Kevin Ollie faced immediate scrutiny, taking over a Connecticut Huskies men's basketball program last season that experienced a tradition of excellence under beloved coach Jim Calhoun.
After missing out on the NCAA tournament in his maiden season due to NCAA sanctions from the previous regime, he has made the most of his opportunity at the helm in guiding the Huskies to a 2014 Final Four berth in the Big Dance.
Talk about making an entrance to March Madness. Not expected to do much as a No. 7 seed in the East Region, UConn overcame an overtime scare in the second round versus Saint Joseph's before rattling off three straight victories over higher seeds, culminating in Sunday's 60-54 triumph over Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
A lot of credit goes to the gritty Huskies who made it happen on the hardwood, but Ollie is a big reason why UConn is heading to Arlington. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports summed up the game well:
Unbelievable job by UConn. Great defense, clutch shooting. Kevin Ollie doesn't have to worry about Calhoun's shadow anymore.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) March 30, 2014
With a terrific combination of basketball IQ, in-game strategy, ability to connect and motivate his players and not cracking under the pressures that come with being a first-time head coach at a historic program...Ollie has the full package. He is everything you look for in a college head coach.
Any lack of winning in the beginning would have doomed Ollie—potentially setting back his coaching career at the young age of 41.
ESPN's Andy Katz noted how the Connecticut administration didn't necessarily give him a ringing endorsement when he first took the job:
Quite a scene here at MSG. Kevin Ollie going to the Final Four. And remember they gave him a seven-month contract initially. Wow.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) March 30, 2014
But that didn't faze Ollie, who led the Huskies to a respectable 20-10 mark in 2012-13 as he began to establish himself. As recently as 2010, he was playing in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The transition was quick for Ollie to his alma mater, but Thunder superstar Kevin Durant was confident the coach could handle it, per Jeff Goodman of ESPN:
.@KDTrey5 was the first one to tell me what a great coach Kevin Ollie would be. Just took UConn to Final Four in just second season.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 30, 2014
The fact that Ollie was being hyped as a successful future coach added even more pressure to the one-year trial he had in Storrs.
Calhoun paraded him as the long-term answer once his coaching days were over, hiring Ollie onto the Huskies staff in 2010 as an assistant and heir apparent.
The coaching titan was there on Sunday to congratulate his former apprentice, per CBS Sports' Seth Davis:
Great shot of Kevin Ollie hugging Jim Calhoun. Calhoun fought to get Ollie the job. Looks pretty smart right now.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 30, 2014
Although Calhoun casts a large shadow, Ollie has managed to escape it already thanks to a complete package of desirable coaching characteristics. He's translated his immense leadership skills and emphasis on defense to young players—both to recruit them and get them to buy into his vision for the program.
Playing at UConn has its own lure thanks to Calhoun's conquests. The Ollie era initially came with a lot of uncertainty, which was evident in the short-term deal he received at his dream coaching job.
Over the past two years, he has been instrumental in developing his players and bringing in depth for the future. Senior guard Shabazz Napier has helped carry the Huskies in this NCAA tourney, leading the way Sunday with 25 points against the Spartans. Juniors DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright have thrived under Ollie's mentoring, too, along with the rest of this year's resilient squad.
Living up to Calhoun's gaudy standard was borderline impossible for such a young coach, but Ollie has shattered that mold. The expectations haven't changed for the Huskies, and he is providing the authentic results for that notion to ring true.
Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports felt that Ollie wouldn't be intimidated in writing about him the day he was hired. That report contained some convincing testimony that Ollie would indeed be up to the task. Former UConn assistant Howie Dickenman coached Ollie in college and was confident he'd thrive:
This kid is polished, he's humble as all get out, he's appreciative, he's determined, he's a great teacher and he has charisma. He's one of my favorites. And I don't say that about every Tom, Dick or Harry. He has a lot of supporters, and I'm as big a supporter as he has.
Ollie may not be in the Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino or Mike Krzyzewski class just yet, but a better comparison lies in the likes of Shaka Smart at VCU or former Butler coach Brad Stevens.
When comparing Ollie to other coaches in the recent college basketball landscape, two come to mind: Shaka Smart (VCU) and Brad Stevens (Butler).
Both men were considered young and inexperienced for a head coach when signing on the dotted line, only to blow away expectations. Smart was a mere 33 when he took VCU to the Final Four in his second season in charge. Stevens was also 33 when he led Butler to back-to-back NCAA title games in his third season.
Stevens is now the Boston Celtics head coach and Smart continues to be one of the first names mentioned for any job opening in college basketball. Ollie is in the Final Four the first year his team was eligible for postseason play.
The road to Arlington hasn't been easy. For Ollie, a career underdog who shined at UConn before lasting in the NBA for a whopping 18 seasons after going undrafted, he probably wouldn't have had it any other way.
Knocking off exceptional coaches in Phil Martelli, Villanova's Jay Wright, fellow young helmsman Fred Hoiberg of Iowa State and the distinguished Final Four staple Izzo in succession suggests Ollie deserves the "elite" label as a coach already.
Is Kevin Ollie an elite coach?
As for what lies ahead, losing Napier after this season will hurt. However, Ollie is creating a culture of developing players that should provide incentive for even his top recruits to stay in school longer.
For comparison's sake—because that's been the narrative—it took Calhoun 13 seasons to reach his first Final Four. Although he had to do some serious program building, it's nevertheless stunning that Ollie has followed up his legendary predecessor with such raging success so soon.
UConn is among college basketball's elite yet again—thanks to its elite coach. Getting to the grandest stage in Arlington, along with the rave reviews Ollie continues to draw from players, peers and coaches alike, should aid his efforts to land top-tier talent and keep the Huskies on the ascent toward a bright future.