Chasing Ghosts: Calhoun looms large, but clouds parting at UConn


Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the college basketball programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series continues with the UConn Huskies, who continue to grapple with a future that doesn't include all-time program icon Jim Calhoun.

History | Roundtable: Can UConn become UConn again?
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John's | North Carolina | Arkansas | NC State | DePaul | Georgetown | Georgia Tech

UConn Huskies

Icon: Jim Calhoun

Seasons coached: 1986-2012
Key accomplishments: 629-245 (.720) record, 18 NCAA tournaments, 4 Final Fours (1999, 2004, 2009, 2011), 3 national titles (1999, 2004, 2011)

"That was the greatest building of a basketball program in intercollegiate sports history. No one took a program and brought it where he took it. He cannot be duplicated." -- former CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer, to USA Today, upon Calhoun's retirement in 2012

"I don't know if you've been around our program but I'm my own man. [Calhoun] has been a great resource for us. He's an ambassador. He built this program. So I'd be a fool not to use him. But at the end of the day I have to make my decision on what I think is best." -- Kevin Ollie in 2014.

"You want to nitpick about how [Kevin Ollie] ran his program, whether he ran afoul of violations or not, they're tertiary violations. So, to continue to talk about it like he was this bad guy and slandering him, we're only slandering ourselves." -- Former UConn star Ray Allen, on Ollie's firing and subsequent lawsuit (New Haven Register, July 2019)

"I continue to root for UConn. I think they got a good coach -- with a chance to be a great coach." -- Jim Calhoun, upon Dan Hurley's March 2018 hiring.

Ranking the Jim Calhoun chasers

2. Dan Hurley (2018-present), 16-17 (.475) -- UConn hired Hurley on the basis of a successful six-season tenure at Rhode Island that saw him reach the NCAA tournament in his final two years. Year 1 at UConn brought just a two-win improvement over the end of the Kevin Ollie regime, but the Huskies undeniably offered a better product, and an early-season win over ex-rival Syracuse offered tangible evidence that the program was on the right track. That said, the biggest win for Hurley came during this offseason, with the announcement that the school would be moving out of the American Athletic Conference and back with many of its former rivals in the Big East, likely in 2020. With at least a partial restoration of its Big East identity, and three ESPN 100 recruits joining the roster this season (James Bouknight, Akok Akok, Jalen Gaffney), the arrow is pointing way up for Hurley's version of the UConn program.

1. Kevin Ollie (2012-18), 127-79 (.617), 2 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four (2014), 1 National Title (2014) -- The Ollie era at UConn was a roller coaster -- and ended up being a rather short ride. The former UConn star and NBA journeyman was elevated to the top role (at Calhoun's suggestion) when Calhoun retired on the eve of the 2012-13 season, and was essentially handed a one-year "prove it" deal to determine whether he was a fit. Ollie went 20-10 in Year 1 (the Huskies were banned from the postseason due to poor APR scores during the Calhoun era), and by the end of that season had already impressed AD Warde Manuel enough to receive a new five-year contract. That's when things got crazy in Storrs.

Ollie went out and won the national title in his second season, with the Shabazz Napier-led Huskies storming through the field as a No. 7 seed and helping alleviate lingering worries over a) Ollie's qualifications to succeed Calhoun, and b) UConn's ability to remain a national power after its forced move from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference. With NBA teams expected to show offseason interest in hiring Ollie, the school made a preemptive move to keep him in place, handing him a new five-year deal that included a reported $16 million in guaranteed money. (The school gave him a reported $17.9 million contract extension, in a deal running through 2021, during the 2016-17 season).

But UConn would miss the NCAA tournament in three of the next four seasons, and it probably would have been 0-for-4 were it not for a 70-foot Jalen Adams miracle that saved the Huskies in the 2016 AAC tournament.

Things reached a nadir for Ollie in 2017-18, when a 14-18 season, an ESPN report calling the program's direction under Ollie into question and an NCAA inquiry into recruiting violations under Ollie converged to end his tenure less than four years after he'd lifted the NCAA championship trophy. To complicate matters, UConn said it was firing Ollie for cause due to the violations (which were arguably innocuous, especially in this era of FBI probes), with the NCAA investigation provided as justification for the university to avoid paying the $10 million-plus balance on his contract. Ollie sued the school in an effort to recoup the remaining money, as part of litigation that is ongoing. He also filed a lawsuit in April accusing former assistant Glen Miller of slander in connection with his cooperation with the NCAA investigation.

Roundtable: Can UConn become UConn again?

