HARTFORD — When Kevin Ollie took over as UConn men's basketball coach, he needed to believe. First in himself, that he could step in for Jim Calhoun and establish his leadership with a short-term contract, and, second, that he would be rewarded in due time.
"That's the key word, 'belief,'" Ollie said. "An idea is something that has no legs under it. A belief is something you know is going to happen. I had a belief in Warde Manuel giving me a fair shake, a belief in my coaching staff and, first and foremost, a belief in my players that we could get it done, and defy all odds. And we're going to continue to do that, play hard and do things right."
"I didn't have a shadow of a doubt this could be accomplished."
On Saturday morning, it happened. Ollie and athletic director Warde Manuel reached agreement on a five-year extension worth roughly $7 million — more with performance bonuses. Ollie's contract, which runs through the 2017-18 season, was announced before UConn played Washington at the XL Center on Saturday night.
"It was time," Manuel said. "I'm proud to announce Kevin Ollie as our coach for what I hope will be a very, very long time. Kevin has done us proud."
Jim Calhoun retired on Sept. 13, leaving Manuel with few options. Ollie, who played at UConn in the 1990s and then for 13 years in the NBA, had been an assistant for two seasons, but had no head coaching experience. Although it could have a negative effect on recruiting — and Manuel acknowledged that "it probably hasn't helped" — he insisted on an "audition."
"I needed to see Kevin as a head coach," he said. "Kevin can coach, he can put players in the best position to succeed on the court. And I saw how he led off the court, how he led the young men in the student part of student athlete. How he encouraged them and talked to them about the importance of academics."
Once the fall semester ended and reports were in, showing that the players had done well, Manuel was ready to move. There were some tense moments in the negotiations — as late as Friday evening, there was some doubt that it would happen. But ultimately, Ollie agreed to the structure of the contract on Saturday morning.
His current contract ends April 4, then this one kicks in. For the next five seasons, he will be paid $400,000 in base salary. In 2013, he will get $800,000 for "institutional speaking engagements," and that figure will increase by $50,000 each year, and a prorated portion for Jan. 1 to April 15, 2018, totaling about $500,000 for a total of roughly $7 million. In his final season, Ollie will make $1.4 million.
In addition, Ollie can receive bonuses for conference regular season and tournament championships, advancing in the NCAA Tournament and coach of the year awards. He also will receive bonuses if the program maintains an Academic Progress Rating above the 930 required by the NCAA.
However, if the APR falls below 930, Ollie can be denied postseason bonuses, or be suspended without pay. If the figure falls below 930 for two consecutive years, Ollie can be terminated "with just cause."
UConn is ineligible for postseason play this year because of subpar APR scores in the past.
"It was important for me, given where we are," Manuel said, "to include language that says, 'This is so important to us, to where we start.' Once we get to 930 and stabilize, Kevin's contract reverts back to what every other coach has. That's the fair way to do it. I told Kevin, 'The APR is not yours alone. I feel a great deal of responsibility.' … But it's such an important part of where we are, I couldn't ignore it and I put strong language into our agreement."
Ollie said he agreed to the APR language because, "I have a belief system in our student athletes, our support staff, and the ability of my coaching staff and I to reach kids academically as well as in basketball."
Now that he is secure as head coach, Ollie and his staff can hit the recruiting trail and give potential players answers to the key questions, although UConn's uncertain conference status will continue to be a handicap.
"I'm not living in the past," Ollie said, "it's done. We may have lost some recruits to other schools, I can't control that. What I can control is right now, and we're going to go out and get some great recruits. Five years is what the paper says, but we're going to recruit like we're going to be here 20, 25 years."
In his three months as head coach, Ollie has generally made a strong impression, beginning with an upset of Michigan State at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, following a week of visits with military personnel there. This past week, Ollie brought the team to Newtown for a visit with families affected by the tragedy there. From coaches, and former coaches throughout the country, calls came to give Ollie a long-term deal.
"I feel very good about the future of the men's basketball program at UConn," Calhoun said. "I know Kevin will do a great job, as he already has."
Calhoun, 70, who led UConn for 26 years and won three national titles, gave that statement from Florida, where he is vacationing. This is the first game that he has missed, perhaps a sign that the guard has fully, finally changed.
"Kevin stepped into a tough situation," said Geno Auriemma, the UConn women's coach, before his game at Stanford, "and he has done a great job in all facets. The UConn men's basketball program is in great hands."