UConn moves on, but Ollie will be paid

Kevin Ollie has been treated shabbily by the university that he described in a statement as “my home and my family since I was 18 years of age.”

Ollie played under Coach Jim Calhoun from 1991-1995, then spent 13 seasons in the NBA. In 2012 he took over the University of Connecticut men’s program, succeeding Calhoun. In his second year, Ollie led the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team to a national championship no one saw coming.

Two weeks ago the university fired Ollie, stating it was doing so for “just cause,” suggesting that the coach was guilty of some serious misconduct that breached the terms of his contract.

This small fig leaf was an attempt to cover up the real reason the administration showed Ollie the door — his team has not been winning as of late. The Huskies finished 16-17 last year, 14-18 this past season.

The “just cause” claim is a negotiating ploy. If confirmed, just cause would allow UConn to escape the $10 million the university will otherwise owe Ollie for removing him as coach before his contract expires in 2021. UConn signed Ollie to that long-term contract in 2016, hoping to lock up what was then a red-hot, young coaching prospect other programs coveted.

It is unlikely that university officials think they can make the just cause claim stick, but instead are betting it will be a bargaining chip that could get Ollie to settle for less. As noted, it’s all sort of shabby.

The just cause argument is likely tied to an NCAA investigation of rule breaking by the men’s program, reportedly tied to impermissible summer workouts. That seems like small potatoes next to the ongoing FBI probe and NCAA investigations that have involved fraud, payouts, cars and prostitutes at other large-scale men’s basketball programs.

And they’re underdone potatoes. The investigation is not complete.

In Ollie’s favor, the team’s academic standing improved dramatically during his tenure.

Perhaps UConn panicked. The university has become closely associated with the success of its women’s and men’s basketball programs, the latter being the bigger revenue generator. Successful athletic programs provide prestige that spills over to the academic side, attracting higher level applicants.

But losing can quickly sour the elite athletes of any interest in UConn. In the modern game, the top men stars coming out of high school and AAU programs want the bright lights of a successful college powerhouse to gain them the kind of attention that translates a year of playing college ball, or maybe two, into big NBA contracts.

Adding to UConn’s recruiting challenge is its participation in the nondescript American Athletic Conference, a product of its having tried to create a major football program. It ain’t no Big East, that’s for sure.

It seems with attendance down and interest waning, UConn officials feared the glory days were fast slipping away, driving them to act. Yet one wonders if UConn Athletic Director David Benedict and university President Susan Herbst had given Ollie one more year to try to turn things around, he would have acquiesced to a far more favorable buyout if he failed.

Ollie stands to be paid; it is a matter of how much. Not only does he have the contract, he is a member of the American Association of University Professors, which will assist in his defense. Under that arrangement, he is technically “suspended with pay, pending his right to a hearing.”

A prolonged dispute could lead to arbitration, with the arbiter forced to decide for one side or the other. Such a winner-take-all scenario could ultimately drive a settlement.

If UConn does have to pay — be it $10 million or something less — where does the money come from? State legislators have made it clear they won’t be ponying up any cash. And given state cuts, the university has been crying poverty. Somehow, UConn will find the money. Bob Diaco left with $5.3 million when fired as the football coach in 2016. Maybe the university can tap some deep-pocket boosters to help save the program.

And there is the overriding absurdity that these coaches make this much, becoming the highest paid employees in their respective states, often by far. But it’s what the market bears.

Meanwhile, UConn searches for Ollie’s successor. On Tuesday, University of Rhode Island Coach Dan Hurley emerged as the leading candidate. Hurley can only get out of his URI contract if a $1.5 million buyout clause is paid.

And it won’t be Hurley paying it.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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