When Kevin Ollie walks into The Big Office, now his office at Gampel Pavilion, the first objects to catch his eye are three big championship trophies.
“I didn’t win one,” says Ollie, who played in Storrs from 1991 to 1995, before the UConn men’s basketball titles of 1999, 2004 and 2011. “But coach [Jim] Calhoun always made me feel like I was a part of building the foundation.
“It’s a fantastic office, and every time I walk in here, I feel great.”
The office, the trophies, the legacy are what Ollie inherited on Sept. 13, when Calhoun retired after 26 seasons and the keys were handed over.
Ollie took his “dream job” under terms some would have refused: a contract that ran for only seven months while athletic director Warde Manuel evaluated his performance.
Manuel took 2½ months before it was evident that Ollie was up to the task, and on Dec. 29, two days after Ollie turned 40, he signed a fiveyear contract extension, guaranteeing $7 million and offering much more with performance clauses. The guard had changed. Calhoun, who had been at each of UConn’s first 11 games, was in Florida playing golf as Ollie’s contract, which runs through 2018, was announced at the XL Center.
The dream job was his. One mid- January day, Ollie agrees to discuss his goals and vision for the program.
“My biggest dream is that every student-athlete gets their degrees,” he says, “and is challenged as a basketball player and as a person. And they leave UConn, leave Storrs a better person—and understanding that it was a challenge, but we were trying to push them to be better.
“I’m not worried about wins and losses, because if we have the best attitude team in America, we’re going to win, and they’re going to win in life. So that’s my wildest dream—it’s not about national championships, nothing like that. It’s about the journey to get there. And I think we’re going to have some great rides over these next five years.” Ollie’s journey to this job is the story, the stuff, of dreams. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, a dangerous place at a dangerous time. The neighborhood drew national attention during the riots of 1992. His mother, Dorothy, an ordained minister, kept him on the right path, and when he chose to come to Connecticut and play for Calhoun, he was determined to make her proud.
“I had motivation to change,” he says. “I was the first person [in our family] to get a college degree. Change is not ability, change is motivation. I had motivation to get my degree. I knew that I was going to make my mother proud of me. That was something she could say, one of her children was a graduate of a university. I wanted her to have that opportunity. I was going to do it no matter what stood in my way.”
Four years later, Ollie had his degree and he had survived all of Calhoun’s attempts to “recruit over him,” to find a better point guard, and he had the love of his life, Stephanie, who had agreed to marry him. Then came another journey—his dream of playing in the NBA. It took several years in the minor leagues to break in, and staying for 13 seasons meant changing addresses again and again and again. He played for 12 different teams, often with 10-day contracts.
As the years passed he became a mentor, a player teams brought in for his potential positive influence on a young star. Ollie has a framed LeBron James jersey hanging in his office, a symbol of the relationship formed during James’ early seasons in Cleveland. And Ollie still speaks frequently to Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant.
“Me and K.D. have a special relationship,” Ollie says. “He’s a young man that’s outstanding and driven. All I want my players to be is that driven, because he’s got the world in the palm of his hands, yet he is so driven he plays like he doesn’t even have a contract. That’s how I want our guys to play, like they don’t have a scholarship, like they have to fight and claw and scratch for everything they’re going to get.”
Ollie returned to UConn as an assistant on Calhoun’s staff in 2010 and was part of their 2011 championship run. Though he had no coaching experience, the vast catalog of knowledge he gained in the NBA came into play.
“One thing he taught me, he’s very good at drawing up plays on the fly,” Calhoun says. “He’s terrific at that.”
Nearly all of UConn’s frontcourt players either transferred or entered the NBA draft after last season, leaving Ollie to make do with two great guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, but forced him to mix and match at other positions. UConn was outrebounded in 10 of its first 11 games but found a way to win nine of them. Then, on Jan. 2, after a loss at Marquette, he introduced a new drill, a drill his assistant coaches say he invented, that trained his players to hit opposing players on both sides of the court, then race to the center and fight for a rebound. Players were amused and worn out by the exercise, but it seemed to work. The Huskies outrebounded and defeated their next two opponents. They lost, however, to top-ranked Louisville on Jan. 14 and to Pittsburgh on Jan. 19. Ollie articulated the need to bounce back with what has become his signature—the memorable turn of a phrase.
“You can’t control events,” he says. “But you can control the meaning of events.”