ARLINGTON, Texas — As Kevin Ollie waded through ankle-high confetti after Monday night's national title game in search of someone to embrace, one of the Connecticut coach's friends wrapped him in a bear hug and sung the ubiquitous chorus from Drake's hit song "Started From The Bottom."
They were the ideal lyrics for the moment even if the rapper who sings them was rooting for the other team.
UConn's 60-54 upset of Kentucky served as the final step in Ollie's quest to guide the Huskies through the most challenging period in their program's recent history. In two seasons at his alma mater, Ollie navigated UConn through a one-year postseason ban, proved to skeptical fans and administrators he deserved the full-time job and emerged from the shadow of his mentor Jim Calhoun by leading the seventh-seeded Huskies on an improbable title run.
"I'm just trying to keep proving everyone wrong," Ollie said amid the postgame celebration Monday night. "Everyone said our program was going to go down after the sanctions and people left, but we're still here. Somebody the other day called us a Cinderella. We're UConn. UConn is always going to stay here."
It's remarkable Ollie was in a position to gloat just 18 months after being hired because he stepped into a situation in which he was set up to fail.
When UConn promoted Ollie to interim coach in September 2012 after Calhoun announced his retirement, the new coach inherited a program ineligible for the postseason and a roster decimated by early departures. Four of the six best players from the previous year's underachieving team had already either turned pro or transferred and the remaining two were also considering leaving.
That might not have been such a big deal had UConn committed to Ollie for a few years, but athletic director Warde Manuel slapped the interim tag on the new coach because he didn't want to let Calhoun strongarm him into banking on Ollie longterm. As a result, Ollie had to succeed right away against all odds if he was going to earn the full-time job.
"Kevin took over in a really tough spot," former UConn guard Rip Hamilton said. "The toughest thing was coming behind coach Calhoun. He's a legend. There are few guys who compare to him in college basketball. So for Kevin to come behind him and have success, it says a lot about him."
The first thing Ollie did to ensure success was re-recruiting Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright after both standout guards considered turning pro or transferring after Calhoun's retirement. Next Ollie sold his players on a two-year plan, promising them hard work and consistent effort during a postseason ineligible season would be rewarded with a special season the following year.
UConn won 20 games during the 2012-13 season, a remarkable feat given the circumstances even for a program accustomed to competing for championships. The Huskies followed that up this season with a stronger regular season and a brilliant NCAA tournament, springing upsets in their last five games to secure the program's fourth national championship since 1999.
"The biggest thing is that now we've made transition from team to program, Calhoun said. "I've always thought we were there, but this really puts an exclamation point on it. Watching Kevin, the staff and the kids make that transition successfully has been really rewarding."
Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Ollie beat the odds because he did the same throughout his playing career.
He started his final three seasons at point guard in college despite Calhoun initially recruiting over him. He carved out a niche for himself in the NBA as a steady point guard despite going undrafted out of college. And he played 13 NBA seasons despite only once receiving a contract longer than one year.
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That toughness is one of the reasons Calhoun handpicked Ollie as his successor. He knew the former point guard was tenacious enough to persevere through adversity and confident enough not to be intimidated by the shadow cast by a legendary coach hovering around the program on a day-to-day basis.
Ollie made Calhoun look smart this March and he figures to for many years to come.
Once Ollie finished hugging his current and former players on the confetti-covered AT&T Stadium floor and stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference, he did his best to deflect credit to his players for UConn's success.
"Those players that were up here, they should get all the attention because if it wasn't for them, this program wouldn't be here," Ollie said. "They believed in a vision before anyone had seen it. They stuck with it through the down times when we were losing."
UConn's players indeed deserve a ton of credit for the program's magical postseason run. But so too does the coach who led the Huskies from the bottom back to the top.
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