Is Kevin Ollie going to the NBA?
It's a legitimate question, now that UConn's second-year head coach has led his team to the promise land and become the "it" guy in his profession. People have spent the last four weeks falling over themselves looking for ways to praise the man for both his coaching acumen and ability to garner the respect of players.
So it's no surprise Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran, someone who's gained the trust and friendship of Lebron James and Kevin Durant, would end up on the radar for professional teams.
Could this actually happen? Could UConn's new superstar immediately become the school's greatest villain, spurning the Huskies for NBA glory and almost certainly leaving the program in a big pile of heaping of donkey manure?
Call me naive. Call me a wide-eyed optimist. Call me hopelessly blind to the true nature of college athletics. I just can't envision Kevin Ollie leaving UConn after only two years.
Trust me, I get it. Coaches are about as untrustworthy as it comes with this kind of stuff. They say "X" one day, only to do "Y" the next. Coach KO certainly wouldn't be the first to say he had no plans on leaving a program … only to leave the program a few days or weeks later.
And, clearly, for a UConn fan, the memory of Randy Edsall and his "midnight run" to Maryland is still fresh in the mind. Coach Edsall — a man who spoke with almost righteous indignation about things like "family" and "loyalty," a man who made Jordan Todman explain to his teammates why he was going pro — made sure to take care of ol' number one when he grabbed the red-eye to Maryland almost immediately after UConn's loss to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl four years ago. His players didn't find out about his departure until Internet reports began popping up.
This is what these guys do. They wax poetic about a place, make it seem like their personal utopia, and then run Wild-E-Coyote-style to the first job that offers a bigger paycheck and better conference.
But I have to admit … I believe Ollie when he says he isn't going anywhere right now.
First, if Ollie was desperate for an NBA gig, he could have had one right after his retirement in 2010. While playing only 25 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ollie had made such an impression on the organization and his teammates, especially Kevin Durant, who still lauds Ollie's influence on the club, they were ready to offer him a position in their front office.
No, it wasn't a head coaching job, but it would have been more than just a foot in the door. It almost certainly would have been a stepping stone to something bigger and better.
Instead, Ollie returned to UConn. He returned to Jim Calhoun. He returned to his alma mater.
Make no mistake, there were no guarantees for Ollie when he did that. Returning to college to be an assistant coach wasn't exactly a "fast track" to the sidelines for an NBA team. If Calhoun had retired after the 2011 championship run, Ollie almost certainly wouldn't have been given the chance to lead the team. A guy with only one year of coaching experience under his belt likely would have been passed over. Plus, at that time, before the NCAA decided to make an example of UConn and before the Big East shattered like a window dropped from a 747, UConn would almost certainly have drawn attention from some major national coaching candidates.
When rumors of Calhoun retiring after that Kemba Walker-inspired run began to circulate, it wasn't Ollie's name attached to the job. It was guys like Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens.
So returning to coach for Jim Calhoun didn't assure Ollie of anything. Yet, he still made that choice.
Second, while Ollie now has a nice, shiny national championship to his name, something very few college coaches have ever attained, he still has more to prove. Trust me, I think any insinuation that Ollie "only won because he had Jim Calhoun's players" is moronic. There was so much with which Coach KO had to deal during his first two years, that championship was his … completely.
Yet, there's no question Ollie must now show he can build a team. He needs to recruit his own people, mold them, and then win with them, and do this over the course of a few years. That's what makes great coaches. That's what makes great program leaders.
I have no doubt that Ollie is capable to coaching and recruiting. He's already shown an ability to attract some major talent (Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis) and help raw talent become more sculpted over the course of a year (Amida Brimah, Terrence Samuel). But, again, he's only been on the job two years. All confidence about program building comes simply from conjecture. I get the sense Ollie wants to prove he can take multiple classes of young men and turn them into winners on and off the court.
That leads to the third point, which is that Ollie seems perfectly suited for the college ranks, and smart enough to realize that. His "preacher" persona would seem to have a shorter shelf life, possibly, in the NBA than in college, where the students are looking for inspiration and guidance. He also seems legitimately interested in the personal side of his players, and helping them achieve success away from the basketball court. Maybe that's an act, but it doesn't seem like it.
At the college level, he can not only help a Shabazz Napier reach his potential and become an NBA player, he can also look to ensure a future for someone like Tyler Olander, someone who will almost assuredly have a career outside of professional basketball. You get the sense that matters to Ollie, and it's something you can't get at the NBA level, where the only thing that matters is wins and loses.
Finally, I think Ollie sticks around for one … simple … reason: Stability.
Think about it … Ollie spent his entire professional career on this nomadic hunt for success. Every single season must have felt like Groundhog Day to him — pack up his stuff, say goodbye to teammates, and begin selling himself to NBA teams all over again, hoping for a job somewhere … anywhere.
Does he want that kind of life again? Look at the NBA playoffs right now. Frank Vogel is head coach of the Indiana Pacers, the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and a team that has gone to the Conference Semi's and Finals the last two years, respectively. Yet, because his team has stumbled into the playoffs and struggled in against their first round opponent, many have suggested Vogel might be out of a job unless he makes a deep, deep run. Mark Jackson, head man for the Golden State Warriors, might lose his position no matter what his team does in the playoffs because of a rift with management.
And if you need more examples of NBA coaches job security, take a look at Mike Woodson, the darling of New York last year after the Knicks won 54 games and made the second round of the playoffs. Next season, he'll be sitting at home, having been fired by the Knickerbockers with one year left on his contract.
Unless your name is Phil Jackson or Pat Riley or maybe Doc Rivers, there is no such thing as job security for coaches in the NBA. It's a players league … always has been, always will be.
Conversely, college is a coaches league, so to speak. Because of the transient nature of the sport, its the coaches who become the faces of their respective programs and universities. They are the constants. They are the mainstays. They are the ones who build.
True, Ollie, with one championship, hasn't bought himself a lifetime contract with UConn. If, in five or six years, UConn was wallowing in mediocrity, unable to make a dent nationally, there would be a lot of people currently praising the head coach looking for the school to consider making a move.
But that's what it would take to shorten the incredibly long leash Ollie has bought himself at his alma mater. He'd have to really fall flat on his face, for a considerable amount of time, for the wine to spoil.
If he recruits well, keeps his team winning, and keeps UConn heading into March with chances to make noise, Coach KO will be able to stay in his position for as long as he wants.
Considering how much of a family man he is, and how much he professes to love UConn, that would seem like a real selling point for him. No need to pack up. No need to uproot. No need to disrupt the family's life. It would seem the Ollie's have what they what alluded them for so many years as part of the NBA: a home.
Trust me, I get that, if the Lakers or even the Knicks came calling, Ollie would have to listen. Those are two of the premier sports teams in the world. He'd be a fool not to pick up the phone. But Coach KO is 41. He's got plenty of time to explore his NBA options.
What he has now is a chance to write his own legacy at his alma mater. He has the ability to take what Jim Calhoun built and expand on it. He has the chance to reach that rarified air enjoyed by only the giants of his profession, like Coach K or Tom Izzo.
In the NBA, he'd always be a bad season away from having to once again clean out his desk. At UConn, he can build his own statue.
Personally, I'd choose the statue.