Three NCAA championships, seven Big East tournaments and 873 wins over a 40-year coaching career only provide a glimpse of the incredible impact that Jim Calhoun left on the University of Connecticut.
Aside from his statistical feats, Calhoun goes down in history as arguably the greatest college basketball program builder, as noted by Syracuse University’s Jim Boeheim on Twitter.
After 26 long years as the men’s basketball head coach, Calhoun announced his retirement on Sept. 13. While transitioning to head coach emeritus, Calhoun will serve as a special assistant to Director of Athletics Warde Manuel.
Calhoun’s legacy began in May 1986 when he joined the UConn coaching staff. His first season of coaching resulted in a dismal 9-19 record. It didn’t take long for Calhoun and the UConn Huskies to click, however, as that first season was the only season in the next 25 years that the Huskies didn’t finish with at least a .500 winning percentage.
Throughout his coaching career, which began at Northeastern University, Calhoun made UConn his legacy; the 70-year-old turns it over to alumnus and assistant coach Kevin Ollie. In terms of UConn pride and spirit, there isn’t a better person to earn the honored position.
At this point in time, however, Calhoun’s timing couldn’t be less convenient, especially for Ollie, who now not only has big shoes to fill, but also numerous obstacles to overcome.
UConn is among 14 other athletic teams that are banned from postseason play, including Big East and NCAA championships, due to poor academic performance. Each team also faces a loss of four hours of practice each week to use that time for “academic activities,” a deduction in scholarship funds and restrictions on recruiting, coaching and practices.
“This is not a penalty – it’s our expectation,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “Just as a team needs a winning record to make the playoffs or the tournament, they need a winning record in the classroom as well.”
Immediately, Ollie will face a ban that was decided based on academic performances when he wasn’t even head coach. This does provide him the opportunity to change the role of student athletes at UConn, however. If Ollie can make them understand the importance of academics over basketball, not only will there be less spotlight and stress on his coaching career, but the student athletes will focus more on their academics.
With the beginning of the season just over a month away, all eyes will be on Ollie. Some do not expect Ollie to succeed; however, it’s important to note that, regardless of his level of success in the coming months, it should not and cannot be measured against Calhoun’s legacy.
It will not be Ollie’s job to make a mark in UConn history – that was Calhoun’s. Instead, Ollie must find solutions to the numerous obstacles at the get-go. Lucky for Ollie, he possesses a strong character and solid experience, which will not only help in his transition from assistant coach to head coach, but also lead him to success.
There are numerous anecdotes from coaches recognizing Ollie’s work ethic. In 1993, for instance, then assistant coach at UConn Howie Dickenman said to sophomore Ollie that his starting spot could be in jeopardy because of incoming recruit, Doron Sheffer.
“[Ollie] looks across my desk as serious as you can be and he says, 'Coach D, I don't care who you bring into this program. I am the point guard for the next two years,’” Dickenman, now head coach at Central Connecticut State, said. “As the story goes, Ollie was right. Sheffer started at off guard and Ray Allen came off the bench behind both of them.”
Although Ollie was the only assistant coach from the 2011 season who did not have head coaching experience, he brings vast knowledge from his professional career. After playing for 13 franchises over 12 years, Ollie can, and already has, reached college players.
“In my one year around him he gave me so much confidence,” Kemba Walker said. Walker played for UConn in 2011 before being drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats. “He got me to believe in myself that I could be a great player and not only a great player but a great person and he's one of the reasons I am who I am,” he said.