STORRS – What is he waiting for?
That’s the most frequently asked question around the Connecticut basketball program these days.
The “he” everyone is asking about is UConn athletic director Warde Manuel and the question is in reference to coach Kevin Ollie’s contract. In all honesty, the question is multiple queries rolled into one. Why hasn’t Ollie gotten his extension yet? How is Ollie being evaluated? Doesn’t Manuel realize the damage that’s being done? How much is recruiting suffering?
When UConn has played on national television, Ollie’s contract situation has been a topic of discussion with Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas, and others. There are whispers around Gampel Pavilion. Broadcasters and writers talk about it. Former UConn players, especially those who played with Ollie, ask what’s going on. Coaches from other schools don’t get it. UConn fans wonder what the future holds.
And the UConn players, who essentially vowed they would do anything to assure Ollie’s future becoming more secure, are simply puzzled.
“Warde, our AD, we don’t know what he’s doing,” junior guard Shabazz Napier said after practice Thursday. “After the Michigan State game [Nov. 9], I felt like he was going to get the job. But, sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. I kind of came to terms that no matter what we do, it’s not going to be in our hands.
“We can win as many games as we want and I still don’t believe it’s going to be in our hands where he’s going to give him a job. Hopefully we just keep on winning and keep on playing good and keep on being great student-athletes off the court so that he can see that Coach Ollie is just not about basketball. He’s more about you being a man and maturing.”
That’s where things stand, as of Thursday morning. It is one of the most unusual situations anyone can remember in college sports.
When Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired on Sept. 13, Ollie was given a deal that expires on April 4. There was no interim tag, so Ollie truly is the head coach. But his title might as well be “head coach in handcuffs.” The contract has been called a seven-month deal, but in reality, it’s was only good for six months. Due to UConn’s ban from postseason play in 2013, it is a known fact that the Huskies end their season March 9 against Providence at Gampel Pavilion.
It’s hard to imagine anything Ollie could do between March 9 and April 4 to convince Manuel that he is the man.
It seems Ollie has won the court of public opinion in Connecticut – and beyond. But Manuel isn’t tipping his hand. He has said he likes what he has seen, but no timetable has been offered.
There has been speculation that Manuel was waiting for first semester grades to be recorded so that he could evaluate the academic performance of the Huskies. Negative headlines from the NCAA academic sanctions have forced the school to be extraordinarily diligent and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the players on this season’s team didn’t create the APR problems and their grades have the program headed in the right direction again.
Last week Ollie said his players had to focus on final exams and do their best so that he would have something good to show Manuel. He wore a smile as he said that, but he wasn’t kidding around.
Now the fall semester is over. So are final exams. According to sources, none of the men’s basketball players are in academic peril. That hasn’t been publicly confirmed but the UConn faculty and administration should be able to share that information with each other by now and make evaluations.
Others close to the basketball program believe Manuel may be close to extending an offer to Ollie. That might happen before the start of Big East play on Jan. 1. An offer would be a great first step but, of course, then the two sides must come together and talk.
That could take a while. We are told Manuel has been away from campus on business most of this week. And Ollie, obviously, is busy with the job of winning games and guiding a program away from all the negativity that exists in Storrs right now.
Ollie has handled the entire situation masterfully – especially the contract issue. There is no make-believe in Ollie’s world. He admits he wants a deal and he wants to be at UConn forever. The man has great loyalty to his alma mater.
“Yeah, that would allow me to get some more Christmas presents,” Ollie joked Thursday when asked if it is important to have the news as soon as possible.
“I’m going to do my job regardless,” he said. “That’s something I can’t control, like the [conference] realignment. I just can’t control it. I’m not worrying about the contract. You care about it because you do want to have a contract. But I’m not losing no sleep over it. I get up in the morning and I’m refreshed, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to practice, ready to give my all for my players because they do the same for me.”
Ollie constantly praises these players for their loyalty to UConn. In return, it is clear they have developed a bond and this is the coach they want to play for. That should count for a lot.
“They’re still playing like I’m here forever,” Olllie said. “So I’m going to do the same for them.”
Ollie deserves a deal because he has put together an impressive body of work, on and off the court, in a short period of time. UConn needs Ollie to have a deal because the long-term impact on recruiting will be a crushing blow if something doesn’t happen soon.
It’s bad enough Ollie can’t tell recruits what conference UConn will be playing in down the road. But to be unable to say how long he will be the coach absolutely cripples recruiting. It was amazing that Ollie got into the home of Jabari Parker, the blue chip recruit who committed to Duke Thursday, in his first week on the job. Imagine what Ollie could do without restraints.
If this drags on much longer, there will be a degree of embarrassment coming for Manuel. There are coaches in the Big East who are not afraid to take a stand during a postgame press conference. If Ollie still doesn’t have a deal when DePaul, Louisville, Syracuse, Villanova or Cincinnati come to town, don't be surprised if a coach or two uses the podium as a pulpit to preach about the injustice they see in Ollie’s seven-month audition for the job.
Ollie doesn’t get the endorsement here based on one victory – although the win over Michigan State in Germany was impressive on many levels. Most importantly, Ollie proved he could get UConn to play hard and overcome obstacles in that game. Heart and character should count for something, especially in our world today.
UConn is 8-2 and the only losses have come to Top 25 teams New Mexico and North Carolina State – both at neutral sites, and by a combined margin of 10 points.
Ollie has injected a positive element into the program again. There is chemistry on this team and smiles have returned to the players’ faces. Last month, he put his money where his mouth is and pledged $100,000 toward the construction of the new basketball development center at UConn. That’s an investment in his future, but a statement about how he feels about his school.
Everything Ollie has done so far has been under the watchful eye and scrutiny of both Manuel and Calhoun, who has yet to properly distance himself as the retired Hall of Fame coach. Ollie needs more space to make this his team and his program. Hopefully that will come with time.
In the past week, Ollie has been a strong voice and a leader in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Ollie is a parent and a man of strong faith. He loves basketball but has strong values. His influence on the team’s tribute to Newtown was obvious Monday night at the XL Center and he has carried himself without being political.
Ollie simply wants to reach out and help the Newtown community in any possible fashion, but he isn’t forcing the Huskies on the grieving parents, children, families and friends. This isn’t about him. He isn’t waving his arms and screaming, “Hey, look, I’m over here. Look at what I’m doing.”
That’s the best type of leader for this UConn program. Name another person you are certain would fit the job description better than Ollie. He deserves an extension, one that will send a strong message – especially to recruits - and make his job easier.
What is Warde Manuel waiting for? Only he knows for sure. But hopefully, the wait will end soon and everyone can stop asking that question.