Jim Calhoun was the undeniable face of Connecticut basketball. As his star rose, so did the national championship banners in Storrs, Conn. For years, the UConn coach strolled into high school gyms not needing an introduction nor a shirt with the Huskies' logo.
Now, it appears there will be a new face at UConn. And with the change comes amendments on the recruiting front as well.
Over the next few days, the one consistent theme you’ll hear coming out of Connecticut is class. Reported new coach Kevin Ollie was a blue-collar player who carved out a career in the NBA by being a likeable, workmanlike professional with integrity.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is the closest thing to Ollie in college basketball -- a former standout at his alma mater who went on to the NBA only to return to the university he loves. He should be Ollie’s road map. Ironically, Hoiberg and Ollie crossed paths many times, even themselves as recruits.
“We both visited Arizona, and Lute Olson told us he was going to take the first one that committed,” Hoiberg said. “Later in Minnesota [when Hoiberg was in the front office], we brought in Kevin as a mentor to our young guards. You won’t find a better mentor than Kevin Ollie.”
Bingo. Kevin Ollie, meet your new recruiting pitch: mentor. Ollie is a youthful 39 years young and looks every bit like he can still play. For Ollie, there are two major selling points that should kick off his tenure.
First, he’s been in the NBA.
“These kids want to make it to the NBA,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been there, he’s made that his career and that’s a big part of recruiting. He has that experience he can pass on.”
Ollie is intelligent enough, a good enough communicator and passionate about UConn, so he should have no problem selling the dream.
Second is the part about being a mentor. Three years ago, Ollie worked the National Basketball Players Association Camp as part of a program designed for NBA players transitioning from their playing careers to coaching careers. For three years, I watched pro players come through the program. Ollie was the best I’d seen. No one else took notes on the kids or went out of his way to put an arm around someone who needed a boost, and nobody was more genuinely interested than Ollie.
For the past two years, Ollie has been an assistant at UConn. His transition from player to coach couldn’t have come at a more tumultuous time in the program’s history. That stuff is in the rearview mirror. He is not Calhoun and doesn’t have his clout, nor should he aspire to be Calhoun. Creating his own identity and establishing his own recruiting style needs to happen right now.
UConn hasn’t exactly been husky on the recruiting trail these past few years. Changing perception, buttoning up the operation and selling this new UConn under a new leader is the next step. It will require time.
Recruits need to get to know Ollie. They need to see him on TV, watch him interact with his players and understand everything from his style of coaching to his style of play. We’re talking time -- time to establish his identity as a coach and sell the new brand of UConn basketball.
There’s been instability in Storrs recently, from Calhoun’s health to player exodus and beyond. Calhoun’s presence loomed large, and there was no rebuilding blueprint. It’s hard to sell recruits on the coach being in the program when so many signs pointed to Calhoun not being around sooner rather than later. From a recruiting standpoint, UConn is more stable Wednesday evening than it was Wednesday morning.
Nothing will come easy. Recruits and their families are going to make Ollie and UConn prove themselves. You don’t lay a foundation overnight and erect a palace the next day. The Huskies have the right guy; now they need to sell him to recruits.
Ollie can’t do it by himself. From a coaching standpoint, the Huskies have three guys on staff who called timeouts. Glen Miller, Karl Hobbs and George Blaney ran their own programs, and their wisdom on the bench will be welcomed.
Eventually, Ollie is going to want to bring in an assistant with national recruiting ties. UConn has a national brand, and has relied on stars from the West Coast, South and East during Calhoun’s 26 years. It’s likely there will be a spot on the staff at some point for an established home run hitter from the recruiting trail. Ollie would be wise to take his time and find that right fit.
UConn is not currently involved with a game-changing senior recruit. The Huskies are a year away from diving into the deep end of the elite talent pool and shooting for the moon with a top-10 recruit. They do have targets within the top 50 of this year's class and expect Ollie to make passionate pitches accordingly.
The long and short of UConn recruiting revolves around change. The best way to showcase change is for the season to begin, for Ollie to have his face attached to the program, and to allow his personality and people skills to help rebrand the program.