March Madness: From Leading Men To Journeymen (And Back)

UConn head coach Kevin Ollie has pointed the Huskies to their first Sweet 16 appearance since the team won the national championship in 2011. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie has pointed the Huskies to their first Sweet 16 appearance since the team won the national championship in 2011. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

–by Adesina O. Koiki

The last time Kevin Ollie and Fred Hoiberg competed for the same prize, it was for one available scholarship to the University of Arizona back in early 1990s. Neither of them made it to Tucson, eventually deciding to play their college ball at the schools they now lead as head coaches.

But when Connecticut and Iowa State square off tomorrow on the floor of Madison Square Garden in the Sweet 16 in the East Region, the two coaches know that one of them will achieve the prize of being one step away from the Final Four. Their great friendship, however, will make any outcome for each a bittersweet one.

From those days as prep stars, Ollie and Hoiberg have maintained a friendship that’s nothing short of brotherly, especially from their paralleling days as being journeymen in the NBA, including as teammates for one season in the pros. For Ollie, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the man they call “The Mayor” is their near inseparable bond.

“First of all, Fred is a great friend of mine,” Ollie stated at the beginning of the press conference on practice day. “I had an opportunity to play with him at the Chicago Bulls and just one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever been around. Personable, and would do anything for his teammates.”

Hoiberg, speaking after Ollie, was just as effusive talking about his opposite number.

“Anytime you get to share this experience with somebody you’re very close with, I think it makes it special,” Hoiberg added. “Kevin is as good a person as there is in this business. I think that everybody that knows him, you’re not going to find one person say anything bad about him.”

Both entered the NBA in 1995; Ollie played 13 seasons for 10 different NBA teams while Hoiberg spent 10 seasons in the league with three teams. While neither had a standout professional career, what most people inside the locker room and out remember about both is their professionalism and knowledge of the game. (Being able to stick around a decade in the rigors that the NBA consistently metes out speaks to that.) Following 2005 heart surgery and a brief comeback attempt as a player, Hoiberg retired from the NBA at the end of the 2006 season while a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Almost immediately, he took a job in their front office as assistant general manager, eventually becoming Minnesota’s general manager in 2009. After making the transition to being GM, Hoiberg did not take long to think about Ollie, who still was plying his trade as a player.

In his last NBA season (2004-05), Hoiberg led the NBA in three-point percentage, at 48.3%. (David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images)
In his last NBA season (2005), Hoiberg led the NBA in 3-point percentage, at 48.3%. (David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images)

“We (Minnesota) needed a mentor-type guy when I moved on after my surgery into the front office, and the first guy to call was Kevin, because I knew the impact he would have on our young players.” Hoiberg said, who followed up by jokingly stating that Ollie “owes me, because I resurrected his damn career.”

Hoiberg also pointed out the impact Ollie had while a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ollie’s last NBA stop before going into coaching. “I saw an article the other day with [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook and James Harden, just the remarks that they had about Kevin. And how good he is as a mentor-type guy.”

The year 2010 not only marked the end of Ollie’s playing career, but also marked the return of Hoiberg to the hardwood. Hoiberg took over the head coaching reins at his alma mater, where he finished his playing career in Ames in 1995 as the Cyclones’ third all-time leading scorer (1,993 points). Also in 2010, Ollie, who played collegiately under Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun and finished as UConn’s second all-time assist leader with 619 (he now ranks third), rejoined Calhoun on the bench as an assistant coach. Two seasons later, Calhoun stepped down and Ollie took over as head coach of the Huskies. Both Ollie and Hoiberg have used their combined 27 years of NBA experience to shape their teams’ playing styles.

“I had 14 great years in the NBA, 10 as a player and four as a front office executive, and that’s the style I know,” Hoiberg said in explaining his NBA influence on his team. “Even going back to college, [former Iowa State head coach] Johnny Orr’s up-tempo style more related to an NBA style of play.”

Hoiberg continued: “If our team goes out and moves the ball and has great spacing, you’re going to get good looks. That’s kind of what our offense is designed to do, to draw two guys onto one space of the floor and make the proper play. I do see it in Kevin’s team as well.”

Ollie does point out that not everything he ran while an NBA player can translate into success in college.

“It’s always different styles, different athletes,” Ollie stated. “When you go up to the pros, they know how to play basketball. They have been playing basketball their whole life. So to put different sets in is kind of unfair sometimes to the college players because they haven’t been experienced enough to learn different things and just ad lib a little bit.”

Tomorrow’s match-up won’t be the first between Ollie and Hoiberg while wearing suits instead of jerseys and shorts. In the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Hoiberg, coaching in his first NCAA Tournament game, led his Cyclones to a 77-64 win over Connecticut, with Ollie on the sidelines as an assistant in what proved to be Jim Calhoun’s final game as Huskies head coach.

Already knowing tomorrow’s match-up has much more at stake than the game a couple of years ago, Ollie believes it will be much more heart-rendering knowing he has to try and win at the expense of a friend. But do it he must.

“You don’t want Fred to lose, but I don’t want UConn to lose either,” Ollie said. “At the end of the day, we are both competitors, we both love our university, and once we get in those lines, you pretty much don’t have any friends.”

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