STORRS — Every time Kevin Ollie drives by the State Armory on Capitol Avenue in Hartford, he is reminded of the long road he has traveled. Through the Continental Basketball Association, the United States Basketball League and 12 NBAstops, he had to continually tell his wife, Stephanie, to pack up again.
And, for that matter, Ollie can't forget he had to pop the question three times before he won her over, as well.
Ollie's basketball life has been a series of short-term contracts, but by betting on himself, he has welded them together into something permanent, solid, reliable. Now he has the challenge of a lifetime, replacing Jim Calhoun, his hero and mentor, as the UConn basketball coach. His initial contract runs for a total of seven months and $384,615. Calhoun made $2.7 million last season.
"My first six years in the NBA, I didn't have a guaranteed contract," said Ollie, who ended up playing for 13 years, "so this is easy. … I'd rather something be difficult in the short term than easy in the long term."
It's an unusual approach for filling a major Division I head coach position, to be sure, but one-year contract or no, Ollie, 39, accepted the position "because this is a special place. This is my dream job," he said. "I was made for this job."
After Calhoun, 70, decided once and for all that he would retire — and that didn't happen until just this week — it was time for Ollie and athletic director Warde Manuel to make their decisions. Manuel offered Ollie his dream job, but only on this short-term basis, an audition of sorts.
"We had conversations," Manuel said, "good conversations this week. I know some people have different opinions, but I've never seen him coach."
Perhaps judging Oillie's first season on UConn's record would be unfair, but Manuel said that he will be looking for "qualitative" as well as "quantitative" results.
"How does he handle the media after a win?" Manuel said. "How does he handle it after a loss? How does he represent the brand? How does the team respond from a tough loss? Do they bounce back from a blowout win? These are the qualitative things."
Ollie has until April 4, 2013, the day his contract expires, to show that he can handle the task of running a UConn program that is so much larger than it was in 1986, the day that Jim Calhoun, with 14 years of head coaching experience at Northeastern behind him, took the job. Ollie's contract calls for $625,000 per year; he will make $384,615 as head coach over the next seven months.
"I was talking to [Michigan State head coach] Tom Izzo this morning," Calhoun said, "and he had been an assistant for five years, made the team as a walk-on. I think he has done pretty well. He said the thing that carried him through the first couple of years that were difficult was that he really believed Michigan State was going to be a good team. Kevin Ollie has that. He believes UConn will win, and he's going to work — 12 hours a day if he has to — to make that happen."
Manuel and UConn avoided the "interim" tag. "He will be the head coach," Manuel said. "He will make all the decisions a head coach makes." Ollie becomes the 18th head coach, and the first African American, in the history of UConn basketball.
The task for Ollie and his staff will be to convince recruits that he will be the head coach for the long haul.
"I'm going to coach this team like I'm going to be here for 10 or 15 years," Ollie said, "because I believe I'm going to be here. I want to retire at UConn, just like Coach Calhoun."
After retiring from the NBA, Ollie came home to UConn as Calhoun's assistant two years ago and immediately made his mark as a recruiter and as a tireless worker. He's popular with players — past, present and incoming, and their parents.
"I hate to see Coach [Calhoun] leave," sophomore Ryan Boatright said. "But in a positive way, I wouldn't want to see anybody else in the head spot besides KO. Everybody respects KO, we love him like he loves us. He's a great coach and has our best interests at heart."
Said Tyler Olander: "He's very much like Coach Calhoun. Their methods of getting their points across are just different. Coach Ollie is probably the most positive person I've ever met, and he's helped me with all aspects of life, in school, my personal life and especially on the court. He's always pushing everybody to go that much further and get that much better. … Nothing could knock him down that he won't get up from."
There will be adjustments, elements of the head coaching job that can only be handled with experience.
"The biggest thing I had to do was learn how to delegate," said Tom Moore, the former UConn assistant who took over at Quinnipiac. "The things that seem like small decisions when you're an assistant, like what time the bus leaves, become big things, because you feel like you're responsible for every decision. You trust your staff, but you're not sure what to leave to them."
Said former UConn standout Scott Burrell, "It will be a tough task with a one-year contract, but Kevin will find a way to make it work."
Ollie will have plenty of help. Three of his assistants have been head coaches — George Blaney, Glen Miller and Karl Hobbs. And then, of course, there is Calhoun.
"I think Kevin is going to be a superstar," Blaney said. "I told him the other day, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's recognizing talent. And I think he's going to be a superstar. And I'm going to help him any way I can."
Calhoun, with his new title of special assistant to Manuel, will be around to offer advice.
"Coach Calhoun pushes and drives everyone; that's not going to change with me," Ollie said. "He stresses defense — that's not going to change with me."
Ollie's first team at UConn will not be highly touted. With Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith gone from last season, Ollie will have a thin and inexperienced frontcourt. And with its postseason ineligibility, it will be a challenge to keep the Huskies motivated.
"I see this as an opportunity," Ollie said. "We're going to show everyone we can be a great team. It's about putting the uniform on. … We're going to attack this thing, head on."
Given Ollie's history, he is, perhaps, better suited than most to coach in a pressure-packed environment without the safety net of a long-term contract. Many of his NBA stints were on 10-day contracts. Just last week, he ran into former NBA coach Don Nelson at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. Nelson, as Ollie recalled, cut him three different times.
"Kevin is so much tougher than people realize," Calhoun said. "He's so much more resilient. He can handle being rejected. A recruit rejects us, next kid. Lose a game? Next game."
Said Kemba Walker: "Kevin has been through it all."Copyright © 2015, CT Now