With the breaking news that Jim Calhoun is stepping down as the head coach at UConn, all eyes are on former assistant and newly named head coach Kevin Ollie. So we ask, how difficult is it to fill the shoes of a legend?
We can start by looking back at Joe B. Hall, the successor to basketball legend Adolph Rupp as the head coach at Kentucky. To this day, Rupp has the fifth most wins in Division 1 men’s basketball history, and won 6 national championships and an astounding 27 SEC regular season titles. Like Ollie, Hall was an assistant to his predecessor, and when asked to fill in for The Man in the Brown Suit he didn’t disappoint. Hall took the Wildcats to the Final Four four times in his 14 seasons with the team, winning it all in 1978.
Hall wasn’t the only coach to follow in the footsteps of an all-time legend, to which I point to other top-five wins leaders Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. Both coaches represented their basketball programs with the same dignity (maybe not so much for Knight) and success as both Rupp and Calhoun, and both left rather randomly like Calhoun is now. But both schools, and their succeeding coaches, achieved success shortly after taking the reigns from their legendary mentors.
In just his second year of coaching the team (first without the interim title), Mike Davis led Indiana on a surprising run, winning the Big Ten and making it as far as the national championship game in 2002. Over in Chapel Hill, Smith retired just before the regular season began in 1997, leaving his long-time assistant Billy Guthridge in charge. After spending 25 years behind Smith, Guthridge took the Tar Heels to two Final Four appearances in the three seasons he was with the team.
While obviously none of the three stories above will have anything to do with Kevin Ollie’s chances of succeeding as Calhoun’s successor, we have seen history repeat itself. More than history, we’ve seen top assistants of all-time great coaches achieve success, and maybe there’s reason to believe Ollie can follow in that trend.
There are a lot of question marks moving forward for the Huskies, but one thing we do know is that this season was expected to be a bit of a downer for the program. UConn has been banned from the postseason due to low APR scores, which more than likely led to the transferring of Alex Oriakhi (Missouri) and Roscoe Smith (UNLV). The Huskies also watched two of their best players from last season leave early for the NBA in Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond.
While Ollie had an idea that Calhoun could be on his way out, this is all happening rather quickly for the former Huskies point guard, so is he ready to coach this team?
Aside from the talent on this current UConn squad, or lack thereof, all signs point towards yes. An assistant under Calhoun for the last two seasons, Ollie is regarded as the teams lead recruiter. And as a player who succeeded not just in Storrs, but in the NBA, who better than Ollie to show potential recruits what they can make of themselves if they commit to the UConn experience?
While I was adamant that Calhoun needed to return for at least one more season, maybe this is a blessing in disguise for the Huskies. In a season where the postseason is out of reach, and talent is down, this is a big year for Ollie and UConn to bolster their program moving forward. While it’s not likely that incoming freshman sensation Omar Calhoun came to UConn for more than a season or two, maybe Ollie brings in a great class for 2013, convincing Calhoun to stay, and joining the ranks of Davis, Guthridge, and Hall, and achieving post season success shortly after filling in for an all-time great.
With UConn playing under restrictions this season, we know the ceiling is only so high for this inexperienced bunch. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are the only returning legitimate contributors from last seaons, and this is a roster that has a combined 6 freshmen and sophomores on it. Ollie will have his rough nights facing the Big East gauntlet with such an inexperienced team, but Calhoun (Omar) is a top candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year, and we have seen UConn teams make unpredictable runs in the very recent past.
I wouldn’t bet on the Huskies this season, but with Kevin Ollie taking over for his mentor, and all-time great Jim Calhoun, I wouldn’t expect the apple to fall to far from the tree. Best of luck Kevin.
For hoops, hip-hop and other random sports and pop culture commentary, follow Jared Mintz on Twitter @JaredMintzTruth