Jim Calhoun believed he’d still be coaching Connecticut this season.
When he reached out to Kevin Ollie, his former point guard from the mid-1990s who was winding down a 13-year NBA career, it was to groom him to take over the program Calhoun had spent the previous 24 years building. Ollie would study under Calhoun for four years before his mentor retired and handed him the keys.
But health problems cut Calhoun’s plan from four years to two. He announced his retirement in September 2012 and asked Ollie to take over one of the best programs in the nation after just two seasons as an assistant.
Two years later, Ollie has UConn (31-8) back in the NCAA championship game against Kentucky (29-10) at 8:10 p.m. Monday at AT&T Stadium. The Huskies won their third title under Calhoun in 2011 when Ollie was a first-year assistant.
“I just thought Kevin would be a great guy to bring back in the program,” Calhoun said Sunday. “He epitomizes an awful lot of what we want our program to be.”
Ollie’s limited skills as a player, at least at the professional level, made him rely on his intellect and toughness to last 13 years with 11 different teams. Those attributes are what kept him in the league, Calhoun said.
“You don’t go 13 years in the league without a jump shot as a guard unless you’re a really tough guy and have a lot to give to a team,” he said. “You know how tough you have to be? You know how smart you have to be?”
It’s those lessons as a player — at UConn and in the NBA — that gives Ollie a respectful audience in his players. They believe in him. They trust his message.
“He knows a lot about what it takes to overcome a lot of obstacles,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said. “When he’s talking, you’re all ears because you want to learn something.”
But Ollie is more than just an inspirational, trustworthy figure to his players. He’s shown an ability to adapt his game plan during the tournament to beat higher seeds Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State and Florida. The Huskies’ defense has been integral to their run.
Their success has quickly made Ollie a rising star among coaches in his first NCAA tournament. (UConn was banned from the postseason a year ago because of poor academic performance under Calhoun.)
“The thing nobody knows about Kevin, but I know because he’s a hard read in many ways because he’s not going to give it to you, is that he’s a very tough guy,” Calhoun said. “Kevin was the kind of person, I thought, who could stand up there [on the sideline] with his strength and character.
“He’s an incredibly nice person, he’s a good person, but he’s tough. You can’t stand before 79,000 and coach like you’re playing the first game against the Canadian National Team [if you’re not tough].”
Ollie, who was born in Oak Cliff but raised in Los Angeles, also understood his own limitations as a player. He learned from NBA coaches such as Larry Brown and Chuck Daly. He played for John Calipari when Calipari was an assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1999-2000. Calipari, who has been to five Final Fours, led Kentucky to the 2012 NCAA title.
Ollie kept his message simple before Saturday’s semifinal.
“The tougher team is going to win,” Ollie told his team, before using one of his catchphrases that sums up his philosophy. “40 full to Monday,” which is a reminder to focus for all 40 minutes to advance to tonight’s championship.
“Everything they tell us to focus on and what the [opponent] is going to do, it happens in the game and we know what to do,” freshman Terrence Samuel said. “We just want to make him proud.”
And it didn’t take long for Ollie to earn their trust as an assistant.
“Being a strict coach and on our back but then, at the same time, off the court he’s literally like a friend to us,” sophomore Phillip Nolan said. “He’s just there whenever we need him. He was a player so he can relate to everything we’re going through.”
As UConn’s point guard from 1991-95, Ollie was the “coach on the floor,” Calhoun said. Ollie never mentioned back then that coaching interested him, but toward the end of his playing career he told Calhoun he wanted to coach. That’s all Calhoun needed to hear.
“I never questioned that Kevin would be more than tough enough, more than smart enough,” he said. “He truly understands the game. Being a point guard probably helped him. Point guards always have to please their coaches, and now these guys are pleasing him.”