Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Night UConn Fans Fell in Love with Kevin Ollie

For many UConn fans, there was no pre-Jim Calhoun era. There was Jim Calhoun. And that was UConn basketball.

To say there was trepidation going into the 2012-13 basketball season is to put it mildly. It seemed like everything was conspiring against the UConn dynasty that had dominated the Big East for the past 20 years and had won more national titles in the past 12 than any other school.

kevin ollie press conference
That said Big East? In the process of crumbling to form the new American Athletic Conference and the new Big East, comprised of Catholic schools and Butler.

Those national titles? They wouldn’t add another in 2013, regardless. Poor academic scores had left UConn with a pointless one-year postseason ban – keep up the good work, NCAA – and left the roster gutted, as big men Andre Drummond (to the NBA) and Alex Oriakhi (to Missouri) bolted.

At the center of this storm was Kevin Ollie. It almost seems insane to think about, but if I was writing this a year ago I would have referred to him as “interim coach Kevin Ollie” and there were serious concerns about whether Ollie deserved the gig full-time.

While Ollie arguably did more with less than any other basketball player in history – did he ever hit a 3-pointer? – it takes more than will and guts to lead a team to victory.

Many UConn fans, myself included, wanted to believe. From the moment Ollie was introduced and gave his now legendary introduction speech, we wanted to believe. Let me quote the greatness in full:

"As I embark on this journey, I want to say we're going to take the stairs and not the escalator," Ollie said on Sept. 13 at Gampel Pavilion. "The escalator's for cowards. We're going to take the stairs. It's going to be … one … step … at a time and we're going to get there."

Even in print, it gives you chills, right?

But while the excitement brewed and the optimism flowed, there was a lingering and overpowering sense of doubt.

What if UConn sucked?

Again, it almost seems insane to think about, but there were more than a few doubters who believed UConn was in for a rough year. They had nothing to play for. They had two excellent guards in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright but, well, that was apparently it.

There was fear – legitimate, honest to goodness fear – that UConn was going to get outrebounded by 30 every game.

If this entire preamble wasn’t enough, the opener was a nationally-televised spectacle from an Air Force base in Germany on ESPN against #14, big, bad, bruising Michigan State.

As a fan, I can’t explain my expectations because I had none. In fact, I was probably more interested in UConn’s football game that night against Pitt. I didn’t want to see UConn get blown out. That was the extent of it.

Then the game started. And like most UConn fans, the heart bubbles started floating around my head, my eyes glazed over and I gazed longingly at the television screen.

Yep, I had fallen in love with Kevin Ollie. A strong guy-love, that’s all it is.

From the opening whistle, UConn played liked its collective ass was literally set on fire because it was figuratively set on fire. Ollie knew that the only chance UConn had in that game – and many others – was to outwork and outhustle the opponent. The game plan was simple in that UConn would have to work to keep even with better teams and let its talented players, the aforementioned Napier and Boatright, finish the job late.

It was nerve-wracking. UConn looked stunningly awesome in the first half. They predictably wilted – as if any Tom Izzo team is going to get outworked for 40 minutes. In the end, you could aptly describe UConn as holding on for dear life.

But they did. They won. Kevin Ollie won his debut. Hell, Ollie was so good even the football team won that night. I even started on a blog post entitled, “When Do We Build the Ollie Statue?” before accepting that discretion is the better part of valor.

Trying to name your favorite UConn team when you’re old enough to remember 3 national champions and countless other teams good enough to win it all is impossible. Kemba’s team or Emeka’s team? You want me to make that decision? That would be like picking which of my non-existent children I love more, Brock or Gemma?

But I can say, without a doubt, there is no team I genuinely liked and rooted for more than the 2012-13 UConn Huskies. Staying up past midnight to watch UConn down Quinnipiac in double OT in the Virgin Islands? A thrill. Dominating Washington? A joy. Beating Syracuse one last time? A pleasure.

Even the losses riled me up more than usual. The overtime loss to Marquette on New Year’s night – those god damned referees! – had me far more riveted that the Orange Bowl slugfest between Florida State and Northern Illinois.

I was in a DC bar watching UConn and Georgetown battle through two overtimes, arguably the only game of the year when Ollie’s inexperience shone through. The bartender, after UConn finally submitted, told me, “You guys are going to be alright.”

Damn right, UConn is going to be alright.

It is rare, to put it mildly, for a coach to have success after a legend. Florida is still trying to replace Steve Spurrier. Indiana is still looking for a Final Four-return of the Bobby Knight glory years. It took North Carolina two failed coaches before getting to Roy Williams. Notre Dame went through two decades of shame before Brian Kelly showed up.

There was the fear that UConn would have that same trouble, but that it would doom the team, the athletic program and, by proxy, the whole university. UConn sees themselves in the same league as the Michigan’s, Syracuse’s and Duke’s of the world but plays now in a league with Tulsa’s, Tulane’s and East Carolina’s.

It’s been a rough few years for UConn fans, from the conference realignment loss to the fiasco that was the Coach Gramps failure.

At arguably the athletic program’s lowest point, just as everything looked to be heading for shit, Kevin Ollie reassured everyone that everything was going to be alright. We were going to take the stairs. It was going to take hard work. But it would be alright.

Suddenly, everything seemed to return to normal. The UConn men were winning games. The UConn women won another National Title because that’s what they do.

On Friday, Kevin Ollie starts his second season. There is no “interim” before Coach.  There is no probation, only dreams of March Madness. There is no fear, only expectations.

UConn is ranked in the preseason, a darkhorse pick for a Final Four.

That shouldn’t mean much to a UConn fan. Instead, it means everything.

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4 comments:

  1. Great read. Can't wait for the season to tip off!

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  2. so excited for UConn basketball and yes, I did get chills rereading Coach Ollie's quotes.

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  3. LOve this - good stuff!

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  4. Just found this...and it's awesome. And can you believe we not only dreamt of March Madness, but got there and won the whole thing? Magic.

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