What’s In Store For UConn Without Jim Calhoun? The National Media Weighs In…Posted by Chris Johnson on September 14th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Over the past 26 years, Jim Calhoun has morphed the Connecticut men’s basketball program from a middling Yankee Conference ensemble to a plucky Big East upstart to a nationally-revered hoops powerhouse. He did it without the normal built-in advantages of most successful programs, without historical precedent, without strong administrative or financial support, without favorable geography, or a rich pool of high school players to recruit from. What Calhoun accomplished at UConn is truly remarkable; his legacy is forever intertwined with the program’s foundation and rise to prominence. The situation UConn now finds itself in – transitioning away from a legendary leader – is not completely unique. Arizona, UCLA, and North Carolina, to name a few, have all weathered the departures of sideline legends deftly, sustaining their national relevance and competitiveness with new coaches. The challenge for UConn is finding the right coach to succeed Calhoun, to prolong and advance what the three-time national title winner engineered in Storrs. While Calhoun believes two-year assistant Kevin Ollie is the perfect fit, it’s unclear whether new AD Warde Manuel will stick with Calhoun’s preference in the long run. But the timing of Calhoun’s departure has forced Manuel’s hand: Ollie is assured one season on the Huskies’ sidelines, a test run to prove himself as the long-term solution.
With UConn ineligible for the postseason in 2013 and a depleted roster to work with, Ollie faces a tough road in the upcoming season. Whether or not he is the best choice to lead the Huskies out of the Calhoun glory days is an open question, but the national media has opined in droves over the fate of UConn’s program now that it has lost its foundational architect. Here’s a sampling of some of the best Calhoun retirement-related pieces I’ve come upon in the wake of yesterday’s official announcement, with a brief pull-quote summary of how each writer believes the Huskies will march on without Calhoun.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the resounding impact Manuel’s hire will have on UConn’s future. Making matters worse, as Glockner details, is Calhoun’s Dean Smith-inspired timing, which leaves Manuel with no recourse but to concede control (at least for one season) to Ollie. “Oh, and while you [Manuel] may have a master plan, one that will extend UConn’s on-court excellence beyond the realm of one man’s work, your former coach dragged out his increasingly likely decision just long enough to ensure his preferred choice, former player and current assistant coach Kevin Ollie, would have to get a one-year trial run as the head coach.” The column goes on to draw comparisons with Lute Olson’s messy divorce at Arizona and the downtrodden post-Smith years at UNC, along with a host of other program’s coaching transitions. Glockner then weighs in on Ollie’s advantages – namely, an experienced batch of assistants, a proven track record on the recruiting trail and the relieved pressure of postseason ineligibility. Enormous pressure nonetheless exists for Ollie to convince Manuel – who, remember, holds no longstanding ties to Calhoun or his legacy – that he’s qualified to preserve and further Calhoun’s progress in the coming years. “That said, the pressure is clearly there. Ollie only has this one season to impress a boss who wasn’t here for any of Calhoun’s glory and is left holding the bag for his foibles. Also, with the landscape continuing to shift around the Big East and TV money at the root of future athletic program relevance, there’s no certainty that UConn will continue to be a major national player.”
For those with slight misgivings about Ollie’s credentials, I highly recommend poring over Eisenberg’s in-depth take on the new head man’s history and background. Through conversations with former coaches and NBA front office personnel and several interesting anecdotes, Eisenberg crafts a descriptive personality portrait of Ollie while driving home the coach’s fearlessness and conviction. Ollie, let it be known, was enlisted to mentor LeBron James in his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He did the same with two different NBA superstars in 2009, when the Oklahoma City Thunder signed him “to set a good example for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.” As recruiting pitches go, it can’t hurt to have the “I coached the two best players in the planet” ploy in your back pocket. Ollie had interest in a coaching/personnel development position with the Thunder, but when OKC general manager Sam Presti initiated negotiations late in the summer of 2009, Ollie – who, according to Presti, worked out with some Thunder players and “blew everyone away” – expressed his desire to return to work under Calhoun at his alma mater.
