ARLINGTON, Texas — Moments after returning to the locker room following Connecticut’s Final Four upset of top overall seed Florida, athletic director Warde Manuel approached former Huskies coach Jim Calhoun.
“You were right,” Manuel told the Hall of Famer. “You were right.”
When he decided to retire two years ago, Calhoun had urged Manuel to hire assistant coach and former Huskies standout Kevin Ollie as his replacement. Less than a year into his job in Storrs, Manuel was hesitant. Ollie had zero head coaching experience and was only two years removed from a 13-year career in the NBA.
But pressure from wealthy alumni and former players was intense, so Manuel agreed to give Ollie a one-year “audition” on the sidelines.
“It ended up lasting three months,” chuckled Manuel, who gave Ollie a five-year deal in December 2012. “What Kevin has done has been amazing.”
It truly is one of the more underplayed storylines of the Final Four.
Kentucky advanced to Monday’s title game with five freshman starters, Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier is enhancing his reputation as one of college basketball’s top point guards, and it’s been raining here in Texas. A lot.
But not nearly enough people are buzzing about Ollie, who, in getting the Huskies to the Final Four, has turned in one of the best coaching jobs of the past decade.
All in his second season.
“It’s been a special year, but we’re still writing the story,” Ollie said outside of Connecticut’s locker room late Saturday, about an hour after snapping Florida’s 30-game winning streak.
“We don’t want anyone writing the story for us. Hopefully we’ll be the last one on the dance floor Monday night.”
Even if Connecticut loses to Kentucky—the Huskies are 2.5-point underdogs, per VegasInsider.com—Ollie can hold his head high. As if his inexperience wasn’t a big enough obstacle, Ollie inherited a program that was in a bit of disarray, as the Huskies were banned from the 2013 NCAA tournament because of Academic Progress Rate issues.
Forwards Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith transferred, while standouts Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb left school early for the NBA. Ollie, though, still managed to guide Connecticut to a 20-10 record and a 10-8 mark in the final year of the old Big East.
The Huskies finished 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference this season, which put them in a three-way tie for third place. But they’ll enter Monday’s championship game 31-8 overall and full of momentum after their second win over Florida this season.
“(Ollie is) a positive person who spreads positive energy,” senior Tyler Olander said. “You immediately attach yourself to him because he attaches himself to you. He genuinely shows affection and cares for you and wants the best for you. He goes out of his way to make sure you know that.”
Napier can certainly vouch for those comments. He was a freshman on the Huskies squad that won the NCAA title in 2011, which was also Ollie’s first year as an assistant. Standout point guard Kemba Walker left school after that season for the NBA, leaving Napier as the Huskies’ floor general and leader by default.
At one point during the 2011-12 season, after Connecticut lost five of seven Big East games, Napier went to Ollie in tears.
“I was (hopeful I was going) to be a good leader,” Napier said. “But I wasn’t able to. When you’re losing and you start isolating yourself, you never have any good thoughts. Sometimes it brings you to tears.
“It was tough some days. I always had somebody that was going to be there to pick me up. Some days I didn’t want to get picked up. I just wanted to isolate myself. But Coach Ollie and the coaches always took me under their wing and tried to lift me up no matter what was going on. They continued to believe in me. They guided me to who I am now.”
It should come as no surprise that Ollie's players so wholeheartedly embrace him. He speaks with such confidence that even a fan listening to his postgame interview is inspired. His belief in “no excuses” and hard work plays well with Connecticut’s fanbase, which grew to appreciate such values while cheering for Calhoun.
When Connecticut lost to Louisville by 33 points back on March 8, Ollie refused to let his team get down.
“I know we are fighters,” Ollie said. “When we got back on that bus and we got back to practice, I could see the look in their eyes. The dark times are what promotes you.
“I’m glad that happened, because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach, and I hope every player went to their dorms and looked at themselves in the mirror and evaluated their effort. Down times like that just promote you.”
Connecticut forward Phillip Nolan said Ollie is a good fit because of his youth and his ability to relate to the players. Calhoun knew he was the man for the job because he’s tough-minded, a fighter.
“You don’t spend 13 years as a guard in the NBA without a jump shot unless you’re tough,” Calhoun said. “He’s a UConn guy. His fingerprints are all over this program. What’s happening now validates everything I’ve ever said about Kevin.”
Ollie was born in Dallas. He said his father used to wake him up at 4 a.m. each morning to help him cut grass for his landscaping business, which he still owns. Being able to compete in the Final Four just 20 minutes away in Arlington, Texas, makes this experience extra special.
Someone asked Ollie if Connecticut should be considered a Cinderella because of its No. 7 seed. The question seemed to irritate the coach.
“We’re not Cinderella,” he said. “We’re Connecticut.”
Indeed, the blue-blood program didn’t take a dip when Calhoun called it quits.
If anything, it got stronger—all because Manuel was smart enough to listen to Calhoun and bring on Ollie. Manuel said Saturday that he will likely consider renegotiating Ollie’s current contract, which pays $1.25 million.
“He’s going to cause me to do some work,” said Manuel, smiling. “But I’m willing to do that because of the success he’s had. Kevin has definitely earned it.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.
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