UConn had four NCAA tournament wins in its history when Jim Calhoun took over in 1986. Now it has four national titles, largely because of what Calhoun built. Can the Huskies become a consistent national factor again without Jim Calhoun on the bench?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Yes. That's the simple answer. But Calhoun constructed his teams in a different climate. The school's 18 first-round picks, per Real GM, all played for Calhoun. And only Andre Drummond bolted after a year. Calhoun not only attracted NBA talent to Storrs, but those players stuck around. You can build consistent contenders when you have Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor and Kemba Walker for multiple seasons. I think Dan Hurley can recruit players of the same ilk, guys who might not come to college basketball with that just-add-water game but players who will eventually develop into next-level talents.

But you can't do what Calhoun did. That was special. Hurley has to follow the Villanova plan by luring mature prospects with high ceilings to campus. The Huskies have the brand, the facilities and, in the coming years, the league to become a factor on the national scene. But I don't think we'll ever see another run at UConn like the one Calhoun manufactured during his reign.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: The Big East gives them more of a chance, but I think four national championships in 16 years is probably unattainable for as long as college basketball exists. What Calhoun did was unparalleled and likely won't be seen again at this level. But unlike some of the other programs we've discussed in this series, it wasn't that long ago that UConn was a March factor every season.

The Huskies have won two national championships and been to three Final Fours in the past 10 years. The last two years of Kevin Ollie's tenure were poor and Hurley struggled during his first season in Storrs, but I don't think things are too far gone for UConn as a program. Hurley is an outstanding coach who turned around two programs prior to coming to UConn -- but it didn't happen overnight at either Wagner or Rhode Island. He needs more time.

I do think the attention UConn's move to the Big East generated on a national scale shows that this is a program that still resonates nationally, that still has plenty of cachet built up in college basketball.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: Yes, Connecticut can and should be a consistent player on the national scene. But to do so, the recruiting net has to widen as it did during Jim Calhoun's best days of program-building. Think about the pillars of Calhoun's success -- from Nadav Henefeld (Israel) through the likes of Ray Allen (South Carolina), Emeka Okafor (Houston), Khalid-El Amin (Minneapolis) and Kevin Ollie (Los Angeles) -- when UConn was able to consistently supplement its core with stars outside the traditional Big East footprint. The Huskies will need that and more as they return to the Big East, especially given the league's lessened geographical and television reach.

You are former UConn AD Warde Manuel, and we've equipped you with a time machine to return to the spring of 2014, just after Kevin Ollie led UConn to the national title. Knowing what you know now, do you let Ollie walk to the NBA? Do you try to keep him on, but with a lower-risk contract to the university? Or do you make the same deal you did then, and try to help navigate him around the landmines that were his undoing at UConn?

Borzello: I think Warde Manuel had to keep Ollie after the national title run. This is a program that was in a state of disarray the previous couple years. Calhoun retiring two months before the 2012-13 season, a postseason ban, academic issues throughout the program -- resulting in yet another national championship in 2014. I think it would have been difficult for the Huskies to just allow Ollie to leave Storrs for the NBA after what he did to turn things around. Shabazz Napier carrying Ollie to a title and a payday is no different than any other number of star players to make enormous March runs that ultimately improved the narrative surrounding their head coach.

Now, there is an argument to be made that Manuel didn't have to give Ollie that big a contract, and there is definitely an argument to be made that David Benedict didn't have to give Ollie a raise and extension in the fall of 2016. The contracts ended up looking like an albatross for the athletic department, but recent developments make it seem like UConn might be off the hook anyway.

Lunardi: UConn reacted to Ollie's early (and very unexpected) success the same way pretty much any school would. The number of onerous contracts in high major basketball and football is about the same as the number of schools playing those sports. The difference has been Connecticut's "creative" manner of escaping its obligations, combined with Manuel's escape from Storrs. The alternate scenario -- no fourth NCAA title and a shorter, unsuccessful tenure for Ollie -- is something we can assume the Huskies would not have preferred.

Medcalf: After the 2014 national title game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, I stood on the floor as Manuel celebrated with Ollie and others. A variety of great players (Ray Allen, Khalid El-Amin, Richard Hamilton, Charlie Villanueva) who'd worn a UConn uniform basked in that moment with Ollie and his team that night. It felt like a homecoming. Ollie had not only led the Huskies through the drama that punctuated the end of Calhoun's tenure -- he'd proved that UConn could win big without the iconic leader on the bench.