The existential quandary in the wake of Calhoun’s departure is whether UConn can maintain its current status atop the Big East food chain, or whether it’s bound to regress into the garden-variety hoops entity that Calhoun took over more than a quarter century ago. Does UConn exist in so far as it relates to Jim Calhoun? How deep and lasting is his connection to the program? Does his retirement signal the beginning of the end (at least as far as national championship contention is concerned) for the proud Huskies program? Norlander provides some context into the enormous building project Calhoun completed and the unlikely rise of a once-forlorn program: “Because without Calhoun, the team – and the school – was practically nothing when it came to athletics and general interest from the state toward UConn. Before Calhoun stepped on campus, UConn had never won more than 23 games in a season (averaged about 15 per year) and had only made it past the first round of the NCAAs four times in 46 years. It was an afterthought, and perhaps that is being too kind.” Even with a strong foundation under his feet, expecting Ollie to simply keep humming along the way Calhoun has for so many years is, as Norlander points out, unrealistic. Not only is UConn arguably at one of its lowest points of Calhoun’s now-extinct tenure – NCAA sanctions, academic shortcomings, a score of transfer and NBA-related departures – it has never experienced lasting success without Calhoun. That unfamiliarity and uncertainty could spell doom for Ollie as he takes over this season. “Ollie is Calhoun’s guy. In the end, Calhoun got his way – again. Funny how this all worked out just as he wanted it. It had to be this way, I’m sure. But is this what’s best for UConn’s future? Let’s imagine it again, because it’s so hard to: What is UConn without Jim Calhoun? Is it immediately moving – and quickly – in the right direction? Is it even in the right conference? Things haven’t been this unclear in Storrs since a 46-year-old, dark-haired, hard-accented man from Braintree, Mass., sat down on May 15, 1986, and took his first questions from the Connecticut media.”
Many point to Calhoun’s defiance, irascibility, persistence, his desire to have it his own way as defining aspects of the 70-year-old’s legacy. This is an accurate assessment, though, as DeCourcy notes, his delayed retirement has placed UConn in dangerous territory. Calhoun was able to leave on his own terms, right before this season, as Dean Smith did years ago. UNC has re-established its position at the very top of the blueblood totem pole, but Smith’s hazardous farewell left the Tar Heels in shambles, with Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty torpedoing the positive momentum Smith built during his 36-year tenure. “Calhoun always cited Smith’s eve-of-the-season retirement in 1997 as justification for not declaring his intentions immediately after each season, but Smith’s decision devastated North Carolina’s program. The recruiting failures of Smith’s hand-picked successor, veteran Bill Guthridge, ultimately led to an 8-20 season when Guthridge was succeeded by Matt Doherty. It became one of the most tumultuous periods in the program’s history. […]There is no guarantee UConn will encounter a similar crisis, but here’s the catch: It’s far easier to win basketball games and sign great recruits at North Carolina.” Questions are raised over Ollie’s coaching experience, or lack thereof. After all, succeeding a legend isn’t easy for even the most experienced of coaches. Fans are quick to pass judgment on the new guy; any slip-ups or early struggles are met with criticism. There’s also an element of confirmation bias, where onlookers will denounce the new coach simply because he’s not the old guy. With just two years of experience under his belt, is Ollie the best choice? “It is likely the program will be turned over, perhaps on an interim basis, to Kevin Ollie, another of Calhoun’s Henry Higgins projects. This is not what is best for UConn. Ollie is a promising prospect, but following Calhoun would be a difficult project for someone with decades in the business. Ollie has been an assistant for two seasons.”
Everyone seems to have their own opinion on Ollie’s qualifications for the enormous task at hand, but what does he think? Undaunted by the forces conspiring against him (pressure, built-in expectations, a fan base demanding Calhoun-level excellence), Ollie is confident to the point of declaring self-assured long-term security: “Oh yeah, I believe I’m going to be the head coach here for a lifetime, for 15-20 years,” Ollie told Katz. More importantly, two of Manuel’s presumed alternate candidates, Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, fully support Ollie’s chances of landing the job long-term. What’s interesting about Ollie’s one-year evaluation period is Calhoun’s role in the decision process. To wit: “Warde told me that I will have a major vote on this,” Calhoun said of his role in deciding whether or not Ollie will continue as head coach at season’s end. Calhoun will also serve in an advisory role and plans to consult with Ollie and guide him through the upcoming season. Count former Huskies star Kemba Walker in the Ollie support bandwagon: “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,” said Walker of Ollie. With an outpouring of support from NBA personnel, former players and Calhoun himself – who, as we now know, will have a say in Manuel’s job search – Ollie is positioned well to make a strong run at keeping the head coaching job beyond this season.
