Before the official start of practice for the 2012–2013 men’s basketball season, there was only one certainty: With a ban on postseason play due to NCAA penalties, the Huskies would play their final game of the year on March 9, 2013, at Gampel Pavilion against Providence.
No one knew what might be in store for the Huskies, given the transfers to other schools or the departure of several key players from the 2011–2012 squad to the NBA. There were more question marks when Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun announced his retirement in mid-September and Kevin Ollie ’95 (CLAS), whose only coaching experience was as an assistant for two years in Storrs, was named to lead the team with a one-season contract.
Ollie doled out messages about work ethic and effort throughout his first season, imparting his philosophy of life and basketball to his student-athletes and the media. He says he felt no pressure to replace the Hall of Fame coach whom he considers a second father.
“I just wanted to be myself. People were saying, How are you going to replace Jim Calhoun? I’d say, I’m sorry, I can’t replace him,” Ollie says. “I don’t care what I do, even if I win four national championships, I still can’t replace him. He came here when there was nothing, and he built this. I can’t replace him, but I can be the best Kevin Ollie. That’s what I’m going to try and give this University.”
Hear audio clips from UConn Magazine‘s one-on-one interview with Coach Ollie:
What’s behind Coach Ollie’s success?
Listen in as Coach Ollie gives insight into his past, his family, and what keeps him moving forward.
Last November, an upset opening win over No. 14 Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base in Germany indicated the Huskies might have surprises ahead during the season. It became a roller-coaster ride, with other upsets of ranked opponents, some frustrating losses, and seven overtime games, including the team’s 63-59 overtime win over Providence that ended the year with a record of 20-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big East.
In many ways, it was familiar territory for Ollie, who had proven again and again during a nomadic 13-year career in professional basketball that he could do the job and overcome any obstacle placed before him. He established a reputation as a reliable veteran who could mentor younger players while making contributions on and off the court.
From the outset, Husky fans enthusiastically expressed their support for the former Husky, who proclaimed his affection for UConn and his student-athletes.
“He is the one always giving 100 percent. I feel every time I step on the court, I’ve got to match his intensity,” junior forward Neils Giffey ’14 (CLAS) said, after practice early last November. “He’s really showing us how to work hard. Everybody respects him so much.”
Ollie says playing for Calhoun and such highly respected NBA coaches as Chuck Daly, George Karl, and Larry Brown allowed him to learn the game from the best basketball minds in the sport.
“Being a point guard, I not only had to know my position, I had to know everybody else’s position on the court,” Ollie says. “I didn’t have all the talent in the world. I had to study, look at the game tapes. It allowed me to be a better student of the game and what coaches are trying to do in certain situations.”
Ollie says his primary lesson from last year is to make the best use of every hour of the day, a message he conveys to his players.
“There’s only 24 hours in a day, and the way you are successful is how you use those 24 hours,” he says. “Everybody’s pulling at you; you have to know time management. The alarm is going to get you up. You can rest your mind, but you can’t sleep. You can’t take days off. You can’t make excuses. You’ve got to get the job done. It’s about results. That’s what I try to teach our guys.”
He says he also awakes each morning asking the same question: What do I need to know that I don’t know right now?
“I’m learning every day. I’m an empty cup. I think that’s what will allow me to, hopefully, become a great coach and an even better leader,” Ollie says. “I don’t know it all. I’m not afraid to tell anybody that. I collect information and make a decision. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know, but I better ask somebody.”
Ollie will be imparting his newly learned lessons to a Husky team that returns a core of experienced players — including Shabazz Napier ’14 (CLAS), Ryan Boatright ’15 (CLAS), and DeAndre Daniels ’15 (CLAS) — who enter the new American Athletic Conference with the chance to win a conference championship and make the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re going to be great. I really believe that,” Ollie says. “I don’t know about a national championship and all of that stuff, because I’d tell you that championships will chase us if we have the right attitude. Winning chases us. We don’t chase winning. If we have the right attitude and play together unselfishly, those things will automatically happen. I want these guys to have a habit of winning and making winning plays at the right time and that it’s not just on the basketball court, it’s out in the real world and academically. You want to make winning plays and show yourself well and be ambassadors for UConn basketball. My expectation of those guys is to go out and play hard like we did last year.”