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UConn faces life after Calhoun
Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright was at a friend’s house with a few teammates last month when he heard the news. It came in the form of a text message from fellow Huskies sophomore DeAndre Daniels.
Jim Calhoun, their coach, a father figure and the face of UConn basketball, had decided to retire after 26 years at the helm of the Huskies program — much to the astonishment of his players, given his daily involvement with the team since having hip surgery a month prior to the announcement.
“We were just shocked because ever since he hurt his hip, he was there every day, and he never showed that he was going to retire,” Boatright recalled at Big East Media Day at the New York Athletic Club. “He was always still the same way, coaching and there every day on crutches. So I felt if someone can be dedicated enough to be there on crutches with a screw in a hip, he’s definitely coming back, because he could be at home resting.
“I thought (Daniels) was kidding,” Boatright added, “but then he sent us a picture that was a snapshot of Twitter and it was all over Twitter. I called K.O. right away and he told me that he had just heard about it too.”
K.O. would be Kevin Ollie, the 39-year-old former UConn guard and assistant to Calhoun for the past two seasons. He’s also the man who has been handed the monumental task of replacing the Hall of Fame coach and guiding the Huskies as they move on without Calhoun on the bench.
This year won’t mark the first time that Connecticut has had to make it without Calhoun. Along with his 873 wins and three national championships, Calhoun missed more than a season’s worth of games over his career due to various illnesses — including spinal stenosis and three bouts with cancer — and, last season, a three-game suspension.
But there will be something permanent about Calhoun’s absence this time, and the move has many anticipating a major regression for UConn in the coming years.
Some have made the case that Ollie and his young Huskies team, which has one only senior, graduate student transfer R.J. Evans, simply aren’t equipped to handle the volatility that comes with a major transition like this. But Ollie, who played under Calhoun from 1992 to ’95, says he doesn’t anticipate any hiccups as he takes the reins.
“Me and you could look at the same wall and I could see something totally different, and I see stability,” Ollie said. “I see that our whole coaching staff is back besides Coach Calhoun. I see our AD, I see our president that’s committed to UConn. … I see our guys coming in with one heartbeat — it’s not me, it’s we — so I see a lot of stability going on. I just don’t see what a lot of other people see.”
Ollie’s players say their familiarity with him from his time as an assistant will go a long way toward making up ground, and Ollie’s experience in the NBA, where he played point guard for 12 teams in 13 years, carries a certain weight that even Calhoun couldn’t provide.
“It makes him more understandable and it allows us to learn from someone who did it,” junior guard Shabazz Napier said. “For me, Boatright, Omar (Calhoun), we’re like sponges out there right now. We’re taking everything we can get from Coach Ollie, because he’s been through it all.”
There’s also a sense of comfort, both for Ollie and his players, that is derived from the knowledge that Calhoun, while no longer coaching, still will be part of their development.
When Calhoun retired in September, he made a promise that he’d be involved with the Connecticut basketball program “with or without a whistle,” and his official title is currently special assistant to UConn athletic director Warde Manuel. But Calhoun’s role won't be defined by his title and he will be available whenever Ollie and the team need him.
“He’s just an ambassador,” Ollie said. “As a recruit coming in, you can go to his office and talk to him, or he’ll come in practice and show me different things and evaluate players. He’s been coaching for 40 years, so he’s seen it all, done it all. He’s a special person, a special resource to have, and he’s always going to be my coach. He’s always going to be my second father. I owe him a lot, and I want him to be around as much as possible.”
Unfortunately, Calhoun’s departure isn’t the only bad news for the Huskies, who were voted ninth out of 15 in this year’s Big East preseason poll, between South Florida and St. John’s.
Connecticut also is facing a one-year postseason ban as a result of the program’s low Academic Progress Rate scores from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The ban will prevent the Huskies from playing in March’s Big East tournament or any other postseason invitational, including the NCAA tournament.
“We definitely don’t like the whole thing with not being involved in the Big East or the postseason, especially since none of us were on that team (that was penalized), but it is what it is,” Boatright said. “We’ve got a chip on our shoulder and we feel like we’ve got a lot to play for and a lot to prove this year.”
And, perhaps most importantly, they’ve got a coach and a friend in Ollie, who’s ready to guide them through the trials and tribulations of the post-Calhoun era.
“Going through Coach’s retirement and not being able to play in the postseason, a lot of people don’t really expect us to do much,” Napier said. “We’re a group of teenage players who have been hit with a lot of rocks, but we have a coach who’s pushing us through those rocks and pushing us to rally and showing that we’re not down. This isn’t a down year for UConn.”
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