In September of 2012, the Connecticut basketball program was at a major crossroads. Jim Calhoun, the man who built the program into a national power, was on the way out the door, and academic probation handed down by the NCAA would keep the Huskies out of the 2013 tournament.
The man tabbed as his replacement, Kevin Ollie, proved on Monday night that he wasn't just the man to keep the UConn program afloat during a tough time. He is the man to take the program to another level.
By beating Kentucky in Arlington on Monday night, Ollie guided the Huskies to their fourth NCAA title in just 15 years and further cemented their status as one of the nation's elite programs.
Looking back, it is almost funny to think that anybody ever questioned whether or not he could do the job.
While there are few people in basketball who can say with a straight face that they saw Ollie leading a National Championship charge in just his second year, he had his supporters. Those with the glass-half-full outlook saw a young, energetic coach with loads of NBA experience who could connect with today's players. Those with the glass-half-empty outlook worried about his inexperience -- only two years as an assistant at UConn -- and what looked to be a very tough situation.
Raised in the program since Calhoun talked him into leaving Los Angeles to play for him in college, Ollie was confident from the beginning.
"This is my dream job. I was made for this job," said Ollie the day he was hired.
Others certainly agree. Jason Smith has been the head coach at Wolfeboro (N.H.) Brewster Academy for 14 years. The last player of Smith's to play at UConn was current Milwaukee Buck Jeff Adrien. While Adrien never played for Ollie and Ollie hasn't landed any players from the powerful Brewster program just yet, Smith has been impressed and isn't surprised by the rapid success.
"I think a lot of it is the type of person that he is," Smith said. "I don't know if you will ever meet anybody who has a negative word to say about Coach Ollie. The first time I met him he was very genuine and down to Earth. As a parent and a coach, he is the kind of coach you would want your player to go and play for."
A summer coach and operator of basketball camps based in Long Beach, Calif., Dinos Trigonis also knows Ollie and UConn. DeAndre Daniels played for Trigonis' Belmont Shore club and committed to play for Calhoun. The transition to Ollie was seamless, and another of Trigonis' summer players -- five star shooting guard Daniel Hamilton from Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco -- is going to follow in Daniels' footsteps.
"He's obviously a player's coach, and his experience in the NBA resonates well with these younger players and their aspirations," Trigonis said. "I think his greatest attribute is his motivational ability. He motivates those guys to play defense and he motivates them to play with a chip on [their] shoulder. He played 12 or 13 years in the NBA with almost a different team every year. He grinded it out, and he's a survivor.
"Often times, teams [are] a reflection of their coach. DeAndre gets along with him well, and [Ollie] connects with the younger players."
Trigonis said Ollie does a great job selling UConn's tradition and presenting them as an elite program.
"He is recruiting Los Angeles hard and his roots give him some traction there," said Trigonis. "I think that [Hamilton's] thing was a combination with him being comfortable with Ollie as a coach and mentor and their track record of producing wing players. I think they did a tremendous job of selling their success with wings. Like last night Ray Allen was there, Rip Hamilton was there, Scottie Burrell and Donyell Marshall were there, and they have many more.
"Those guys are very involved with the program and he does a good job of selling that. Those guys are part of the culture, and that's attractive to players and parents."
In addition to the 6-foot-7 Hamilton, who is a silky 6-foot-7 wing scorer who ranks No. 18 nationally, Ollie currently has commitments from junior college guard Sam Cassell Jr (a Rivals150 player coming out of high school when he initially committed to Maryland) and Georgia power forward Rakim Lubin. Obviously, whether or not the Huskies can sustain success will have a lot to do with their future recruiting.
Vin Pastore runs the Mass Rivals Grassroots program and is the coach of one of the Huskies' biggest targets in the class of 2015. Combo guard Jalen Adams from Ashburnham (Mass.) Cushing Academy currently ranks No. 27 in the junior class, and while Pastore doesn't know if Adams will end up at UConn, he can see why his explosive guard would have interest in heading to Storrs for college.
"Even before this great run, if you spent enough time watching Kevin Ollie's guards play, it is really what any dynamic, free-minded guy would want," said Pastore. "He allows his guys to go make plays and puts them in position to succeed. I think people long before this happened could see Jalen Adams in a UConn uniform. There's no question that he is the type of guard who has done well in a UConn uniform, and he kind of needs that kind of freedom."
Pastore also thinks that New England kids will take notice of how UConn won led by Shabazz Napier, a kid from New England.
"That is a 6-foot tall guard who put that team on his back, and that's unheard of. I think everybody fell in love with Shabazz Napier, and I did too. He's from Roxbury and you gotta think that Boston and New England kids were watching."
Ty Boswell coaches another New England grassroots power, Expressions Elite. One of its former players, Tyler Olander, was on the floor Monday night, and Boswell sees the same qualities in Ollie that everybody else does.
"I would say that he is humble and isn't like he comes at you with curve balls and you have to try and figure them out," Boswell said. "He's as nice a guy as you would ever meet and he isn't somebody that you have to have your guard up. He's a humble guy who believes in his vision that hard work will get you to the next level."
Boswell feels that will lead to even more success not just locally, but nationally.
"I think it solidifies him even that much more because of what he was able to overcome with taking a program with the APR situation and being able to fight through the negative press," said Boswell. "Getting to the national championship and winning it the following year gives him the momentum to recruit anybody in the country, not just New England."
The bottom line is this, what Kevin Ollie said the day he was promoted to head coach is exactly right. He is made for the UConn job, and after winning the 2014 national championship he clearly has the program in as good of shape as it has ever been. The Huskies figure to remain among the nation's premier programs for a long time to come.