Experience comes in many flavors. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, for instance, has a long resume that stands among the best in college basketball: a national title, six Final Fours, a .715 winning percentage. Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, on the other hand, is fairly new at his current job but once was a star in the UConn backcourt and then played 13 years in the NBA.
It works out the same. Each is intensely loyal to his school. In one way or another, each has been where his players want to go. And each is a huge reason his team is where it is -- playing in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden today, with the winner getting to the Final Four, which can be the experience of a lifetime.
"Experience is good in coaching and experience is good with players," Izzo said Saturday, having guided his team through the final tense seconds of a 61-59 win over Virginia late Friday. "To win championships and advance in tournaments, usually you need some key things. I think the experience they bring and the hunger to get there, if they haven't been there yet, is one."
Ollie, who led his team to an 81-76 win over Iowa State on Friday, said, "Just the opportunity I have to coach my alma mater, I mean, it's just a dream come true for me."
What both have in common -- Izzo in his 19th season, Ollie in his second -- is that they have experience in filling big shoes. Ollie was a player and an assistant coach for three-time national title winner Jim Calhoun before becoming his successor. Izzo worked for nine years under Jud Heathcote, a title winner with Magic Johnson, before replacing him in 1995.
The key to thriving in that situation, Izzo said, "is how the former guy handles it. And in Jud's case, he has been so supportive. I got a call from him this morning; he's still coaching my team 19 years later. I accept that and I actually enjoy that."
Izzo's sense of humor is so droll that it is easy to miss it. Because he doesn't change expression, you think he's serious when he says, "We lost four home games this year, which is un-American and illegal" or chides the East Coast by saying of a 20-minute train ride here, "Who knows what that means? An hour, two hours?"
But he is as good a tactician/motivator as anyone in the college game. Give him four years and he will bring you to the Final Four. Anyone who has gone from freshman to senior years with him has made it to that NCAA Tournament promised land.
"Those streaks mean that the players before you lived up to standards. That's part of your obligation when you come here. They don't like it? Bad choice for them," Izzo said.
Don't let that tough talk fool you, though. He can be as sensitive and empathetic as anyone. Take it from junior forward Branden Dawson, who was mortified about breaking his hand while slamming it on a table during a tape session. "Coach kept telling me, 'Don't let up. Don't give up,' " Dawson said. "He has been a great mentor. He's like a father figure."
Ollie can be like a brother to his players. They all respect his playing career and would love to be in the pros as long as he was. They like the way he shares his emotion so they call him "The Preacher." They spontaneously gathered around him when he did an interview after his first win, in Germany, against Michigan State.
They know he can be tough, too. They recall his first practice last season when he wouldn't let them touch a basketball for the first 30 minutes. They just ran and ran -- in generic gray shorts because they hadn't earned their UConn jerseys yet.
"You could feel he was ready, from the first second," senior forward Niels Giffey said.
At the time, Ollie technically was only the "interim" coach. "He really only had an internship, to be honest," junior guard Ryan Boatright said. "We already knew him from being an assistant and we loved him. We wanted to go out there and perform well and get him that job.
"We knew what he brought to the table, we knew what kind of person he was," Boatright said. "And he has a lot of experience."