WASHINGTON – You’re a UConn fan, you can’t get enough of Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma, right?
… Didn’t think so.
So I went back to the tape and transcribed their input during the panel discussion at the Pentagon on Thursday. There’s a lot here, some of it you’ve heard before, perhaps, but it’s illuminating of their philosophical moorings – how they coach, how they motivate, how they did what they just did, bringing NCAA trophies back to Storrs.
I’ve included some of the banter with other coaches on the panel, where it made sense in this format, but for the most part, this is just Geno and K.O., cutting it loose for about 400 military personnel in the auditorium, and soldiers and sailors throughout the world listening in.
Think you’ll find some fascinating stuff here. …
Geno Auriemma on challenges of leadership:
“The last five or six years, I’ve really embraced the idea that I can’t control what I can’t control. That there are things I can spend a lot of time on, I can prepare my players, work as hard as we can to be ready to do certain things, but when it’s time to perform, I really can’t control the outcome. When I first started coaching, I really thought that I could control all the actions of all the players to get the desired result. And I’ve realized now that you really can’t do that. The only thing you can control is how well you train your players to handle that moment, and then you trust that they perform under that kind of pressure.”
Jim Boeheim’s response: “… It took Geno the last five years, it means the first 25 he didn’t know what the hell he was doing.”
“Leadership for me is two-fold. It’s either I’m liked or I’m respected. In this room, a lot of people want to be liked, but I look at my players and I look at myself and I want to be respected. Each and every day I want to challenge everybody around me. I also want to do an evaluation of myself. Look in the mirror and ask, ‘am I doing the best things I can do to lead my basketball team, lead my family, do the different things that make a difference.’ A lot of people come around and say ‘someday I want to be a leader.’ Someday never exists, it’s either you’re going do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it’s never no ‘someday.’ I want people to understand that and value leadership.
“ … I want to be respected. I’m not always liked, as a coach, I’m not a wedding planner, I’m a coach. Some players and parents are not going to like me because of some of the decisions I have to make, but I make those decisions for the best of the University of Connecticut and also my players and also my coaching staff. You can’t do it alone, it’s your coaching staff, it’s your players. I coach them, but they also coach me. They coach me on difference ways to make them better. I’m trying to be better each and every day and leadership is a big thing that I put in the forefront of my life on a day to day basis.”
Ollie on ‘being himself.’
“… I had a lot of pressure. Everybody was asking, ‘How can you lead and follow after the great Jim Calhoun that pretty much put UConn on the map in men’s basketball?’ I always told myself, ‘I have to be the best Kevin Ollie.’ I can’t be coach Calhoun, I can’t be coach Auriemma, I can’t be Jim Boeheim. I can be the best Kevin Ollie. I try to walk in my shadow and have my own path and also keep coach Calhoun involved also, respect him, too. I think that’s what great leaders do. I can see higher on shoulders of giants and I have some great giants around me each and every day that I can pull from and that’s what I try to do on a day-to-day basis.”
On dealing with the turnover in college basketball:
Geno: “I don’t have that problem. All my guys stay four years, they come as freshman and go as seniors …”
Boeheim: “Because they love you is not why they stay four years, they have no other opportunities …
Geno: “I don’t sit there on the bench and whine about my players. My players stay – they can’t wait to leave at some other places….”
Tom Izzo on UConn:
“President Obama picked us [to win the championship]. I told him it was Kevin [Ollie’s fault]. Don’t chew me out for ruining your bracket.”
“I looked a Kevin’s team, and what I told my guys when we got back, ‘we got beat by a team.’ If you ask me, Shabazz [Napier] was a guy who willed his way, he willed it on his opponents, he willed it on his other players. I watched him demanding of players on his own team. For a coach, that’s Utopia. Unfortunately, I think I’ve had about three leaders like that in the last 14 years. They don’t come along all the time.”
“Shabazz, the luxury I had with him, he’s matured so much over his four years. It wasn’t the same guy at Madison Square Garden or the Final Four in Texas that he was four years ago, so it was a process. We allowed him to grow.
