Kevin Duffy: Ollie clearly right man for UConn job
Updated 12:12 am, Sunday, December 30, 2012
HARTFORD -- If you bet on tears in Kevin Ollie's press conference Saturday, you would have been wrong.
This was nothing like Ollie's initial introduction, 13 choked-up minutes of "I love you's" and stories about his daughter and dog and his recruiting visit to UConn. There weren't any sniffles or nervous laughs Saturday. This was straightforward, to the point.
"I don't want any of our teams to settle for good because that's the road to mediocrity," Ollie said after receiving a five-year extension. "I want for them to be great. I want them to take a step beyond great and be outstanding. When you look at the word outstanding, it means they stand out."
And really, that's what this whole thing has been about. For Warde Manuel, the question never was, "Will Kevin Ollie be a good coach?" Rather, it was, "Of the hundred coaches that would leap at this job, is Kevin Ollie the absolute best candidate?" Does he stand out?
Look, Warde Manuel hasn't had it easy his first year as UConn's athletic director: Conference realignment has been a disaster, and it'll take some hard work (and luck) to rectify the situation. But when it comes to men's basketball, Manuel has been damn lucky, because the answer to the above question is an unequivocal "yes." Kevin Ollie is the choice, not Shaka Smart or Sean Miller or Brad Stevens or anybody else. The best possible candidate for Manuel's most crucial hire simply fell into his lap. And that certainly makes things easier.
"What Kevin has done, even in the short period of time, has showed me that, hey, we might have bumps in the road, we might lose here and there," Manuel said. "But I've got the right leader who will stick with it and fight through it because he loves this place."
Ollie felt his legs shaking when he was greeted Saturday with an ovation from the XL Center crowd. Ever since he was promoted on Sept. 13, his burning passion for the job has been overwhelmingly evident. His speech that day -- albeit scattered -- was as genuine as it gets. Somewhere between the story about meeting his wife on campus and his famous closing ("Escalators are for cowards"), Ollie had won the first battle.
In that moment, the thought must have crept into Manuel's mind: No external candidate would be so grateful, so overcome with emotion for a seven-month deal. And there's something to that.
"No matter how long I stay here, no matter how deep my passion, it's not going to be deeper than his," Manuel said. "He put his blood, sweat and tears onto these courts that these kids are playing on."
Still, though, Manuel wanted to see him coach, and that's more than understandable. After all, his job was on the line, too. This was the most important hire of Manuel's career, and he had to be sure that he nailed it.
The season-opener against Michigan State, he recalled, "opened his eyes."
"I said, `This guy can put it together,'" Manuel remarked.
Ollie's game plan was better Tom Izzo's, who has been to six Final Fours in 13 years. UConn's composure and execution down the stretch -- often a reflection of its head coach -- trumped Michigan State's, too. When Ollie hugged Jim Calhoun and hoisted the first trophy of his young career, his bandwagon doubled in size.
Impressed as he was, Manuel couldn't yet climb on board, not until UConn's academic marks for the semester -- a well-documented problem -- were finalized. By the time final exams ended, there was standing-room only on the bandwagon.
The evidence had piled up: Eleven games in, the Huskies had turned in 10 strong efforts (a 61-53 snoozer against New Hampshire being the exception). Ollie had made the proper in-game adjustments, Manuel said. The players had responded to him, perhaps the most important aspect of coaching. And, oh yeah, he still had this utterly unique resume, the qualities that perfectly align with what UConn needs in Jim Calhoun's successor. That's what made him a standout, a better fit than anyone Manuel could have possibly attracted.
"He can say, `I played 13 years in the league, I know what it takes, I'm going to put you in position to get there,'" Manuel said. "But that passion about being a Husky, a UConn Husky, that's unbelievable."
A while back, Dorothy Ollie said she was most proud of her son when he graduated from UConn. She remembers watching Kevin receiving his diploma, and she remembers getting teary-eyed during the ceremony. Ollie technically left UConn in 1995, but as a resident of Glastonbury, he's remained connected ever since.
So, when Ollie dipped into Randy Edsall's bag of tricks during that Sept. 13 introduction, it actually worked. When he uttered the most brutal of coaching cliches, people believed it.
"This is my dream job," Ollie said, his voice slightly quivering. "I was made for this job."
Fortunately for Manuel, it's true.