Upbeat Kevin Ollie leads UConn to NCAA title

Head coach Kevin Ollie of the Connecticut Huskies Head coach Kevin Ollie of the Connecticut Huskies speaks to his players in a timeout during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal against the Florida Gators at AT&T Stadium on April 5, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Ronald Martinez

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Greg Logan Newsday columnist Greg Logan

Greg Logan is a college sports and boxing writer for Newsday. ...

ARLINGTON, Texas - Crusty Connecticut coaching warrior Jim Calhoun sat in a prime first-row location near center court behind press row last night at AT&T Stadium. He watched with pride as players he recruited, important guys such as Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, outfought Kentucky, 60-54, for the NCAA championship.

Whether Calhoun realized it or not, that no longer was his team out there. Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander represented the remnants of Calhoun's 2011 champions, but despite all the talk about the shadow that looms over Kevin Ollie, his hand-picked replacement, the players had no problem breaking the psychic connection to Calhoun when it came time to embrace Ollie's inspirational leadership.

That leadership carried UConn from the abyss of missing last year's tournament because of academic probation to the mountaintop in a mere two seasons.

"This is what coach Calhoun built,'' Ollie said on the confetti-littered floor as Huskies fans chanted his name and former players lined up for pictures with him.

"I'm just trying to keep it going and prove everybody wrong. People said UConn basketball was going down after the sanctions. We're still here. People say we're Cinderella. We're UConn.''

Ollie spent two years on Calhoun's staff playing the "good cop'' role after a long career as an NBA journeyman. His credentials were questioned to the point that he was given the job only on an interim basis when he succeeded Calhoun in 2012.

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But by then, Ollie already had the good faith and trust of the players. It was reflected in his first 20-win season when the program was banned from postseason play for academic sins committed under Calhoun, and the depth of Ollie's inspirational powers became evident to all during the past three weeks as the seventh-seeded Huskies made their unexpected run to the title.

Describing the transition, Napier said: "Coach Calhoun was the guy that yelled at you. Coach Ollie was the guy that patted you on the back and kept you moving forward.

"He's been where we all want to be, a point guard in the NBA. A guy who never pointed fingers at anybody but himself through all his trials and tribulations. You can learn from that.''

To Olander, the hiring of Ollie was a no-brainer from the players' perspective.

"I was happy,'' Olander said. "He was outgoing and positive. He wanted to come in and make a statement and make you believe in yourself more than you ever thought possible.''

Ollie most certainly believes in what Calhoun established as the "UConn Way,'' a close-knit, even insular band of loyalists. You can see it on a coaching staff that includes nothing but UConn graduates. And he always has stressed the importance of his experience at the Storrs campus in his own development, not only as an athlete but as a person.

Ollie said he learned his UConn family values from Calhoun but at the same time forged his own identity. "We're going to build it on love,'' Ollie said. Not just Calhoun's version of tough love, but a true sense of brotherhood his players say Ollie preaches emphatically.

Before the championship game, in his humble way, Ollie downplayed his role as an inspirational force. He said his main priority is not simply to motivate his players. "I'm here to add value,'' Ollie said. "If they need something . . . negative or positive, they can come in my office, and I got their back.

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"Basketball is second to me. I want them to be better people once they leave the Storrs campus. If I did that, forget about the wins and losses, national championship, I think I've done my job.''

Ollie added plenty of value Monday night.

"Eighteen months ago, we were last,'' he said. "Now we're first because they believed.''

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