Dom Amore: Kevin Ollie got his victory, now UConn must self-examine and repair the damage

·7 min read
Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant/TNS

Through four bitter years of legal warfare it became hard to imagine anyone emerging a winner from all that mudslinging. But arbitrator Mark Irvings’ decision Thursday gave more than 11 million reasons to raise Kevin Ollie’s arm in triumph.

If this is solely about money, it was K.O. by TKO; he got every nickel he was seeking, $11.1 million. If it’s about principle, Ollie won by upholding the idea that contracts, like facts, are stubborn things, and for this you can bet there are sighs of relief among his former coaching colleagues, at UConn and beyond, who wondered if the same strategy could one day be applied to them.

If it’s about “clearing his name,” which was Ollie’s stated mission, it is not so clear cut. There is still a show-cause order from the NCAA, which found that Ollie provided “false and misleading information” to its investigators, and batch of minor infractions that may not indicate a will to cheat, but rather a lack of attention to detail in running his program.

These things don’t look good on a resume, but then again, how many coaches are available that have a men’s basketball national championship on their resume? Ollie, 49, is young enough to relaunch a college career, and deserves a second chance somewhere if he wants it, or to launch an NBA career as an assistant if his gig with Overtime Elite doesn’t work out.

Meanwhile, UConn Athletics, already operating with a $47 million deficit, takes an immediate $11 million hit and comes out with enough egg on its face to supply the dining hall for three months. The damage extends to its relationships with important alumni, such as Ray Allen, over the treatment of one of their own. When the new president is named, he or she will have to ask some hard questions of the department’s leadership, including AD David Benedict and the legal team.

With coaches belonging to the professors’ union at UConn, Ollie had a not-so-secret weapon, a collective bargaining agreement to be considered alongside his personal contract. Coaches have the protection of union employees without the salary constraints, which may not be fair, but it’s fact. What the NCAA defines as a “level one” violation means nothing in this forum, where the standard for just cause is gross misconduct.

Irvings, in his 69-page decision, picked UConn’s argument apart, showed that Ollie was treated differently from other coaches who had committed infractions. For me, the case came down to this: Could anyone look at a judge or arbiter with a straight face and say that Ollie would have been fired for these infractions if UConn were winning in 2018?

By his contract, Ollie could be fired for just cause if NCAA sanctions were incurred on his watch, and the university made clear when he was hired that they did not want a repeat of what had occurred under Jim Calhoun. But UConn’s leaders initiated proceedings to fire Ollie 16 months before the NCAA handed down its findings, which indicates they were intent on firing him regardless of whether there were sanctions or not.

So there was a double standard, all right: winning vs. losing.

Four years removed from the championship Ollie won in 2014, the program had fallen hard and far — two straight losing seasons, UConn’s first such stretch in 30 years. In today’s college basketball climate, that means a coaching change is in order, no argument there. But when you fire a coach on that basis, you pay off his contract. That’s the cost of doing business. UConn might have tried to put Ollie on administrative leave until the NCAA made its ruling or, better yet, negotiated a separation agreement during the two- or -three-day window between the end of that season and the approach to current coach Dan Hurley.

It takes two to tango, maybe Ollie wanted no part of any buyout. However it came down during those crucial days in early March of 2018, any chance for the amicable, dignified separation that would have been better for everyone was lost. Benedict and then-president Susan Herbst either got bad advice about the risks of trying to void a contract in winner-take-all arbitration, or didn’t listen to sound advice.

No sports executive, a college AD or a pro GM, gets it right all the time. Benedict, in six years on the job, has gotten shovels in the ground and buildings built. He has looked slicker than a Vegas card counter in getting UConn out of the American Conference, into the Big East and assembling an interesting schedule for independent FBS football. He did what it took to land Hurley, the hottest commodity on the coaching market, and getting Jim Mora, a far more accomplished football coach than anyone dreamed possible for UConn, has the look of a coup so far. Guiding UConn through the pandemic has taken diligence and common sense and Benedict has done as well as anyone could have expected.

At other times, he’s looked ham-handed. Some problems he inherited. The most recent budgetary problems could be written off in part to the unexpected costs of the pandemic, but in his attempt to reduce the deficit and reliance on the university subsidy, he cut sports, notably women’s rowing, without working correctly through the Title IX ramifications. The resulting lawsuit, settled in December, has compelled UConn to reinstate the program, add scholarships, upgrade facilities and accept an audit of the entire program for Title IX compliance, which is so ironic for a school with such a rich tradition in women’s sports.

As the Ollie case shows, Benedict has tripped most often on the barbed wire of coaching extensions. It can be a no-win for ADs; if you don’t extend a coach’s contract it may hamper recruiting, but when you do it puts the school on the hook. Benedict extended Bob Diaco based on one .500 regular season and a loss in a minor bowl game and ended up firing him a year later to the tune of more than $5 million. Then, without much of a search, he gave Randy Edsall a second shot at UConn football, with little on Edsall’s track record to justify it.

In 2016 Ollie was coming off a 25-win season, a second NCAA Tournament appearance and had a top-rated recruiting class coming in. With rumors always swirling about his going to the NBA, it made some sense to lock him up long term at more than $3 million per year.

But unlike Power 5 schools, UConn doesn’t have the unlimited funds to pay off coaches, so it can’t apply the same standards for extending contracts. Sometimes, the AD just has to say no, or at least wait and see, no matter who the coach is. Edsall, despite a 6-30 record, also got an extension in 2020 and coached all of two more games, retiring with his full $1.2 million salary for 2021. So far, there has been no reason to regret locking up Hurley through 2027, with the men’s program returning to the tournament last year and 12-4 this season, but as we saw with Ollie, things can change in a hurry.

The good news is that the Ollie-UConn war can finally end. UConn, reviewing its options, could try to “vacate” the settlement in court, but experts say that’s a long shot, and the university would have to pay interest on that $11 million if it doesn’t win.

So what comes next should be the healing. Two years from now, UConn will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 2014 national championship. On that day, Kevin Ollie should walk back onto the court at Gampel Pavilion, joining Shabazz Napier and company, and be inducted into the Huskies of Honor, laying to rest the war that should never have been fought.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com