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UConn's Kevin Ollie sets own title standard

Published Apr. 8, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas

The old man was watching, of course. He is always watching. In some ways he is still coaching, still calling plays, still in charge.

All of that is okay with the new kid, by the way.

As it turns out, Kevin Ollie coaches just fine in the shadows.

After all, it was Ollie's UConn team, not Jim Calhoun's, that drove Kentucky crazy Monday night. It was Ollie who coaxed his team to be resilient enough, energetic enough, tough enough to get past the Wildcats and all of their talented freshmen in the NCAA championship game.

This was Ollie's time.

This was Ollie's victory.

Don't look now, people. But UConn just might have another coaching legend in the making .

The Huskies won the national title Monday night, 60-54, by being quicker than the Wildcats, by being better prepared, by being more stubborn in the most critical moments. Shabazz Napier was too good, and Ryan Boatright was tougher than his ankle injury, for it to end any other way.

Then there was Ollie, the kid coach who directed them from the ashes of a 33-point loss to Louisville in the regular-season finale. It was Ollie who breathed fire into his team, who convinced it a happy ending was still possible for a No. 7 seed. It was Ollie who knew when to go with his small lineup, and when to pound it into the paint. It was Ollie who calmed UConn every time Kentucky made a run.

As much as anyone's, this was Ollie's victory. Funny. This isn't supposed to be an event for young coaches. It's supposed to belong to the old crusty guys with salt in their hair, the guys such as Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, Roy Williams and Billy Donovan. And, of course, Calhoun, who spent so many years as the Godfather of UConn basketball.

And, yes, Calhoun, 71, is still around, still looking over Ollie's shoulders, still being the Coach Emeritus. He is probably as close to his program as any former coach has ever been.

It is fair to say that Ray Perkins wasn't that close to Bear Bryant, and Jimmy Johnson wasn't the pal of Don Shula, and for a long time, Jimbo Fisher never saw much of Bobby Bowden.

Still, this works, probably because Ollie played for Calhoun, and he worked for Calhoun, and he was handpicked by Calhoun.

And because Ollie found a way to the national title. Like Calhoun.

"I don't look at it like a lot of people look at it, that I'm replacing Jim Calhoun," Ollie said the other day. "Coach Calhoun is still beside me. He's in front of me. He's behind me. I've locked arms with coach because of what he's put inside of me and his belief system. I think that's what gets us through.

"I can never fill Coach Calhoun's shoes. I can never build a program into a perennial top 10 program each and every year. The program has already been built. But I want us to sustain it. I want to get it to another level.''

After the game, Ollie said: "Coach Calhoun, the greatest coach ever, he paved the way.''

He talks like that, Ollie, filled with hope and belief, a human blackboard filled with platitudes. But that is how he coaches, and that is how he lives.

He spent 13 years in the NBA, and he played for 11 teams, bouncing across the league. He never had much of a jump shot, but he was a sponge. He knew the game.

For a coach, there are worse qualifications. Point guards survive on their knowledge.

"He's made UConn basketball continue on just the way we want it to continue on,'' Calhoun said.

Last season, Ollie's first, the Huskies were on probation because of a lack of grade progress. But UConn still won 20 games. They were onto something with Ollie.

This year? No one expected a lot. The Huskies were taken apart by Louisville in the regular-season finale, and some people wrote them off then and there.

But Ollie saw something in his team he liked.

"I know we're fighters," he said. "When we got back on that bus, and we got back to practice, I could see the look in their eyes.

"Dark times are what promotes you. I'm glad that happened. I had to evaluate myself as a coach, and I hope every player looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort."

That's the thing about coaching. It isn't always a smooth highway. Sometimes, you can tell more about a coach from the way he handles a crushing defeat than the way he handles victories.

And so the Huskies went into the NCAA Tournament, and they kept finding ways to win. They were quicker than other teams. More importantly, they believed more strongly.

That part came for Ollie.

And if you don't believe it, just ask Calhoun. He's the old man with the big smile.

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