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UConn, Kevin Ollie and the difference between winning and losing in college hoops

School and its former coach are feuding over his firing in March and how it contrasts with the treatment of Jim Calhoun

Seven years ago, a major college basketball coach whose program was the target of an NCAA investigation signed a five-year, $13 million contract. That investigation led to a three-game suspension for the coach, who was cited for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance, and three years of probation for the program. When the coach resigned in 2012, the school ushered him into a cushy position at the university that paid him most of the remaining balance of his deal.

Two years ago, a major college coach had his contract extended through 2021. Within a year of that extension, the program was the target of an NCAA investigation and the school fired the coach with just cause based on the allegations. Firing a coach with just cause means the school is not obligated to pay him the remainder of the estimated $11.4 million that his lawyers claim is remaining on his deal.

The first coach, three-time NCAA champion Jim Calhoun, was celebrated when he resigned as the head coach at Connecticut after years of collecting big checks from the school. He’s now the head coach of a new program at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut, a Division III school.

The second coach, Kevin Ollie, was fired in March. Connecticut, citing the serious charges of unethical violations, said the firing fell under the “just cause” provision and therefore justified voiding the remainder of Ollie’s contract. In September, the NCAA issued a notice of allegations to Connecticut and Ollie that included ethics charges against the coach.

Nobody wins when the family feuds. And it’s clear there are no winners at Connecticut, which opens the season at home Thursday night against Morehead State. The school not only fired a man who has been part of the UConn family since he arrived as a player in 1991, but it also made efforts to tarnish Ollie’s reputation in a way that could affect his ability to coach again.

The allegations include allegedly arranging a phone call between a recruit and UConn alum Ray Allen, providing impermissible meals for recruits during unofficial visits, shooting baskets with a recruit and failing to monitor a trainer who was working out athletes in Georgia and Connecticut.

Those allegations fall in line with what happened at UConn under Calhoun: A former team manager helped steer a recruit to the school by giving him lodging, meals and representation.

But the allegations against Ollie were taken a step further, a Level I offense, with the assertion that Ollie provided false or misleading information to investigators about knowledge of the call between Allen and the recruit. That allegation was made by Glen Miller, a former assistant coach who was released by Connecticut after the 2016-17 season. Miller, who is now the associate head coach under Calhoun at Saint Joseph, provided the information while testifying under immunity, according to documents released in June.

The NCAA alleges the call was prearranged. That’s an allegation that Ollie, who refused to talk to The Undefeated, has denied through his attorneys.

“Coach was very clear, based on his recall: He admitted there was a call to Ray Allen,” said Ricky Lefft, one of the attorneys representing Ollie. “But there was no prearrangement, at least by Coach Ollie, of that call.”

With the exception of the charge of lying to investigators, the ethics charge that Ollie’s lawyers say was included to trump up the case against the coach, the case doesn’t appear that serious in a day and age when schools have stuck by coaches who:

  • Oversaw a program that used escorts to entertain athletes (Louisville basketball).
  • Had athletes benefit from no-show classes, with no penalty from the school or the NCAA (North Carolina basketball).
  • Failed to provide a safe environment, which resulted in a player’s death (Maryland initially stood behind its coach, DJ Durkin, before firing him amid intense public criticism).

Even in the midst of the recently concluded college basketball federal corruption trial that involved Adidas and implicated some of the nation’s top programs, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was given a five-year extension this past summer even though one of his assistants, former NBA star Chuck Person, was accused of accepting $91,500 to direct players to a financial adviser.

Let’s be real: When it comes to big-time college sports, winning is everything. And Ollie, UConn and the NCAA would not likely be in this place had the Huskies not finished 14-18 last season, putting together back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1986-87 (Calhoun’s first season as head coach in Storrs).

Winning allowed Rick Pitino to survive scandals in which he admitted to having sex with a woman at a Louisville restaurant and a 2015 incident in which a former recruit said he felt like “I was in a strip club” when he visited the school. It was only the “pay for play” scandal that led to three guilty verdicts last month and provided a riveting look at the seedy world of college recruiting that cost Pitino his job at Louisville and led to that school vacating its 2013 NCAA championship.

The first team Ollie coached, in 2012-13, won 20 games but couldn’t play in the Big East or NCAA tournaments because Connecticut was banned for the program’s poor academic performance under Calhoun. In his second season, Ollie directed the Huskies to the 2014 NCAA championship, shocking Kentucky in the title game. But his teams had just one NCAA tournament appearance after that title, and the back-to-back losing seasons likely sealed his fate.

Had Ollie kept winning, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Coaches get fired all the time. It’s part of the job. You would have thought UConn would have extended better treatment to a coach who was responsible for hanging that 2014 national championship banner at Gampel Pavilion. Instead, the school announced its intention to fire Ollie with cause on March 10 and hired Dan Hurley on March 22 without extending the former coach as much as a hearing to defend himself.

You would think the two parties would have come up with an agreement that would avoid the ugly back-and-forth that’s been going on since March. Perhaps the discrepancy in the treatment between Calhoun and Ollie lies with the difference in leadership at Connecticut. (Warde Manuel was the athletic director when Calhoun resigned in 2012 and was replaced in 2016 by David Benedict, who signed Ollie to a contract extension in 2017.)

Lefft said the school requested a number from Ollie after he received his termination letter in March, and Ollie responded.

“Coach was willing to be reasonable,” Lefft said. “They never gave us a response, and they refused our request to go to mediation.”

When Connecticut fired football coach Bob Diaco after three straight losing seasons, he walked away with a severance of $3.4 million. The school caught a lot of heat from politicians and the public.

The move to avoid paying Ollie more than $11.4 million that’s owed him appears an attempt to avoid public outrage.

When The Undefeated attempted to reach Benedict, the athletic director at Connecticut, to comment about Ollie, the school responded by sending over the release it issued after the NCAA notice of allegations:

“The NCAA’s notice of allegations is part of a process we have been expecting. We believe its allegations are consistent with our original, internal findings and our joint investigative work with the enforcement staff. We maintain that the actions we have taken to date remain appropriate and consistent with the type, nature, and severity of the levied allegations.

“While the allegations are a disappointment for the university, our student-athletes and coaches, and certainly all of UConn Nation, we believe strongly that we have made difficult yet appropriate decisions intended to protect the accountability, integrity, and success of our athletic program now and well into the future.”

It will be months before this case is settled, likely before an arbitrator. The Connecticut chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is representing Ollie in his appeal of the “just cause” firing.

“I think the university jumped the gun,” said Michael Bailey, the director of the UConn branch of the AAUP. “Once we get the opportunity to bring our evidence forward, I’m confident Kevin will be exonerated.”

Calhoun and Ollie, and the investigations surrounding their programs, represent similar circumstances.

Calhoun and Ollie, and the way they’ve been treated by the school in light of those investigations by different leadership in the athletic department, represent different outcomes.

And that’s a problem.

While Connecticut both tolerated Calhoun’s transgressions and assisted in an exit plan that allowed him to maintain his honor and most of his money, Ollie’s divorce from UConn will be complete and bitter.

Two coaches. One school. Different treatments.

Some family.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.