ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s never easy following a legend. Trust me, I know. There is only one Bob Ryan. They shouldn’t even hold the Final Four without him.
If there were to be a handbook written on the subject of succeeding an industry icon, University of Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie could write it. It’s not possible to handle following in the footsteps of a giant (Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun) any smoother than Ollie.
Ollie replaced his former coach and the architect of the UConn men’s basketball machine last season.
Still looking young enough to play, the 41-year-old Ollie now finds himself in the Final Four rubbing elbows with coaching royalty — Kentucky’s John Calipari, Florida’s Billy Donovan, and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. None of those guys guarded Kobe Bryant or played with Allen Iverson, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant.
Ollie, who played at UConn with Ray Allen, has made it clear that any college basketball cartographer has to leave Storrs, Conn., on the powerhouse map.
“We’re not going any place, and the fact is that under Kevin’s leadership we’re going forward and UConn is still a national player,” said a proud Calhoun. “Kevin making sure it kept going was something that was important to him.”
Every year in the Final Four there is a wedding crasher, someone who never got a save-the-date who ends up sitting at college basketball’s head table. Kentucky (No. 8) might be a lower seed than UConn (No. 7), but they were preseason No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and have more NBA talent than the Milwaukee Bucks. This year it’s UConn, which will face Florida in the first national semifinal on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium.
The Huskies were the last team to beat Florida, which has won 30 straight games since that Dec. 2 loss.
The Final Four is a homecoming of sorts for Ollie, who was raised in Los Angeles, but born in Dallas. (Roxbury’s Shabazz Napier outed his coach as a huge Cowboys fan.) It’s also a national coming-out party.
With NBA street cred, UConn pedigree (Class of 1995), and a steady hand, Ollie has coaxed UConn to this stage, riding the backcourt of first-team AP All-American Napier, Ryan Boatright, and tapping into the previously unfulfilled potential of forward DeAndre Daniels.
“Everybody listens to him no matter what,” said Daniels. “He is a great coach. Like I always say, he is like a little version of coach Calhoun.”
Ollie is not just a chip off Calhoun’s coaching block. The game was ingrained in him by Larry Brown, George Karl and the late Chuck Daly.
“I can never fill Coach Calhoun’s shoes,” said Ollie. “I can never build a program to a perennial Top-10 program each and every year. This program has already been built. But I want to sustain it. I want to get it to another level. That level is not about winning championships. It’s about creating great young men, so they can go out there in their community after they leave the Storrs campus and be ambassadors of their family, of their name, of this great university.”
That level might be called Level Five, a phrase Ollie is fond of using to describe the effort it takes for his team to be successful.
Calhoun’s soft R’s and hard-nosed style will always be part of UConn lore. This program is his baby. But Papa Calhoun is careful not to take the limelight away from his hand-picked successor. Calhoun, who has survived bouts with prostate and skin cancer (twice), selected Ollie as his successor when the Braintree native stepped down before the 2012 season.
This is Ollie’s team and Ollie’s time.
Ollie said he feels like Calhoun is still beside him. Calhoun has attended all of UConn’s tournament games and is at the Final Four. He gave Ollie a warm embrace after UConn’s East regional final victory at Madison Square Garden.
“He is doing a wonderful job without Jim Calhoun,” said Calhoun. “But I love being there for him. It’s worked out well for us. I love my relationship with him. We can talk. But this is his team. His imprints are all over it. The structure, the fundamentals, the aggressive defense, those are all UConn imprints, but it’s Kevin imprints too. I see some of the offensive stuff he has tweaked. It is his imprint on this team.”
To those in the coaching profession who lament that Ollie, who only spent two seasons as a UConn assistant, didn’t pay his dues before Calhoun handed him the keys to a basketball Bentley, he did pay them.
Ollie spent 13 itinerant seasons in the NBA, playing for 11 teams. That was after he went undrafted out of UConn and spent time in the Continental Basketball Association. He said he was once cut on Christmas Eve.
Every summer he returned to Storrs to converse with his old coach. When Ollie’s NBA career was in limbo after he spent the 2010 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he joined Calhoun’s staff and was an assistant on UConn’s 2011 national championship team.
Plus, Ollie’s first season as UConn coach was tumultuous and tenuous.
Ollie started the year as coach on essentially a trial basis, given only a one-year contract, which is almost unheard of in major college basketball. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA Tournament due to a sub-standard academic progress rate (APR) from 2007 to 2011.
But Ollie kept UConn together, earning an extension in late December on the way to a 20-win season.
The comparisons for Ollie are inevitable and unavoidable. That’s just part of succeeding a legend.
“Kevin doesn’t have to succeed me,” said Calhoun. “The only thing Kevin has to do is chase his own dreams and UConn’s dreams, and he’ll be just fine.”
The best way to succeed a legend is to leave your own mark.