Ollie leans on legends Auriemma, Calhoun while running show at UConn
Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie instructs his team in the first half of a regional final against Michigan State at the NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma follows his team during the first half of a regional semifinal against BYU in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, March 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Former Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun responds to questions during a news interview after a regional final between Connecticut and Michigan State in the NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. Connecticut won the game 60-54. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
HARTFORD, Conn. – When UConn’s Kevin Ollie has a question about coaching, he can usually just walk down the hall at Gampel Pavilion or hit the speed dial on his phone to get the answer.
Hall-of-Famer’s Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma have won 11 national championships between them, and Ollie counts both among his friends and close advisers.
“I use both of them,” Ollie said yesterday as he began preparing to coach in his first Final Four. “It’s just a great relationship I have with Geno, but it’s a very special relationship I have with Coach (Calhoun).”
The 71-year-old Calhoun recruited Ollie as point guard out of Los Angeles, hired him as an assistant in 2011, and strongly recommended him to become his successor when he retired after the 2011-12 season. Calhoun still attends some practices and most games, sitting now at a press table on the baseline, rather than pacing the sidelines. He helps Ollie with player evaluations, recruiting and any administrative issues he may have a question about.
Ollie said Calhoun also is in his ear reminding him not to let the job overwhelm him and to find time for his wife and children. The two shared a long embrace Sunday night in the middle of Madison Square Garden, after the Huskies’ 60-54 upset win over Michigan State.
“He’s just a great resource to have,” Ollie said. “And I’d be a fool if I didn’t use it.”
Ollie also bends the ear of Auriemma. The two have established a bond that never existed between the women’s coach and Calhoun. They talk almost every day. They occasionally have dinner, or go golfing and pick each other’s brains about basketball.
“Both of them are different people,” Ollie said of the two Hall-of-Famers. “But they both have the same mindset, a winning mindset, a championship-level mindset.”
Auriemma said their conversations are only occasionally about basketball, but when they are, they focus a lot on philosophy and winning.
“A lot of time it’s just about mindsets,” he said last week. “How do you get players to be in the right frame of mind.”
Auriemma and Calhoun both say Ollie needs little help when it comes to Xs and Os. Ollie spent 13 seasons bouncing around the NBA with 11 teams, soaking everything in. It was an internship at the highest level of basketball, Calhoun said.
“From day one, Kevin has always been very careful about wanting to maintain his program,” Calhoun said. “As well he should. You can’t run something for somebody else. I have never done that, nor will I, and Kevin would never want me to. But, I’m there for him.”
Auriemma said it’s been remarkable to watch Ollie coach, especially when the games are on the line.
“You think he hasn’t coached long enough to really handle those situations,” he said. “He has handled almost every one of them in textbook style. It helps when almost every guy on your staff has been head coach, but he has really been impressive.”
Ollie’s staff isn’t just experienced; it’s also made up entirely of other former UConn players. They include assistants Carl Hobbs, who coached at George Washington and Glen Miller, who led both Penn and Brown in the Ivy League. Kevin Freeman and Ricky Moore, both played on UConn’s 1999 national championship team.
They all stress the same thing, toughness, defense, and putting your best player in a position to win the game, Calhoun said. That means even when Calhoun is not in Ollie’s ear, his philosophy is still at work.
“There is that thread between all of us,” Calhoun said. “It may not be a verbal thread, every day, but it’s definitely a thread that runs between all UConn guys. And I think that’s important.”
There are, however, also some differences. Ollie is closer in age to his players and relates to them differently. He uses more positive reinforcement than his predecessor and doesn’t have nearly as quick a hook when a player makes a mistake. He also runs a lot of plays he developed from watching other mentors, such as Larry Brown and Chuck Daly in the NBA.
“He’s a great man, and I use him,” Ollie said of Calhoun, “But at the end of the day, I have to build this program on what I believe in and my structure. And most of the things I believe in, coach believes in, so it makes it a lot easier.”