo
“As I embark on this journey I want to just say we’re going to take the stairs, and not the escalator, because escalators are for cowards. We’re gonna take the stairs, and we’re gonna get there one step at a time.”
After much speculation over the last few weeks about where UConn men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie would find himself at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, he ended the uneasiness for Husky fans by signing a 5-year deal worth nearly $16 million.
Reportedly, for numerous NBA teams, a hot commodity is now off of the table in their head coaching searches. For UConn, a sigh of relief can be let out. For Kevin Ollie, the challenge of trying to repeat as national champions can now officially begin.
If there are two things that Kevin Ollie has been known for in his short time as the head coach, they are: 1.) his so-called “Ollieisms,” and 2.) his loyalty to his alma mater.
A Program in Transition
From the time he stepped on stage to accept the interim head coaching position, all he’s had is praise for the university.
“This place is special, that’s simply put, it’s special,” said Ollie during Jim Calhoun’s retirement press conference. “My first six years in the NBA, I didn’t have no guaranteed contract, so this is easy, this is exactly where I want to be at.”
I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the press conference back in September of 2012 covering the event as part of my first assignment with UCTV, UConn’s campus television station.
Upon entering the Gampel floor, I sensed a fog in the air. Gampel was filling up with students, and you could sense the fear among them. Jim Calhoun had been coaching at UConn since before any student attending the university was even born. It was a situation in which few had expected to happen so suddenly, and that meant a brief time of uncertainty for UConn fans everywhere.
Ollie showed nerves during his speech, which was understandable given his new job expectations. He was handed a program rich with a tradition of winning yet in transition, and it was up to him to reroute UConn from a devolving path.
However, that day became as much about Kevin Ollie as it was about Jim Calhoun. Calhoun pushed for his successor to come from within the UConn family, and he pushed AD Warde Manuel into giving Ollie, who had just two years experience as an assistant coach, the opportunity to lead the team.
With all of the questions about where UConn was headed for the future, facing a tournament ban for the 2012-2013 postseason and recruiting violations, Ollie stood up on that podium and made it clear that UConn wasn’t going anywhere.
“It’s about UConn basketball and how we go forward,” said Ollie. “And we’re going to go forward. And we have enough, right here in this room, we have enough.”
It was at that moment that I realized that there was something special about Kevin Ollie. He turned to his players, them scattered among the press seats below the podium, and assured them of their growth while attending the school.
“I want to thank my players for being here. Ya’ll are the most loyal guys I know. And you know, it’s a situation where I gotta stand up and be loyal. I gotta be here for ya’ll. I love ya’ll, we’re going to work hard, I’m going to push ya’ll, ya’ll going to say I’m crazy sometimes, but it’s going to be a good crazy because ya’ll are going to know every time I believe in ya’ll. I believe in ya’ll and I want ya’ll to be better, not only basketball players, but I want ya’ll to be better men. I want you to always come back and do that for me. I want you to believe in me as we go through this journey and know for a fact that I believe in ya’ll.”
Ollie Takes Over
Kevin Ollie was here to stay, and with such trust and confidence in his players, had me more excited than ever to witness his first season at the helm.
I was never a doubter about Ollie being the right fit at UConn. I, like many of the students at the press conference that day, was just not used to seeing someone other than Calhoun grace the sidelines with his commanding presence.
In fact, I was somewhat surprised that Ollie was given such a short leash with his interim deal, which was good for one-year at $625,000. He was basically given until the end of the 2012-2013 season to prove that he could start winning again in Storrs. For Ollie, it was just like another short NBA contract.
He led a team of players with no tournament to play for to a 20-10 record in his first season as head coach, with some notable wins against Michigan St., Notre Dame, Syracuse, and twice against Providence.
They won those games because Ollie made them believe. He told them they were going to be winners, no matter what anybody else said.
He couldn’t have been more right.
A Climactic Season
If 2013 was a pleasant surprise, then 2014 was a miracle.
Kevin Ollie’s 6-0 record in the NCAA tournament and title in his first try had only been done once before, by the great Steve Fisher while at Michigan.
Drawing comparisons to guys like Fisher just two years into the job is quite a compliment.
For Ollie, it wasn’t only about having talented players like the lightning rod guard combo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, along with a team full of talented veterans. It was about them believing in themselves.
