STORRS, Conn. — As he walked toward the locker room after his first win at home as the new men’s basketball coach at Connecticut, Kevin Ollie was intercepted. There was Warde Manuel, the UConn athletic director, beaming proudly. The two men embraced.
It seemed like the happy dawning of a new era. Two months earlier, when Manuel handed Ollie, then an assistant, the keys to run the program that Jim Calhoun had built into a national powerhouse, they came with a not-so-subtle warning: Keep it running smoothly or the test drive is over.
Ollie, who had never been a head coach, signed a one-year contract that expires in April. And Manuel’s coming decision — whether to extend Ollie’s deal or open a national coaching search for a replacement — has become the awkward and unavoidable story line trailing Ollie’s every move since, pinned to his blazer like a scarlet letter.
“I think the world of Kevin," Manuel said, standing outside Ollie’s news media conference at Gampel Pavilion recently.
He added: “I love what I see. But I want to continue to watch him and watch the team. At the appropriate time, I’ll make a decision."
Manuel’s wait-and-see approach has been criticized by some coaches, including Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Louisville’s Rick Pitino, and seized upon by others. Ollie said his contract situation had already been used against him on the recruiting trail, where he must sell the program with no assurances he will still be manning it.
“Basically what it’s saying is Connecticut isn’t confident in him," said Evan Daniels, the national recruiting analyst for Fox Sports. “They’re not providing him with stability. To be honest with you, I think that’s completely unfair to him."
In two years as an assistant under Calhoun, Ollie established a rapport with players and earned a reputation as a savvy recruiter, after his 13-year NBA playing career ended.
He is tall and lithe, a former journeyman guard (he played for 11 teams) from Los Angeles with a syrupy voice and a more mild-mannered approach than his fiery predecessor. He said he had attended to his business assuming he was at UConn to stay.
“I coach this team and recruit like I’m going to be here not just for seven months but 27 years, a lifetime," Ollie said. “That’s how I go about my everyday mindset and how I feel in my heart."
Ultimately, though, it is Manuel’s decision. He said he was well aware of the criticism and the potential for harm in recruiting (the early signing period began Nov. 14). But replacing Calhoun, who won 866 games and three national titles with UConn before retiring in September, is not a task simply anyone can step in and do.
“I had to weigh that possibility — it hurting us this year in recruiting, or maybe some kids delaying their decisions — with the fact that I’d never seen Kevin as a head coach," he said.
Manuel added: “I understand the angst that a recruit would have. What I’ve said to them is we’re going to make a decision for UConn that we believe and I believe keeps us winning Big East championships and competing for national championships."
UConn (4-1) will not be eligible for the postseason this season after the NCAA cracked down on its low Academic Progress Rate scores, and as a result, two players (Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond) left for the NBA draft, and three others (Alex Oriachi, Michael Bradley and Roscoe Smith) transferred.
The roster that is left for Ollie is devoid of the typically towering frontcourt presences of Connecticut’s past. But it has two penetrating guards — Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright — and a versatile freshman forward in Omar Calhoun, whom Ollie recruited out of New York City.
“It’s not for me, for me to get a new contract," Ollie said. “I told them, Don’t put that burden on your back. Go play for one another. That’s what I love about this team."