When you really think about it, former Connecticut men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie did it to himself.
Ollie is currently fighting UConn’s decision to fire him for “just cause.” With an NCAA investigation and a second straight losing season looming over the program, the university decided to “initiate disciplinary procedures” to get rid of him.
“The University of Connecticut, which has been my home and my family since I was 18 years of age, has decided to initiate the procedures to terminate my employment for cause, which I am contesting,” Ollie said in a statement to ESPN. “As the head coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies, which is one of the greatest honors and privileges of my life, I have always diligently promoted an atmosphere of compliance for all involved in the program, directly or indirectly. It has always been my creed to conduct myself in a manner that reflects positively on the university, my program and my family.”
The issue isn’t that UConn wants to get rid of Ollie, it’s the way they’re going about it. By firing him for “just cause,” it means the school isn’t on the hook for paying him the $ 11-plus million remaining on his contract. The “just cause” method is a trend that some schools use to get out of paying buyout clauses for high-priced head coaches.
“It’s a sad day for UConn, me personally, and our basketball family,” said Hall of Fame former UConn Coach Jim Calhoun to The Hartford Courant last Saturday. “I’ve always rooted for Kevin Ollie, I’ll continue rooting for Kevin Ollie, it’s a sad day for that.”
Calhoun is right. It’s really sad to see a school try to skirt the system to get out of paying one of their own. But on the other hand, I can understand why they would want to save money, given that they have a case of buyer’s remorse.
As college basketball takes center stage this week as the NCAA tournament begins, UConn fans are once again on the outside looking in.
It’s been two years since the Huskies have made the NCAA tournament. For most schools that wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, but this is UConn — a program that won its third title in a span of 11 years just four years ago and has won four national championships since 1999.
But UConn hasn’t really been “UConn” since the improbable tourney run that led to their fourth national championship in 2014.
Back then, the Huskies entered the tournament as a No. 7 seed in Ollie’s first full season as head coach, and peeled off wins against St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, and Florida to make it to the title game. Their run included wins over teams seeded second, third, fourth, and first. And in the national championship game, UConn knocked off the new version of the Fab Five, as Kentucky started five freshmen who were all high school All-Americans.
Since then, it’s been ugly.
Ollie only made the NCAA tournament once after winning that national title, and in his six seasons on the sidelines in Storrs, Connecticut he compiled a 127-79 record.
Again, for most coaches that isn’t a bad resume to have at your alma mater, but when you put all the pieces together Ollie just wasn’t good enough. Not for UConn, anyway.
When Ollie was fired last Saturday, my first reaction was, “Why did it take so long?
It’s not to say that Ollie isn’t a good coach, it’s just that he was never good enough to run one of the best programs in college basketball history nor was worth his multimillion-dollar contract.
After the 2014 season, the Los Angeles Lakers came calling. In the end, Ollie turned the Lakers and the NBA down, but the situation ran the price up on the “hottest coach” on the market, as he signed a new five-year deal with UConn worth $ 7.5 million. Before the Lakers came sniffing around, Ollie had only made $ 1.25 million during the 2013-2014 championship season.
With attention from the Lakers and other NBA teams, UConn panicked and made a rash decision, overpaying a coach who led a team that caught lightning in a bottle on its tourney run and was full of players who weren’t his recruits.
In November of 2016, UConn made the same mistake after the Huskies were bounced by Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament earlier that year, and extended Ollie’s contract through 2021, which was now valued at $ 17.9 million.
That’s a lot of money for a coach who only had a single conference tournament championship, hadn’t produced a single NBA player, and only had one NCAA tournament appearance to his name since his roster was constructed with players he recruited.
But don’t blame Ollie for taking the money, blame UConn. It’s not his fault that his alma mater decided to overpay him, twice.
However, it is his fault for how the team performed. Injuries, transfers, and bad luck are all reasonable excuses for UConn’s poor production, but at a program like UConn, excuses don’t cut it.
“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas. I’m like, no, we’re UConn. I mean, this is what we do,” Ollie said after the Huskies defeated Kentucky in the 2014 national title game.
For the past few days I’ve paid attention to the conversation around this situation, and on a few occasions, I’ve seen race come up as a reason to why UConn is going about things this way.
But, I’m not buying it.
Two mistakes were made here, and race had nothing to do with either of them. The first one was that UConn repeatedly overpaid an underqualified coach, and the second one was that Ollie sold his alma mater a dream.
It was a bad marriage from the beginning, but if Ollie would have been better at his job, UConn would be playing this weekend, and I wouldn’t have written this column.
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