There was a time – and it lasted for 15 years – when UConn’s men’s basketball program was considered one of the nation’s elite.
You don’t win four national championships from 1999-2014, on a campus where the cows literally come home at dusk, without a special dynamic that draws top-ranked recruits from coast-to-coast.
But it’s been a major struggle since Kevin Ollie took over for Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun in 2013 and won a national title (32-8) with his mentor’s players the following spring.
The Huskies have become a national afterthought since the breakup of the original Big East sent the athletic department hurtling into the American Athletic Conference, a hybrid league that frankly spends most of its time crying for attention.
Perhaps the biggest problem has been internal, allegations of NCAA improprieties under Ollie, that have finally come to roost.
On Tuesday, the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions placed the Huskies’ on probation for two years and gave Ollie a three-year show-cause order for failing to monitor his staff, not promoting an atmosphere of compliance and allegedly providing false or misleading statements to investigators.
In its effort to elaborate, the committee said the violations resulted from pickup games exceeding preseason countable athletically related activity limits, a video coordinator counting as a coach and resulting in more than the allowable number of coaches, and a booster providing extra benefits to student-athletes.
“This case illustrates the importance of full candor and cooperation in the infractions process, as well as head coach control,” the NCAA committee said in its decision. “The former head coach faltered in both respects, increasing the severity of his violations and allowing violations within the program to occur for most of his tenure.”
Ollie’s attorney, Jacques J. Parenteau, immediately struck back.
“We are disappointed with the NCAA Committee on Infractions decision but not surprised that the Committee acted to support its member institution in the dispute between the University of Connecticut and Kevin Ollie where more than $11 million is at stake,” Parenteau said in a statement. “The NCAA failed to allow Kevin Ollie due process in the pre-hearing investigation by not providing his counsel the opportunity to interview key witnesses against him, including the associate head coach, the strength and conditioning coach and a key student athlete.”
Ollie is no longer UConn’s coach. He was fired by the university after the 2017-18 season and replaced by Danny Hurley, who led the Huskies to a 16-17 record in his first year. Ollie and the university have been locked in a court battle over the remaining $10 million on his deal. Ollie says he’s entitled to it. The university disagrees.
You would think this judgment by the NCAA will go a long way in adjudicating the tense case which has hamstrung the struggling program.
According to the NCAA’s documentation, here are the most egregious allegations:
- Former men’s basketball student managers attended preseason pickup games played by student-athletes. According to the NCAA, the pickup games became countable athletically related activity when the managers attended the games, kept statistics and regularly printed, copied and distributed them to coaches.
The NCAA says Ollie knew this was happening and didn’t report them to the compliance staff or ask if they were permissible. He also failed to monitor the managers’ actions to ensure the games followed NCAA rules.
- The program’s former video coordinator reviewed plays with and answered questions for student-athletes on and off the basketball court. The NCAA feels the instruction exceeded the responsibilities of the video coordinator’s position, causing him to essentially be considered a coach and the program to exceed its countable coaches limit.
- Trainer Derek Hamilton, who was Ollie’s friend and became a university booster, provided free on- and off-campus training sessions to three UConn players.
While at the off-campus training sessions, the trainer also provided free lodging, meals, transportation and access to a private gym. The committee says impermissible benefits resulted in the student-athletes competing while ineligible.
The NCAA said Ollie lied about his players training with the trainer. Last year, Hamilton told ESPN he didn’t tell Ollie about it because the players didn’t want him to know.
What’s more, the NCAA also found several Level III violations – improper video calls between former Huskies Ray Allen and Rudy Gay and a top recruit. Again, Ollie apparently lied about this, as well, in interviews with the school and NCAA.
“Failing to give the enforcement staff truthful information significantly harms its ability to conduct a thorough and timely investigation,” the committee’s report said. “The conduct was contrary to the standards of ethical conduct that the membership expects of athletics staff entrusted to set an example for student-athletes.”
The show-cause order has potentially damaging implications for Ollie, in terms of continuing his college coaching career. Any school that hires him is obligated to restrict him from athletically related duties, unless it shows cause why the restrictions should not apply.
UConn is looking at this judgment as the first step in getting its program back in step with the nation’s other powers. It came just a few days after the university announced it was returning to the Big East for basketball. It was one of the renown league’s original members and played there from 1979-2013 at which point the conference’s Catholic schools split off from its football-playing partners.
The move is something most alumni have been in favor of for years. Although the conference is not the same – Syracuse, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Boston College, and Pittsburgh have left – it will allow the Huskies to rekindle important rivalries with Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall that helped fill Hartford’s XL Center for decades.
In New York last week, Hurley told reporters how thrilled he was about being able to pitch recruits about being able to play in places like Madison Square Garden again on a regular basis.
“Because of where we want to recruit and how we want to build it, the thing that we had to talk around to a kid from Brooklyn was, you know, Tulsa, Tulane, the Texas schools,” he said. “That didn’t necessarily fit what they envisioned in college — Madison Square Garden, the Big East Tournament, Villanova.”
There is no indication as yet when UConn will formerly rejoin the Big East. All of its Olympic sports, except men’s and women’s hockey and field hockey, will compete in the AAC in 2019-20.
“It’s got to be an us-against-the-world mentality, because I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of love lost for us in this league this year, both with fans and with everything associated with the league,” Hurley said. “For me, I thrive on that. I can’t wait for it. And these guys are also going to have to kind of enjoy being the villain.”