Yesterday wasn't simply a bad day for UConn athletics. It was a catastrophic day. We don't know what will come in the months or years ahead, but it is entirely possible that five or ten years from now it will be looked back on as the worst day in the history of the school's athletic program and the beginning of the end of UConn's national athletic relevance.
What has become painfully clear -- and I'll have a separate post on this later today -- is that UConn's administration has a serious messaging and public relations problem, and it has had a real and negative impact on the future of the university's athletic programs. UConn has taken an absolute beating in the national media for the past two weeks, the school's athletic programs are perceived as inferior to those of their peers and that inferiority has been paired with a word that is terrifying to outside decision makers: uncertainty. And how is that uncertainty usually presented? In sentences like this: UConn's once-elite basketball program faces an uncertain future thanks to NCAA sanctions, the retirement of legendary coach Jim Calhoun and the tenuous seven-month contract situation of Kevin Ollie.
This Saturday UConn's football team is playing Cincinnati on ABC. It's UConn's only network game of the season, and will be shown to A) a majority of the country and B) every state in the nation that UConn actually cares about. They'll open by talking about the game, but you and I both know that at some point -- probably in the second or third quarter -- there will be a lull where the announcers turn to talking about conference realignment, and it'll go something like this:
Ace: You know Gary, both these schools got some bad news last week.
Gary: You're right Ace, they were each trying to leave the Big East and head to the ACC, but Louisville got the nod instead.
Ace: That's right, the landscape of college athletics sure are changing -- the Big East even has some teams from the WEST now -- and both of these programs are afraid they might be left behind.
Gary: That's right, but you know, you can really understand the ACC's thinking on this one. A lot of people thought UConn might jump Louisville, but at the end of the day, UConn just doesn't seem strong enough.
Ace: Certainly. There are questions upon questions in Storrs, the football program has fallen off since Randy Edsall left and the basketball program...
Gary: Oh my yes, the basketball program, they've got NCAA sanctions now, Jim Calhoun is gone, and who know's what's going on with Kevin Ollie. There sure is a lot of uncertainty for the Huskies.
Ace: Oh, and we're back with some on the field action, and Lyle McCombs just got tackled for a three-yard loss bringing up a 3rd-and-14.
So yeah, that's not the message UConn wants to be sending. And it's not like that minute-long digression is the end of the world, but that's the message that's out there now, and it's out there constantly. And you'll hear a variation on that conversation tonight when UConn plays New Hampshire. And you'll certainly hear it again next week when the Huskies play N.C. State on ESPN. And you'll continue to hear it, over and over and over again. And that's the problem. Perception isn't always reality, but when you don't do something to challenge an incorrect perception it can easily become the reality. UConn cannot afford to have this doom message sent over and over and over again to fans, donors, recruits, other media members and potential conference suitors.
UConn needs to change the conversation, and that's why UConn needs to give Kevin Ollie a real contract. Right now.
Yes, there are some aspects of the media narrative that Susan Herbst and Warde Manuel can't change. They cannot undue Louisville's invite to the ACC, and they can't change the fact that UConn won't be going to the postseason this year. But Kevin Ollie's situation is under their control, and the solution is easy.
I understand why Manuel only gave Ollie a seven-month contract back in September. Ollie was unproven. No one knew how he'd handle the media spotlight as coach. No one knew how he'd be welcomed by fans. No one knew if he could coach basketball. Those are all reasonable reasons to give Ollie a tryout, and if you want to tack on another, and maybe the most important reason, you can add this: it was important to Manuel to show that he had some semblance of control over the program and that he was a decision maker, not a puppet of Jim Calhoun. But enough's enough, and after two month's it has become crystal clear: Kevin Ollie should be UConn's basketball coach, and he should be UConn's basketball coach for a long time.
