BUFFALO — Even if they wanted to, Kevin Ollie and Jim Calhoun could not avoid each other. On any given day, they will cross each other’s path at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., where Ollie occupies the office of University of Connecticut head basketball coach.
The office was used by only one other man: Calhoun, the Hall of Famer who built UConn basketball into a national powerhouse.
In his current role as special assistant to the athletic director, Calhoun has a new office not far away from his old one but closer to AD Warde Manuel than Ollie is. It’s a short walk if either one wants to see the other.
“You know Coach Calhoun — we talk about most everything,’’ said Ollie, who is in his second year at the UConn helm. “What play have you seen last night? It’s not all about basketball. Everybody thinks we just sit back and talk about basketball. We talk about family. We talk about all kinds of different things.
“He’s such a well-rounded person. I mean, you could talk about books. You could talk about anything. Coach is an expert at everything, and that’s why I love him.’’
Calhoun is quick to say he loves Ollie like a son, but he is hesitant to be much of a presence around the team. Ollie was very pleased that Calhoun was with the team in Buffalo, where the Huskies advanced in the NCAA Tournament East Region by beating Saint Joseph’s Thursday, though Calhoun was not visible in the arena.
“Louisville, Michigan State, those are the only trips I’ve been on,’’ said Calhoun. “Kevin’s got enough distractions without me being another one. I’m not going to go to a game at Marquette and just add to the distractions. He’s got enough to worry about.
“I go to some practices. If he’s having some problems, he knows he has an ear to listen.’’
There are lots of examples of legendary coaches whose successors have failed. John Wooden hasn’t coached a game at UCLA in over 44 years, yet his legacy still hangs over the program. It took Alabama 25 years to find a football coach worthy of replacing Bear Bryant. For now, Ollie seems unaffected by Calhoun’s legend.
“I could never fill Coach Calhoun’s shoes,’’ he said. “I could never do that, but I could be the best Kevin Ollie I’m going to be. I never went in there like I’m going to fill those shoes and try to be Coach Calhoun. I’ve got to be Kevin Ollie.
“I kind of say it like we’re from the same fabric but we’ve got a different suit. I want to play defense. I want to rebound. I want to be the aggressor on the basketball court.’’
There are differences. Calhoun was a scowling, stomping presence on the sideline, holding a nonstop conversation with his assistants, mostly bemoaning how his team was playing.
Ollie is active in a different way. He rarely stays seated, but there are fewer moments of disapproval. It’s the inner Ollie that is like Calhoun.
“I’d be kind of naive if I didn’t tap into those 40 years of being a head coach,’’ he said. “You know, I have Dee Rowe [UConn coach, 1969-77] at my disposal. I also have Geno [Auriemma, women’s coach] at my disposal. So I’d be kind of naive if I didn’t take something from all those great coaches.
“But Coach Calhoun is like a father figure to me. He allowed me a great opportunity to perform at a high level in college, and then also picking me to become an assistant four years ago. If it wasn’t for him giving me these opportunities, I wouldn’t be here today.”
He’s proving himself game by game, and with each win, he’ll separate himself a little more from the legend. A complete separation is going take time and probably would have to include a national championship.
But as his old boss would tell him, take it one game at a time, and that means beating Villanova Saturday for his second NCAA Tournament win.