Kevin Ollie's First Chapter

Jared Wickerham

College basketball coaches are defined by their performance in March. The Kevin Ollie story begins in earnest tomorrow.

In professional sports, coaches are pretty expendable.

Aside from a few notable exceptions, coaches are hired and fired on a pretty regular basis. Even the ones who achieve tremendous success over their tenure with a club, like Joe Torre with the New York Yankees or Bill Parcells with ... well ... anyone, can ultimately find themselves on the hot seat after an extended period of time.

Why?

It's simple: at the pro level, you can't fire the players, but you can fire the coach.

That's not the case at the college ranks. When it comes to collegiate sports, the coach is king. They build programs. They recruit players. They become not only the face of a team but, most often times, the face of the entire university. While the players have a very short shelf life (usually four years of less), a college coach can stick around for decades.

Now, we can debate whether that's a good thing or bad thing, and the history of college athletics is replete with examples of coaches being handed way too much power, and abusing it. But the simple fact of the matter is, because of the way amateur sports is set up, the power scale is likely to remain exactly as it is right now.

Kevin Ollie finds himself at the beginning of that process. He is now entering the latter stages of his second year as the head coach of the UConn men's basketball team. He took over for the Hall of Fame program builder - Jim Calhoun - who left behind a legacy unlike almost any other. He was cantakerous. He made a lot of enemies. He screamed and yelled on the sidelines, and never pulled a punch when talking to his players, the fans, or the media.

But he was a winner. One of the great winners in college basketball history. And because of him, UConn went from an obscure state school located on that small swath of land in between New York and Boston to being immediately recognizable to every college sports fan across the country.

That's the legacy he left. Jim Calhoun wasn't just the face of UConn basketball ... he was the face of the university. (All due respect to Geno, who certainly challenged Calhoun for that title, but women's basketball just doesn't have the same clout the men's game does.)

When Kevin Ollie took over last basketball season, those were the shoes he had to fill. Pretty damn big ones, if you ask me.

If you're reading this blog, then chances are you're a UConn fan. If you're a UConn fan, chances are I don't need to tell you that, so far, Ollie's short tenure as coach can't have gone any better. He led UConn to a 20-win season in a year where post season play wasn't an option. He followed that up with this season, where UConn won 25+ games and went to an AAC final, ultimately losing to Louisville.

His teams already have a few "I can't believe they won that" games under their belt, like beating Michigan State last year in the first game of the season, or beating Florida this year at Gampel.

His players play hard for him, he's already had some major successes from a coaching standpoint, and if the continued maturation of Amida Brimah is an indication, the man is capable of molding raw talent into something good.

Yet, we now come to the part that matters most for a coach: winning in March.

Jim Calhoun isn't Jim Calhoun without three national titles and a bevy of Big East Tournament banners. Same goes for every great coach. Win and you're a god. Lose and, well, no one is keeping the light on in Springfield for you.

March has a funny way of defining someone's career. Remember when Roy Williams was the coach that couldn't shot straight when he lost so many big games in the NCAA Tourney with Kansas? Remember how Bill Self adopted that mantle from him later on? Heck, some of you might be too young to remember, but Calhoun had the label of great coach who can't win the big game, until finally breaking through in 1999.

You can win all the regular season games you want. You can add to that resume each year. Until you put some legit runs together in March, though, none of it means much.

So, this will be Ollie's first crack at the NCAA Tourney. This will be the first item added to the ledger. This will begin to shape that narrative.

A couple of wins and Ollie's place as one of the best young coaches in the game will be secured. An early exit to St. Joes on Thursday evening and the first line in Ollie's book will start with a "yeah ... but."

Make no mistake, this stuff matters. It's rumored that, when Pat Riley wanted to recruit Lebron James to Miami, he showed up to their meeting with his championship rings and laid them all on the table. That's powerful.

Don't you think Coach K does the same thing? Don't you believe that Tom Izzo has all those Final Four appearances right on the tip of his tongue when he's recruiting players? Doesn't it make sense that VCU's continued success stems mostly from the fact that Shaka Smart has become a celeb coach and one of the sport's more high-profile sideline prowlers?

This all helps build a program. This all helps keep a program growing.

Yes, Ollie is loved by the UConn fanbase right now, but he needs to make his face and name known to the rest of the world, and he needs to do that now. A long run in March will do that.

This year is a pretty perfect opportunity for him as well. UConn received a 7 seed in a bracket they could easily handle to a Sweet Sixteen birth or beyond. As a seven seed, a game to play in the second weekend would be a huge bonus. Anything beyond that would be exceptional.

That's not just what Ollie and UConn needs, it's what The American needs as well.

You saw what happened on Sunday. While the Husky's placement turned out to be fortuitous (a potential second-round matchup against overrated Nova? Seriously?) they were deserving of a better position. They were obviously hurt because their conference affiliation went from the Big East to the AAC. That was certainly true for Louisville, which in no way deserved lower than a three seed and got a four, as well as for SMU, which was snubbed completely.

Clearly, the NCAA Committee gave UConn's new home no respect.

How do you get respect? By winning.

How do you blunt the negative impact a conference can have on recruiting? By winning.

Simply put, Ollie needs to build up his own reputation for the good of the program. If UConn goes on a winning streak, it's good for the AAC. Afterall, UConn is pretty used to carrying an entire conference for a while.

If for some reason the AAC continues to be disregarded, Ollie's star can still shine bright enough to overcome that. Remember, John Calipari won a lot of games ad grabbed a lot of great recruits at places like UMass and Memphis (we'll ignore the way in which he won at those stops and move on), neither of which played in a major conference.
Ollie's rise in respect could be the single most important factor in UConn remaining one of college basketball's true blue bloods.

Shabazz Napier will graduate and move on to the NBA. So, eventually, will Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, Amida Brimah and the countless others that will come through UConn in the next several years. The constant needs to be the coach. The star needs to be the man pacing frantically near the UConn bench.

So far, Ollie's resume is superb. He's won in the regular season, he's kept his team together, he's recruited well, and he's earned the love of the school's fans.

No, he needs to add one last thing - the most important thing.

He needs to win in March.

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