Kevin Ollie making UConn his own

STORRS, Conn. -- Freshman year, first day of practice, Kevin Ollie couldn't escape the wrath of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. Ollie repeatedly failed in his attempts to defend Chris Smith, and Calhoun repeatedly ripped him for it.

The Los Angeles native, upon returning to his dorm room after practice, picked up the phone and dialed home.

"I remember crying, like, 'Man, I ain't up to this.' I called my mama, I was like, 'Mom, I'm coming home,'" Ollie said. "The next thing I heard was a click."

Mama wasn't going to save him. She didn't even entertain the thought by offering him words of encouragement. Ollie had to stick it out.

He never told Calhoun about his doubts of being able to play for UConn, which was fine because Calhoun never told Ollie he was a target for yelling because he could take it.

"He probably sometimes -- no, it wasn't sometimes -- he was the brunt of me pushing the team because he was the guy who helped make us go," Calhoun said. "And I knew he could take it. He'd handle it the right way. And he always did that."

Now Ollie, in his second year replacing the Hall of Fame coach at UConn, is sure glad he did. That first day of practice might be the last time Ollie nearly backed down from a challenge.

The herculean task of following legendary Calhoun didn't cause Ollie to flinch. Nor did the prospect of starting last season with a seven-month contract. So, the fact that UConn could not participate in the 2013 postseason didn't seem like much of a hurdle to Ollie, either.

After a season spent out of the national spotlight, Ollie and the program have cleared all those obstacles, and the No. 13 Huskies (7-0) are on the verge of cracking into the top 10. They'll face their biggest test of the season with Monday's game against No. 15 Florida. Some might say the Huskies are back; Ollie would say they never left.

"People thought we fell behind, when they see us coming up," said Ollie, who played at UConn from 1991 to 1995. "We were just lapping everyone."

Ollie has managed to get Calhoun-like results without having any of his players crying and calling for mom wanting to go home.

Guard Ryan Boatright skips the formality of calling Ollie "Coach" and instead refers to him the way he has since his first recruiting visit. "KO," Boatright said, has a way of relating to each player individually.

"It depends on what kind of personality you got, some of us he can curse at and he knows that we're going to respond," Boatright said. "Some people he knows if he does that, they're just going to hang their head, and that's not going to get them going. Coach Calhoun didn't care; he was cursing you out no matter if you could take or you couldn't take it."

That's why Ollie really doesn't take well to getting compliments about the Huskies competing last season. How else were they supposed to play?

Sure, they couldn't compete for a NCAA title, the repercussion for a series of low academic progress rate scores. But Ollie said they were playing for everything.

"They were playing for the name on the front of the jersey, and that's why I was so happy with that team," Ollie said. "I don't care if I win one national championship, two national championships, three national championships -- hopefully, I'll do that. But at the end of the day, that will be my favorite team with the resolve they showed in the face of adversity."

Assistant coach Karl Hobbs, a 1984 UConn grad who is in his 11th season with the school, said the team played with resolve for a reason. Ollie helped recruit many of the players on the roster in the two years he was an assistant on the staff.

They all wanted a UConn man to keep the job, and they all knew he started off without a guarantee of returning for a second season. "Psychologists should study his technique," Hobbs said. "He was just so focused and his focus so narrow that he never allowed anything from the outside to come into play. And his focus was basically to get these guys together as a team and get them all on the same page to support each other."

Ollie's biggest accomplishment from last season might have been getting Boatright and guard Shabazz Napier to coexist in the backcourt. In the 2011-12 season, the pair often seemed to be competing against each other. Now, the pair is among the best backcourts in the nation.

One of the most visible ways Ollie has put his own stamp on the program literally hangs all around the hall outside of the UConn locker room in Gampel Pavilion. Ollie had the walls blanketed with motivational sayings:

Be phenomenal or be forgotten. Greatness is never on discount. Success is never on sale.

Calhoun used to have a thought of the day, but the Ollie-isms throughout the locker room have taken those thoughts to another level.

"Kevin has more sayings than almost any other guy I've ever been around in my life," Calhoun said. "I'm not one of those kinds of guys -- that's him, and people like it. And it's good. And for him it has a great deal of meaning, and for the players it has a lot of meaning."

The last two phrases the players see atop the doors that lead to the court are:

Greatness begins when selfishness ends. UConn basketball, 10 toes in.

The Huskies have embraced those phrases and occasionally will refer to them in interviews. Napier said change was easy to buy into because they know where it's coming from.

"Someone coming in and replacing a legendary coach, more often than not, they're not from the university, so the little changes, it's like, 'Wow, why is he changing it?'" Napier said. "But Coach Ollie is from UConn, so his little changes are nothing big. Everybody believes, everybody knows that he's doing the right thing, and we all follow suit."

Calhoun keeps an office in Gampel Pavilion, and Ollie talks to him frequently after practices. Their conversations are more likely to cover the Dallas Cowboys, Ollie's favorite football team, or Calhoun will bring up the New England Patriots before basketball is ever discussed.

Ollie said he wasn't intimidated by having Calhoun around; in fact, he thinks his players and staff would be foolish not to use him as a resource. But ultimately, Ollie knows he's out to shape his own legacy at UConn.

"I'm not trying to be Coach Calhoun, I can't fill those shoes," Ollie said. "But I am trying to be the best Kevin Ollie I can be, and that's what I'm trying to do each and every day."

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