Ollie Faces Challenge

STORRS – Coaches Jim Calhoun, Howie Dickenman and Dave Leitao formed a powerful tandem as Connecticut expanded its recruiting base in the late 1980's and early 1990's. One of their secret weapons during a recruit's 48-hour official visit was the UConn dairy bar and Kevin Ollie was one of the players who became hooked on the famous milkshakes.

Ollie's days as a UConn point guard ended in 1995, but after a 13-year journey around the NBA, playing for 11 different teams, he returned to join Calhoun's staff two years ago. Thursday, just minutes after Calhoun made his retirement official, Ollie was introduced as the 18th men's basketball coach in school history.

Guess what? Ollie still remembers the milkshakes – and coming all the way across the country from Los Angeles to visit UConn. He told those in attendance at Gampel Pavilion Thursday that he remembered watching practice with his former teammate Donny Marshall, who had come from Federal Way, Wash.

"I had my milkshake in my hand and Coach [Calhoun] was yelling and doing what he had to do," Ollie said. "And then a fight broke out right there [on the court] – Rod Sellers and Marc Suhr. I said, ‘This is the place for me. Just like LA.' "

Ollie has always known how to work a Gampel Pavilion crowd and his comment brought laughter and applause from students, fans and the UConn basketball family gathered for this historic occasion. The 39-year-old Ollie won them over a long time ago, but there's a bigger challenge ahead.

Suddenly he is the man replacing the Hall of Fame legend. For years, college basketball observers have talked about the enormous shoes to be filled when Calhoun stepped away from coaching. For years, people have called it an impossible job.

But no one could have known exactly how difficult this task will be until this year. Ollie takes over for the man who won 625 games and three national championships in 26 seasons at UConn. He also takes over knowing that the Huskies are coming off disappointing season and are banned from postseason play in 2013 after failing to reach the required scores on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate.

Practice officially begins next month for a team with only 10 scholarship players. Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb left for the NBA. Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley transferred get away from the penalty phase.

Calhoun's last minute decision left athletic director Warde Manuel with little choice but to hire within the program. There was no time for a national search. Calhoun had been bartering for Ollie to be named coach-in-waiting, a designation Manuel refused to afford. So, Ollie gets the title of head coach but a contract that runs through April 4, 2013 at an annualized rate of $625,000.

"I'm used to it," Ollie said. "My first six years in the NBA, I didn't have no guaranteed contract. This is easy. This is exactly where I wanted to be."

Some say this was Calhoun's final battle at UConn. By waiting this long, he gave Ollie the opportunity to earn the position through a year of on-the-job training. Since Calhoun couldn't persuade Manuel to take the next step, this was a way for Calhoun to go out on his own terms.

And now, basically, Ollie has seven months to prove himself as head coach. Sources indicated Ollie wanted a three-year deal but did not get it. That didn't seem to impact the new head coach Thursday. He thanked Manuel for the opportunity and once again turned to politician tactics to win crowd support.

"Giving me this opportunity is a dream come true," Ollie said. "I wouldn't want to be nowhere else. This is my dream job."

Calhoun, who told recruits this summer that he would be around in the future "with or without his whistle," agreed to a transition agreement that runs through March 21, 2013. He will serve as special assistant to Manuel, and according to a university release will provide "services to the university in support of men's basketball, the Division of Athletics, the UConn Health Center and the university at large." And upon full retirement Calhoun will become Head Coach Emeritus.

Calhoun didn't actually give a reason for retiring. He said the fractured hip he suffered Aug. 4 in a bicycling accident didn't enter into the decision, except to give him the time to think.

''As I looked at everything, so many things are in place for us to even go farther that we have already,'' Calhoun said. ''So I thought it was an excellent time.''

He did allude to the postseason ban and previous recruiting sanctions stemming from the Nate Miles case.

''I never, ever, ever said that I was mistake free,'' Calhoun said. ''But I was always trying to do the right thing. It didn't always work that way, but I was always trying to do the right thing.'

''There have been some bumps in the road. But that's behind us. We are headed in the right direction and we are going forward.''

Coach Calhoun left Gampel on his crutches (US PRESSWIRE)

Calhoun met with the UConn players Thursday just before appearing at the press conference.

"It's a little bit of a shocker, but I'm not too negative about it because I know it's not going to be like a new coach," swingman Niels Giffey said. "Like Coach Ollie says, it's going to stay within the family and I know he's a great coach. I really admire him as a person. He's so positive."

Calhoun's wife, Pat, said she was fine with her husband's decision.

"Don't change your mind," she told him before leaving his office, on crutches, to address a crowd in Gampel one more time. Among those in attendance were former players Donny Marshall, Scott Burrell, Rudy Johnson, Kemba Walker, Tim Pikiell and Tony Robertson, along with former assistant coaches Tom Moore, Howie Dickenman, Bill Cardarelli and Steve Pikiell.

Ollie swears his wife, Stephanie, didn't try to get him to change his mind. The couple celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary on Wednesday and Ollie said he saw his wife about 10 minutes – yet no divorce.

It figures to be a long season though. It will test Ollie's patience at times, that's for sure.

"KO has been through it all," said Walker, who was on the 2011 national championship team and got a personal lesson in Ollie's tutoring. "He's one of the people you would love to get advice from. Whatever KO told me, I made sure I was a sponge and soaked it all in."

Ollie is already drawing rave reviews as a recruiter. But prospects and their parents will ask about the short commitment to Ollie under his contract. It's just one more thing he will have to battle.

"Everything is going to be hard in recruiting," Ollie said. "If they had given me a five-year contract, somebody would have found something. But what we believe in and the message we're going to forward is the message that I'm their coach. I believe that. I believe that in them and hopefully they believe that in me."

Dickenman, now head coach at Central Connecticut State, went out to Los Angeles and convinced Ollie to play at UConn. It took more than a milkshake to seal the deal and Dickenman knows Ollie's character will carry him through.

"He will not allow himself to fail," Dickenman said. "He's a very positive person. When he got traded from team to team in the NBA, he always took that as a positive. Somebody wants me, rather than somebody doesn't want me.

"His players will play hard. Trust me. They're going to play every game like it's the national championship game."

When Ollie was UConn's point guard, Dickenman would constantly go to Calhoun and tell him Ollie was the "toughest guy in the gym."

"And I wanted to prove you right," Ollie told Dickenman Thursday.

Ollie has that chance again now. That toughness he brought from LA to UConn figures to come in handy during this challenging season. If it does, he might even stick around a while.


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