April 10, 2014
ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s not that Kevin Ollie looked uncomfortable sitting on a stool in front of the Connecticut bench. It’s just that he looked a lot more comfortable in a defensive stance exhorting the Huskies in the national championship game.
That’s how he spent the majority of the biggest game of his short college coaching career Monday night, a 60-54 victory over Kentucky. Right on the sideline. In some plays he looked like a sixth Connecticut defender, just wearing a suit and tie.
From 1991-95, he wore a UConn uniform as a standout defender. Then it was off to the NBA for a long career as a role player before he returned to UConn for two years as an assistant. Jim Calhoun hand-picked him as his successor.
Maybe Ollie will start a new trend in college basketball: a longtime NBA player taking over a program. He was in the NBA for 12 seasons changing teams 12 times. Never a star but always wanted. His best scoring season was 8.0 points per game with Seattle in 2002-03.
Players who average 3.8 points per game over 12 seasons usually spend a lot of time on the bench. Ollie did.
“You know what he was doing while he was playing?” Kentucky coach John Calipari asked Sunday. “He was coaching. That’s how he played. He was an unbelievable student of the game.”
Seems he learned pretty well.
In only his second season as head coach he won it all. Steve Fisher is the only coach to win the title in his first season, with Michigan as an interim coach in 1989.
Technically, Ollie did it in his first chance. The Huskies were ineligible for postseason play in 2012-13 over academic issues before he or these players got to Storrs. The players could have transferred. They stayed and won the school’s fourth national championship as a No. 7 seed after finishing tied for third in the American Athletic Conference and entering the tournament with a 26-8 record.
“I told you, a lot of people was picking against us and doubting us, but I told you the last would be the first,” Ollie said. “We are first now. Last year we were last. We couldn’t get in the tournament, but they kept believing. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ollie is far from low key on the sideline, but he seems to be mostly positive in a sport where many have complained that coaches have become too negative.
“Be ready. Please be ready,” he yelled toward Phillip Nolan when a bounce pass went through his hands.
“You got to pass,” he yelled at DeAndre Daniels.
“You have to get on the floor,” he yelled at Nolan and Neils Giffey when they came off the court after failing to get a loose ball.
He uses broad gestures to get his point across.
He walked toward Lasan Kromah after he failed to box out and it resulted in a dunk and 3-point play for Kentucky with 3:47 to play. He didn’t say a word. He had his arms extended, the universal signal for “What?” Kromah had no answer as he walked by and Ollie gave him a pat as he walked by.
But there were times he sounded like the coaches who are known for their yelling.
“We have to get those 50-50 balls,” he screamed toward his assistants who were a few feet below him and the raised court.
His best yelling came at the end of the game.
With 5 seconds left and the Huskies up by six, Ollie extended his arms in the air. He turned toward the crowd and let out a scream.
He exchanged a quick hug with Calipari, shook hands with the Kentucky assistants and players. Then turned toward the court and started celebrating with his players and staff.
“I liked it when he was yelling at Phillip,” Calhoun said with a big laugh as he stood on a court filled with confetti and streamers. “Seriously, what Kevin does is get the kids to believe and you want to do as a coach is to get the kids to believe in you believing in them.”
Daniels said Ollie is “like one of us. He’s like one of our teammates. He’s always joking around and playing around with us every day in practice, and I mean he just cares for everybody in this locker room and loves each and every one, and everybody loves him on this team. It’s just amazing to have him as a coach. He’s just phenomenal.”
Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel was walking along by himself about 20 minutes after the game.
He was asked if Ollie could start a trend of longtime NBA players becoming college coaches as happened earlier Monday when Florida Atlantic hired Michael Curry.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I do know I have a great one. If he leads a path of others doing it that would be great but right now we have him.”