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Mike Lopresti | | April 6, 2014

Lopresti: UConn's run to title game a reflection of its coach

Kevin Ollie is trying to deliver Connecticut its fourth national championship. Kevin Ollie is trying to deliver Connecticut its fourth national championship.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kevin Ollie is center stage now. He is not the NBA journeyman, cut loose by nearly every team that hired him. Not the young boy shuttling back and forth between divorced parents, up before dawn mowing lawns. Not the first-year head coach, trying to figure out how to keep a program moving through an NCAA tournament ban because of academic sanctions.

He is the man who has put the Connecticut Huskies on the doorstep of the national championship. The second-year head coach who has sold faith in one another, and found buyers all around his locker room.

Kentucky can match 1985 Villanova as the lowest-seeded team ever to win a national championship on Monday night, but trying to fit the Wildcats into a glass slipper is like trying to fit an elephant into a phone booth.

John Calipari as a Cinderella story? Are you kidding?

But Kevin Ollie? Bingo.

“He’s never had it easy. He’s worked extremely hard for everything. Just worked hard and had a lot of pride in himself,” Huskies guard Ryan Boatright said Sunday. “He instills that in us every day.”

He is the same Kevin Ollie who as an Huskies assistant was so close to the players that Shabazz Napier, upset at how he was playing, once sobbed into his arms. “He was always there for me,” Napier said. “I never had a father in my life. I feel like he was always a father figure to me.” 

He is the same Kevin Ollie who played for 11 NBA franchises in 13 years, living on the slender thread from short contract to short contract. Once, he was cut on Christmas Eve.

“He wasn’t a great player [in the NBA]. What kept him in the league was the Kevin we’re all talking about,” former Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said. “Great character, great resiliency and toughness. You’ve got to know him to know how tough he is.”

He is the same Kevin Ollie who as a kid spent winter in south central Los Angeles with his mother, Dorothy, here this weekend while fighting breast cancer. And spent summer in Dallas with his father, cutting grass for Fletcher Ollie’s landscaping business.

“Pops used to get me up at 4 o’clock in the morning and he didn’t pay me a lot,” Ollie said Sunday. “I can see some of these apartments I used to cut, and I know he got me. He got me all my life.

“But it really taught me how to work hard, getting up at 4 o’clock, trying to beat the heat. He still cuts today. He still has got his landscaping business. So I always see that determination and fight in him. He really established that work ethic in me, with the combination of my mother, too, raising three kids on her own.”

His team is a reflection of its head coach, refusing to take no for an answer on its way to a championship game appearance that so few expected. But he expected it. Or at least he expected to have the chance one day.

Ollie was born to be a coach. That is why, on all those nights in the NBA, he kept the scouting reports, trying to look into minds of coaches and find out what was going on.

What is going on at Connecticut is a case of transplanted belief, from the coach to his players. “Kevin’s fingerprints are on this team,” Calhoun said. When Ollie talks, his players listen, and then they do. Really, what coach could ask for more?

“He reminds us you’ve got to work for everything you want,” Napier said. “He wasn’t given much. He believed in who he was. He believed he could make an impact, whether it was on the bench or in the game or in somebody’s life.

“Somebody who has been though that much knows a lot about what it takes to overcome a lot of obstacles. When he’s talking, you’re all ears.”

There is the psychologist side to Ollie, in his quest to reach his players. Bad days, he seeks to turn into instructive good ones. When the Huskies were blown away at Louisville by 33 points late in the season, he showed them a tape of their December win against Florida, to remind them what they could be. After they lost a disappointing game here against SMU, he took them on a tour of AT&T Stadium, to remind them where they were trying to get.

It would not be easy. Nothing much he has ever done has been easy. Maybe that is how he got here so quickly.

“Every day I come in with the same mindset that I want to get better at something, I want to help them be better men. Basketball is second to me,” he said.

But maybe not on Monday night.

“All of us got heart, and we play that way,” he said of the Huskies. “It’s not a fluke that we are here. It’s core values and principles. It’s not a fluke.”

Nothing much has changed in the way he goes at life and basketball. Except maybe one thing. Kevin Ollie no longer cuts his own grass.

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