The lingering doubts over UConn’s value sans Calhoun have crystallized in untimely fashion. Two years removed from a national championship, the Huskies have reached a discernible trough in an otherwise booming 21st century hoops existence. With NBA draftees and transfers draining UConn’s roster, it’s all but certain the Huskies wouldn’t broach the NCAA Tournament even if they weren’t legally barred from postseason play. More concerning is UConn’s conference membership, and the realignment-fueled deterioration of the once-proud hoops league. The losses of Syracuse and Pittsburgh have watered down the league’s competitive elite, which, in a roundabout way, could help UConn win more conference championships. But the argument cuts both ways: UConn could very well recede from its national spotlight in a dying league. Dauster takes all these concerns, assesses Calhoun’s intractable connection to the program, and concludes, “UConn will never reach the heights that they did under Calhoun, and it’s unfair to expect anyone to live up to those lofty standards. Three national titles and four Final Fours in 12 years? In Storrs, CT?” That’s not an indictment of Ollie or UConn as much as it is a tip of the cap to Calhoun’s illustrious tenure. He turned a ho-hum Connecticut basketball scene with indifferent spectators into a hoops-crazed environment with an avid college-sports fan base, and did it all in a mostly pro sports-focused locale. As Dauster points out, Huskies fans should appreciate the past, rather than concern themselves with the program’s ability to uphold Calhoun’s greatness. “Instead of worrying about whether or not the future of the program will hold the same success as the past, UConn fans should focus on the fact that they got to experience a run of success that few in sports ever do.”
And finally, my abbreviated take on the Huskies’ future
The one-year trial period leaves Ollie with little margin for error. UConn is coming off a disappointing season, one which saw two first-round NBA Draft picks and a talented supporting cast fall well short of its lofty preseason expectations. The cupboard is bare for Ollie in his test run, with guards Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatwright and a handful of complementary pieces. If Manuel makes his decision based on wins and losses, or unfairly expects Ollie to field a contending Big East outfit in a year where the ultimate lack of postseason incentive will undoubtedly affect a young and talent-bereft group, Ollie won’t get the job. The decision-making process should be a comprehensive review of Ollie’s coaching history not just at UConn but in the NBA, where he’s garnered rave reviews from Presti, arguably the top front office executive in the league. Another vital factor to consider is Ollie’s success on the recruiting trail. The Huskies have continued to reel in top prospects despite Calhoun’s deteriorating health and uncertain job status, thanks in large part to Ollie’s personal approach with top high school talents.
As Ollie steps into a precarious situation, his resolve and strong support group will help him through what has the makings of a rough season in Storrs. This year’s team may struggle to post a respectable win-loss record, but I envision Ollie retaining his position at season’s end. His recruiting prowess – the lifeblood of any successful program – will be the deciding factor, along with Calhoun’s influence in the job search. For a seamless and streamlined return to national title contention, Ollie provides the most direct path. The Huskies would welcome an extension of Calhoun-era principles, both on the court and off it, which is precisely what Ollie brings to the table. Calhoun erected UConn from the primordial slime of mid-major irrelevancy, crafted it, oversaw its evolution into a national hoops powerhouse. He built something lasting, something that won’t go away with its creator. Sure, Calhoun meant everything to UConn basketball, but his lasting impact can be positively guided under the watch of another willful leader. Ollie has everything it takes to continue Calhoun’s work while putting his own unique spin on UConn basketball. The Huskies will falter after losing their long-tenured coach, but it won’t be long before Ollie revives UConn out of its talent rut and APR-induced postseason ban doldrums. It’s almost impossible to imagine a successful UConn without Jim Calhoun, but once Ollie gets things rolling, the program will continue its prosperous recent history.