In that moment, Ollie seemed like the guy you had to keep if you're Manuel. Ollie took the job when the Huskies were on probation and there he was, a year after serving as interim coach, winning the whole thing. It's not even a question. No need for a time machine. Manuel wouldn't change a thing.

The move back to the Big East is not without its drawbacks (see: the marginalization of a football program the school could never quite get to happen), but on the surface it seems like a natural. What are the implications for the basketball program? Is this move going to turn UConn back into UConn?

Lunardi: What the move signals to me is that football, which drives the bus at pretty much every major athletic program, finally lost the power struggle at UConn. Those of us who care more about major college basketball and who were weaned on the Big East could not be happier (and don't really care about Connecticut football). The Huskies were in the right place at the right time when the Big East decided it wanted a 20-game, round-robin schedule. No more longing for an ACC or other unlikely Power 5 invite. The Huskies are home and should be an NCAA tournament regular again.

Medcalf: I'm not sure if it will guarantee anything for the Huskies, but the Big East feels like an appropriate home that's equipped with the logistical advantages in a rich recruiting market. I mean, they just built new football locker rooms and the football team doesn't even have a home for the 2020 season. That's how strong the Big East brand is for UConn.

The Big East makes sense. It's a familiar pairing. The American produced some solid competition but few casual fans could name most members of the league. Meanwhile, the Big East is rolling right now and it's led by schools that matter on the East Coast. This seems like a complete win for basketball and it makes Hurley's job easier when he's making the pitch to prospects within the region.

Borzello: The Huskies' identity during its rise was synonymous with the Big East. Rivalries within the league, the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, Ray Allen, Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker, all of that just screams Big East. And so I think with the Huskies moving back to the league, it gives them some of that identity back. With that comes a greater connection from the fan base, especially the older segments of the fan base who associate UConn with Calhoun more so than the last few years.

In terms of on-court impact, as Myron notes, I think its greatest consequence will be on the recruiting front. Calhoun strongly recruited the Northeast and D.C. areas -- especially New York -- during the Huskies' run, while also keeping some New England prep school kids home. All of that is in the heart of the Big East. And if you told a top-100 kid from New York he could play against Wichita State and Cincinnati and SMU or he could play against St. John's and Villanova and Georgetown, it's not hard to figure out which he would pick. And that's not a competitive slight to those American schools, it's more a geographic thing. Prospects from these areas can now play way more games within easy driving distance, in front of family and friends. It's a better recruiting pitch for Hurley. In Ollie's last few years, UConn simply wasn't getting good enough players. If the Huskies can turn the talent level around, getting back to being UConn is within reach.

Dan Hurley is a good coach with a lot of passion, but it's worth a reminder here that getting Rhode Island back to the top of its conference was a slow, five-year build for Hurley. Is the UConn rebuild going to be harder or easier for Hurley? How long do you expect it to take?

Medcalf: The UConn rebuild will be harder because the expectations are different. Plus, the Big East move will magnify those expectations. And this is a team that's missed the NCAA tournament for three consecutive seasons. Yes, Hurley has some talented prospects on the way. But if the Huskies play in the Big East for the 2020-21 season, they'll likely enter the league's gauntlet with those young players. So I think 2021-22 is the year where we'll look back and say Hurley finally broke through.

Lunardi: All due respect to Rhode Island, but Hurley wasn't selling four NCAA titles and the overall UConn legacy in Kingston. He's going to get good players, they're going to play hard, and Hurley will be a thorn in the side of his new Big East brethren. The move back to the Big East is also a return to roots for Hurley, who managed a 1,000-point career of his own at Seton Hall. UConn can be a bubble team as quickly as this coming March, and a Bracketology fixture after that.

Borzello: Rhode Island didn't make the NCAA tournament until Hurley's fifth year at the helm, but the Rams did win 23 games in his third year and were on an upward trajectory heading into Year 4 until star guard EC Matthews suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the season opener. So I think that severely stifled the rebuild.

That was a program that hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1999. UConn wasn't and isn't in as bad shape as Rhode Island, but the talent level in Storrs just wasn't very good when Ollie left. I think the 2020-21 season will be the year UConn is expected to get back to the NCAA tournament. Hurley is bringing in three ESPN 100 recruits this season in guards Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight and big man Akok Akok, who enrolled in January. High-scoring transfer RJ Cole is sitting out next season. The Huskies are involved with a number of talented 2020 prospects, and there's only one senior on the roster. If the Huskies are still struggling come 2021 or 2022, something will have gone very wrong in Storrs.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: Houston