Beyond the Bison Sports News Across the Nation “Know Your Place”

Julian Dorey, Senior Writer

For the fourth time in 15 years, the Connecticut Huskies have reigned supreme.

Behind the veteran leadership of now two-time champion guard, Shabazz Napier, UConn rode great guard-play, consistent defense, and fundamental basketball to an improbable championship conclusion.

But there was a major difference between the 2014 Connecticut Huskies and the last three UConn champion teams: the head coach. After Jim Calhoun built the Connecticut program up from the ground floor for the better part of 25 years, he retired and turned the program over to his little-experienced assistant (and former player at UConn) Kevin Ollie.

Ollie’s hire was a little bit controversial. UConn was just one year removed from their third title, and Calhoun was simply passing the torch to a little-known assistant. Moreover, Ollie had only two years of experience on the bench. Nonetheless, Calhoun insisted that if he stepped aside, Ollie needed to take the reins. UConn obliged and gave Ollie a one-year, prove-it contract. It didn’t take him long to make an impression, though, which led to a quick five-year extension less than two months into his first season.

How did Ollie adapt so naturally to the biggest seat on the bench? When you look at his backstory, it’s easy to understand. Ollie played 13 seasons in the NBA (1997-2010) after going undrafted in 1995 (which forced him to play two seasons in the CBA). He bounced around from team-to-team, playing for some teams a couple different times. Ollie was always at the back of the bench, fighting to keep his spot on the ultra-competitive NBA rosters year-in and year-out. However, as his career went on, he had worked hard enough and proved enough that he didn’t have to “fight” to stay on the roster. Rather, teams wanted him there.

Why? It’s simple. He was a natural-born leader. The best example of work-ethic, class, and humility to younger players. In 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers brought him in to help a high school phenom named LeBron James make his transition to the NBA. In his last season in the NBA, Ollie signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder to play a similar role in the careers of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.

So when Ollie decided to call it a career at age 37, it was an easy decision for Calhoun to bring him right aboard.

Calhoun saw Ollie’s potential, no doubt. But there is no way he could have foreseen Ollie’s unprecedented rise as a head coach. Ollie’s message took little time to reach his team. He’s not a general, he’s not an analytic expert, and he’s not a recruiting machine. He’s just an old-school, basketball-loving, fundamental-preaching, older-brother-like coach and mentor. His team loves him and they play the game the right way for him.

The NBA will certainly come calling soon enough, but Ollie might be right at home in Storrs for the long-haul. His Huskies already have a tremendous culture in place just two years into his tenure, and he has even managed to appropriately differentiate his brand of basketball from his mentor, Calhoun.

Ollie’s 2013-2014 team was fun to watch. I’m thinking his teams in the years to come will be too.

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