HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kevin Ollie grabbed the microphone after Saturday night’s game against Washington and thanked the Huskies faithful for their support and for believing in him. He made sure he told the Connecticut fans that he would keep their program at the top, competing at the highest level.
The fans, who had weathered blizzard conditions to catch the Huskies at the XL Center in their final nonconference game against Washington, gave him a standing ovation.
They cheered wildly for him when he came out at the beginning of the game too.
The youngster from South Central Los Angeles has become a native son in the Nutmeg State.
He had weathered the storms of his initial hire -- earning a five-year contract Saturday -- by proving that he could coach (10-2 record), lead a depleted roster (a scrappy group that has forced turnovers well) and organize a program that is disciplined and takes responsibility in the classroom.
Ollie had to do all of this while coaching a team that knew from day one it couldn’t play in the postseason because of poor Academic Progress Rate scores that have the Huskies banned from the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
His players backed him from the opening practice and delivered a memorable first victory in Germany against Michigan State, surrounding him during a postgame interview. They rallied around him Saturday in his first official victory as the permanent head coach -- a 61-53 win over Washington.
"It’s because of Kevin," said UConn assistant coach George Blaney of how the Huskies have focused on daily tasks and gotten off to a surprising start despite the postseason ban. "He won’t let them [stop playing with a purpose]."
Ollie, who turned 40 on Thursday, just had the best day of his coaching life. He earned a new deal and won the final nonconference game. And his players couldn’t be happier the pressure is off.
"I’m definitely excited, since Coach Ollie recruited me," said freshman Omar Calhoun, who led Connecticut with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. "I’m relieved."
Junior guard Shabazz Napier said pride is what is driving Huskies players. They aren’t thrilled with the situation, but they are competitors and don’t want to lose -- ever.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar echoed what everyone else has said about Ollie -- that he is all class. He has sought out advice on coaching and building a program from as many sources as possible. Ollie has been a sponge on the subject, never too egocentric to ask for advice. He coveted predecessor Jim Calhoun’s constructive criticism.
Those who covered Ollie in the NBA and in college would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has something negative to say about him -- about as rare a statement as you can make about a coach.
Romar talked about Ollie’s high basketball IQ, was thrilled he got a new deal and wished him nothing but success.
Ollie wears his emotions for everyone to see. He doesn’t hide behind coachspeak. He is raw. He is genuine. He is still a work in progress and relishes in the chance to develop his identity and craft in the field. His work ethic is obvious to those who saw him play at UConn and in the NBA, never a star but always as important a player on the team as anyone who was stuffing the stat sheet.
He was a leader as a player without being the headline. He has become a leader as a coach in a unique situation.
When he walked onto the XL Center court Saturday, he said his legs were shaking with excitement, much as they were 20 years ago when he played at UConn.
The night ended with his infectious smile and his need to thank everyone -- his staff, his players and the fans -- for helping him get to where he is today: the head coach at his alma mater, a dream come true for a kid from South Central LA who had no idea this was ever possible.