There were the highs: wins against Florida, Indiana, Memphis (twice) and Cincinnati. There were the lows: losses against Houston, SMU (twice), and Louisville (three times). Despite the range of successes, the message was always the same.
“Ten toes in,” as Ollie called it. The team would stick together through the best and worst times.
While the team was on a trip through Texas to take on conference foes Houston and SMU in January, Ollie decided to take the team on a tour of Jerry World, otherwise known as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ monumentally sized football stadium.
He told them that they could come back to play there again in the Final Four. Even if the players didn’t believe it at the time, Ollie did.
After UConn’s final home game of the season ended in a win over Rutgers, he addressed the student section and promised us he’d return with a national championship. I wanted that to happen more than just about anything, but even I wasn’t sure how he’d pull it off. Boy, did he prove me wrong.
One of Ollie’s strengths has been his ability to reach his players. After an ugly 33-point loss to Louisville to end the season, he got his team to rally around each other and find the edge that they badly needed heading in to tournament play.
“I told the guys if we play like that, we’ve got two games left in this season,” said Ollie after the loss. “And that’s it.”
That might have been just what the team needed.
After a captivating tournament that saw the Huskies take down the likes of St. Joe’s, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida (again) and Kentucky, Ollie had completed what he told his players was possible just three months before.
Not even two full years removed from the fateful day where he took over as UConn’s head coach, Ollie stood on top on the college basketball world, a national champion.
He coached them through a near upset in the opening round, through nearly an entire half with Napier on the bench in foul trouble in Round 2, and through some of the nation’s best teams.
Ollie never saw it happening any differently.
Ollie fits the ideal mold of a player’s coach. He grew up in a crime ridden area of Los Angeles, relying on his faith and his basketball talent to keep him motivated to succeed.
He fought hard to earn his playing time as a starting point guard and two-time captain at UConn. He battled through an 11-year career in the NBA between 13 different teams, playing on a multitude of 10-day contracts. He’s a great model for players who are coming from similar backgrounds.
Ollie jumping to the NBA was something that had never crossed my mind, even immediately after the clock ran zero in the title game. But once I caught wind of interest from teams looking for head coaches, it made sense.
In his time in the NBA, Ollie played the role of mentor for some of the game’s greats like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He was well-respected across the league as a hard worker and a thoughtful man. He watched systems run under the likes of George Karl and Larry Brown. His mind had become a memory bank of basketball knowledge. He could be a special NBA coach.
Reports began to flood social media soon after UConn’s run that Kevin Ollie would be a top of the market choice for many NBA teams looking for their next head coach. Sensible destinations were the Lakers, who play in his hometown, and the Thunder, where Durant, a friend of Ollie’s and the league MVP, calls home.
Manuel wanted to begin contract negotiations on an extension for Ollie as soon as UConn was winning in the Sweet 16.
It was going to be quite an interesting month for Kevin Ollie, who through all of this commotion of contracts and money was trying to recruit and get through numerous public appearances as a newly-crowned championship coach.
Ollie’s busy schedule made it hard for him to find time to sit down with Manuel, and while this was going on, report after report and tweet after tweet kept surfacing that Ollie would listen to teams about NBA job offers.
News floated around about where Ollie’s interests lay, but just when you thought that he might be looking to go elsewhere, Ollie swooped in and reaffirmed his love for his university.
Wherever Ollie was during his time in between the championship and his new contract, the questions about his future always came about. Would he stay? What would it take for him to go? Who had reached out to him?
His answers never wavered:
For me, when news broke about Ollie closing in on a new deal with UConn, it was reason enough to jump for joy. While many people I talked to about the situation deflected the notion that Ollie would leave for the NBA, I knew that he’d be in high demand.
If contract negotiations didn’t go well, I knew an NBA team would be willing to give Ollie an offer he’d have a tough time turning down.
A team never really got the chance. Ollie is now signed on for nearly $3 million a year, and for the foreseeable future, UConn fans can expect to see Ollie on the sidelines once again.
Watching Ollie’s masterful performance this season is something I’ll never forget. Little did I know back in January when the Huskies were struggling in conference play that they’d eventually be national champions.
It all started with a little push back in Dallas.
That’s exactly where it all ended.