When UConn began a national search for a new athletic director last January, President Susan Herbst used two words when asked what qualities she was looking for in that person.
"Strong," Herbst said. "Smart."
Last February when UConn hired Warde Manuel, a Michigan man who had been AD at Buffalo, Herbst called him, "a rock star."
As Manuel stood there alone Friday night at the XL Center before UConn beat Fordham 88-73, it struck me that circumstance demanded he be awfully strong and particularly smart these days. If not Smart in the Shaka sense, certainly smart in the sharp and prudent sense.
A rock star? With the ACC turning away from UConn and turning to Louisville, Manuel is probably feeling a little star-crossed. A rock star? With the football program stuck in the mud and much of the fan base demanding a change at coach after two seasons, a panicked fan base may think Manuel's closer to Mungo Jerry than Bruce Springsteen.
Which brings us to Kevin Ollie.
If national broadcasters like Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas, opposing coaches like Rick Pitino, a Jim Calhoun camp fiercely loyal to Ollie, much of the Huskies' fan base and some of the local media turned up the heat any more on Manuel to immediately give Ollie a long-term deal — well, Rock Star A.D. would be sweating more than Meat Loaf in the seventh minute of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
And then along came star guard and team captain Shabazz Napier Thursday after practice to push the thermometer up a few more degrees.
"Warde, our AD, we don't know what he's doing," Napier said. "After the Michigan State game [the monster win in Germany on Nov. 9], I felt like he was going to get his [contract]. Sometimes it doesn't seem that way. I kind of came to terms that no matter what we do, it's not going to be in our hands. We can win as many games as we want. I still don't believe it's going to be in our hands where [Manuel] is going to give him the job."
Yet here's the thing. I don't think Manuel is easily swayed by the reactions of the moment. I think Jeff Hathaway, to a degree, was. Manuel is a rock, if not a rock star. There has been so much angst in Connecticut these days over conference defections, assistant coaches leaving the football program, etc. There has been a tendency to link them all together in one burning heap of torment and panic.
Belief that Ollie might not get the job? Panic.
Belief that Ollie not already getting a long-term deal has badly damaged recruiting? Panic.
Talk that we have no idea what Manuel is looking for from Ollie? Misleading. Manuel has talked about watching how Ollie handles himself in good times and bad, about how his team works together on the court. Yes, about wins and losses, but not only about wins losses, about how they perform in the classroom and as student citizens.
On the contrary, I think there should be calm as far as the Ollie situation is concerned.
Every game on national television became a national pledge drive for giving Ollie the job. It's a popular stand. It's an easy stand. I'd argue, ultimately, it was the correct stand. Yet let's be honest. Pitino said give Ollie the permanent job at Big East media day. Bilas said it during the opener from Germany. Never mind the same page, these guys weren't even working from the same book as Manuel.
Hurdle by hurdle by hurdle, Ollie has cleared what Manuel has looked for in Ollie. Ollie has done it without complaint. He has done it with the sort of inspiration and perspiration that his ardent followers predicted he would.
Good grief. Wasn't anybody listening when Ollie said he wasn't going to take the escalators, he was going to take the stairs? The very essence of Ollie's being, from his L.A. youth, to UConn, to grinding out an NBA career against so many odds, is all about proving his worth through his determination, his spirituality and relentless optimism.
He has the team off to a 9-2 start. Except for one game against New Hampshire the Huskies have played their tail off. Even in a loss against a Top 25 team like N.C. State, Ollie has never been overmatched as a rookie coach. And now the grades from the fall semester have been pouring in and, sources indicate, everybody looks good for eligibility.
Hurdle by hurdle by hurdle, he has answered the questions. That's why I wouldn't be surprised if Ollie has his long-term contract before the Big East season opens. I wouldn't be one bit surprised.
I keep hearing how Ollie not having a long deal already has so damaged recruiting. If this is so, those same people ought to have the gumption to come out and demand that Manuel be fired for not giving Ollie his deal in September. More than that they ought to have the gumption to scream that Calhoun should give back a stack of all those millions he's getting for not coaching the team this year. After all, he was the one who put Manuel in such a tough position by retiring at the last moment. Any damage in recruiting was done in the signing period in November when barely a game was played.
What if Brad Stevens had said last May, "You know, UConn has three national championships and that job intrigues me." Or Shaka Smart? There was no chance to ask that question when the Hall of Fame coach retired in September.
If your response is no way those coaches would be interested now because the Big East has been left in tatters, because UConn isn't in the ACC and UConn is currently looking at a lesser basketball league in the future, well, my question then is this: why would it be so different for recruits?
A 20-year deal for Ollie wasn't going to put UConn in the ACC. A 27-year retroactive deal for Ollie wasn't going to bring back the 1985 Big East that produced three of the Final Four teams.
So let's stop smoking the funny pipe, folks, OK?
It's going to be a long, hard fight for a few years.
Jabari Parker committed to Duke the other day and the chances of him going to UConn were always slimmer than one of those hairs on Coach K's head. The chances of Noah Vonleh, who committed to Indiana on Nov. 10, weren't all that much better. Xavier Rathan-Mayes committed to Florida State on Oct. 13. His dad played there. He supposedly didn't have all the grades to get into UConn. Jordan Bell committed to Oregon on Nov. 13. Yes, the lack of a contract might be a real reason Brandon Austin committed to Providence on Nov. 19. But, remember, too, former UConn assistant Andre LaFleur is one heck of a recruiter — one of the more underrated guys in the annals of UConn basketball.
Look at the current UConn coaching staff. They have terrific men, all head coaches. That staff needs a young, recruiting shark next year. Some young guy with a ton of energy and a ton of connections in the tough, unforgiving world of AAU ball, one who can consistently land the big names for years.
After Ollie wowed everybody at the opening press conference in September, I was thinking Feb. 1 would be a good target date for a long-term deal. Later, I thought Jan. 15. I'll be honest. I didn't see the Maryland-Rutgers-Louisville ACC mess coming. I didn't know the Catholic schools would bolt before Christmas. I also didn't know Ollie would be as good a game coach as he has shown. Nobody did for sure. He hadn't done it yet.
Now he has. The other day Ollie, who turns 40 on Dec. 27, was joking he might not be able to get all the Christmas presents he wanted to buy without a new deal. Well, there's a strong chance he'll get the big bucks before Jan. 1 when UConn plays at Marquette.