STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Kevin Ollie can win as many games, even as many national championships, as his predecessor and former coach did at Connecticut. But he can’t transform the program. Jim Calhoun did that already.
During his 26 seasons in Storrs, Calhoun turned a regional New England program into a powerhouse, becoming one of just five coaches to win three national titles or more. Add to that seven Big East tournament crowns and 10 regular-season championships. No wonder the 10,000 seats were usually filled at Gampel Pavilion, the arena Calhoun gets credit for building.
All those accomplishments are history now. What’s left are high expectations for a rookie coach.
Ollie, who played for Calhoun from 1991-95, went on to a long NBA career and returned two years ago as an assistant, took over Thursday — a choice Calhoun fully supported.
“Simply put, he epitomizes what we want our students to be about,” Calhoun said. “When I started here we felt we could do anything and I feel that way now, everything’s in place. This is an exciting time as we go forward.”
And a difficult one. He takes over a team that is banned from the Big East and NCAA tournaments because of poor academic performances.
With a one-year contract, Ollie won’t have much time to show what he can do on the bench and on the recruiting trail. And his depleted roster isn’t likely to add to Calhoun’s stellar numbers — 27 players selected in the NBA draft, including 13 lottery picks.
“We’re going to attack this thing head on,” Ollie said at a news conference at Gampel, where he once thrilled UConn crowds with his hustle and defense. “We have enough to do it. Coach will be there right beside me as he has always been. He’s been a second father to me from the day I arrived here as a recruit and believe me, that won’t change.”
Ollie’s contract will pay him a prorated $384,615 and ends on April 4, the last day of the 2012-13 basketball season.
Athletic director Warde Manuel said there’s a reason it’s a single-year deal.
“I like to win and Kevin does, too. We’re not here just to participate in games,” Manuel said. “I’m looking to see how he is on the sideline. How he handles decision-making, substitutions, things that are normal in a game. How does he handle losses with the team and motivate them the next day to come back and play?
“It truly is a long-term plan, but I want to see where Kevin is before we extend that contract. The commitment is there. He knows it.”
Ollie refused to get caught up in the discussion.
“Everything I’ve done has prepared me for sliding over into that chair,” he said. “I’m going to coach this team like I’ve got a 10-, 15-year contract. I hope it’s for a lifetime. I want to retire one day from the University of Connecticut like Jim Calhoun did.”
Ollie will have some familiar faces on the bench since all four assistants are staying.
“Kevin has always been a great listener,” associate head coach George Blaney said. “He’s a potential superstar as a coach, no doubt about that. Sure he’ll be different than Jim, but there was only one Jim Calhoun.”
Several former UConn players were there to see one of their own become coach.
Kemba Walker, who led UConn to the national championship with an incredible 11-game run in 2010-11, isn’t worried in the least.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I know,” said Walker, who plays for the Charlotte Bobcats. “Kevin’s UConn just like Coach is UConn. It’s not one person here. It’s everybody who played here. We are a family and it will stay that way.”
Connecticut has never faced a season like this one.
It will have its first new head coach in 26 years and he is only guaranteed seven months on the job. There are only five players returning who saw significant playing time last season. There will be no postseason play at all. Those factors should make the job as tough as any faced by a coach in Division I.
Don’t tell that to Ollie.
“I told my players this morning, ‘It’s all stairs now. No escalators,’ ” he said. “Escalators are for cowards. Every day now will be one step at a time.”
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