And make no mistake: Ollie earned a contract. From the moment he was introduced he hasn't just said the right things, he's said the perfect things. If you tried to create the perfect ambassador for a university you couldn't possibly do better than this man. I'm a third-generation UConn alum. I love this school and I've followed it fanatically since I was physically able to, and in all those years I have never come across someone who sells and boost UConn like Ollie does. I'm buried in student loan debt but when I see Ollie open his mouth it makes me want to tip my wallet upside down and give the school everything in it. When he talks about how proud he is to be an alum it makes me want to put my degree in a bigger frame. When he talks about the types of students he wants to coach it makes me want to send every teenager I can find to Storrs. He is, in every way, an absolute home-run.
The fans love him too. I'm sure there are still some out there harboring fantasies that UConn could convince Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens to come to Storrs (a pitch that became a lot harder to make yesterday, by the way), but they've become a whole lot less vocal since the season started. Or maybe I just haven't been able to hear them because I find myself thinking about Ollie addressing the students at First Night and being drowned out by chants of his name:
To be fair, this is all before we get to the most important thing: the basketball. But you know what? the basketball has been a damn fine product too. His players love him. They're killing themselves for him, and they're playing very, very well. It's tough to compare this year's depleted roster to last year's stacked team, but KenPom offers a decent guide. Last year's underachieving Huskies spent most of the season hovering somewhere in the 30s and 40s of his rankings. Guess where the significantly-less-talented Huskies have been hovering this year: the same place. Yes, it's early, but be honest, did you think UConn would be 5-1 right now? (And don't forget that that one loss came to a good New Mexico team that immediately got ranked themselves.) Did you think UConn would have been ranked already, if at all?
This isn't a perfect team. And it's not a great team. And by the end of the season I'm fully prepared for it to be a run-of-the-mill 18- or 19-win team that was brought down by its lack of front court size and depth. But it is a well-coached team. You can see the Huskies trying. You can see them making adjustments. If you watch them compared to the last ten years of Calhoun teams you can see a difference -- not necessarily better, not necessarily worse -- that Ollie has brought. UConn is running sets it never ran before. It's relying less on a pro-style iso offense. It's playing a more aggressive style of press defense. And it's working. It is. Kevin Ollie probably doesn't have the roster to win 25 games this year, but it sure looks like he has the coaching acumen to do it when he builds that roster.
Which brings me to my final two points. First, if Kevin Ollie is going to be UConn's long term coach -- and obviously I think he should be -- it's time to remove one of the barriers that stand in the way of his long-term success. Shawn Courchesne, formerly of the Courant, now of RaceDayCT hit the nail on the head yesterday:
Kevin Ollie out recruiting: "We can't play in the postseason, I have no contract and our conference is dying. Please come to UConn."— Shawn Courchesne (@ShawnCourchesne) November 28, 2012
Kevin Ollie needs some good news. He needs something he can use to sell this university and this program. It's time to give him a guarantee and free him to use himself.
Second, think about the media narrative I outlined above. UConn can't fix all of it, but it certainly can blunt it. Giving Ollie an extension gives reporters and broadcasters something else to talk about. It shows that UConn is committed to some sort of future. It removes uncertainty. It changes every discussion from "there's massive amounts of uncertainty in Storrs" to "conference realignment has damaged the Huskies (for now), but Warde Manuel thinks he has his man in Kevin Ollie and UConn is committed to maintaining their success with him." And it certainly won't hurt that every basketball person you can put in front of a camera raves about Ollie. It'll give UConn a sense of direction, a sense of stability, and finally, a bit of good news.
UConn fans have had a rough go of it lately. We're banned from the postseason, football is in a swoon, and we're the last people standing on the titanic now that the lifeboats are gone. The fans -- the people that support the school, that talk it up, that give it money -- need hope. They need something they can rally around and feel good about. They need someone to say that we're UConn, we're not going away, and we're going to fight like hell to succeed.
There are a hell of a lot of stairs in UConn's future. There are no escalators to cut the journey short, and it's going to be a long hard walk. I'm willing to go to climb each and every one of those stairs with the school, but I'll feel a whole lot better about it if I know I'm doing it with Kevin Ollie as UConn's coach. The time has come. He's the right choice. UConn needs to give Kevin Ollie the contract he deserves, and they need to give it to him now.