“The main thing we did, we challenged him each and every day. At the end of every one of our practices, we have a thing called a ‘challenge circle.’ We all get around the Husky and the basketball, we call ‘the cake.’ I have the cake first, and I throw it to one of the guys and they catch it and then they have to challenge another player. It could be on a number of things, it could be, ‘you’re not rebounding well … you have to box out a little bit better … you have to run the court a little bit better.’ We create that environment where we’re all challenging each other to get better.
“… And I think that allowed Shabazz to challenge Ryan Boatright in front of 79,000 people [at the Final Four]. And I’m, over there like, ‘oh, man, my two point guards are about to fight.’ I’m saying ‘please don’t do this in front of 79,000 people.’ But they had that environment where they challenge each other, each and every day. We have a strengthen-the-string meeting. There’s always slack in the string, but if you come together you can strengthen that string each and every day and you pull up the slack of your other teammates, that’s what makes it better. Shabazz did a great job….
“It all starts when they’re first coming in. We have a motto around our team, you have to fit that motto. ‘You don’t change Connecticut, Connecticut changes you.’ You have to buy into that.”
Where the ‘challenge circle’ came from:
“From Dr. [Joe] Carr, a [sports psychologist] that comes by and he teaches us. It’s all about team chemistry, it’s all about challenging one another. I’ve created my own model off that, we continue to do that on a day to day basis.
“… It was very hard. The first thing we do when we challenge, we call it, ‘You have to give the sugar first before the hot sauce. ‘ So I have to say something nice first. It’s very hard, but it’s unlocking doors. On a team, you have to be transparent. You’ve got to unlock those doors, those deep mysteries that create friction between you and your team. They have to be unlocked for you to ever go and create a great run, or be a great person in life. You’ve got to unlock those doors. ”
Geno on preparing students, players for life:
“You know, one of the things I use a lot with my team – and it’s appropriate that I’m saying this in front of all of you here and people watching in the building and around the world, wherever the rest of our military is that’s watching this, I pose a question to my players sometimes and I’ll say, ‘if you don’t rotate over and take a charge, your late, the guy scores. If you don’t set a really good screen and we don’t get somebody open, we don’t get a chance to shoot the ball. If you don’t make a really good pass to that guy whose wide open, we don’t get a chance to shoot. … What’s the worse that happens?’ We lose the game. What happens tomorrow morning? You wake up, your friends haven’t disowned you, your parents still love you, you still have your scholarship. So what’s the worst that can happen when you didn’t do the things that we ask you to do in a basketball game?
“I said, ‘there’s kids your age all over the world serving in the military, who, when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, the way they’re supposed to do it, when it’s supposed to be done, it has serious consequences. Not just for them but for their team, for their families. So when you start taking every little thing that you’re supposed to do, as seriously as those kids your age take their jobs in the military, then you understand what passion is, what commitment to detail is, and when your teammate expects you to do something, you do it.’
“When you graduate and you go to work, and the person that you’re responsible to says, ‘I need this on my desk at 9 a.m.,’ you don’t show up at 10 and say ‘because, because,’ … because then you’re fired. So here, see, you can make mistakes, but if you accept making those mistakes because it’s just a game and nothing bad happens, then as you move on the rest of your life and the stakes get higher, things get tougher, the only thing you learned in college is how to make mistakes and how to make excuses. We talk about that almost every day.”
Kevin Ollie was asked about developing a team with players from all over the world, from different backgrounds and cultures:
“It’s UConn first. It’s no differences – race, culture, religion – when you come into that locker room and you’re part of a brotherhood, that we call it, we’re all one. When I first came four years ago as an assistant under Jim Calhoun, we had players from Germany. We have had players from Israel. And we’re all one. We talk to those players like they’re our brothers because we’re tight together, we win together, we lose together. It’s what’s on the front of the jersey, not what’s on the back. Yeah, we might have some different views or religion, but when we bring it in together, as brothers, we’re all one. We learned it over the years and I especially learned it from coach Calhoun, that it’s a special family. Us coaches, we try to talk about basketball a lot but what I’ve learned from Coach is, family. How do you become a better husband, how you can be a better father, how you cross the line of color and gender and you just buy in to one common goal, and the common goal for us is what I just said – us. That’s the common goal. We want our guys to win together. But at the end of the day we have to have a hope and a vision to go forward.
“… What got us over the hump this year, we lost some tough games and actually I took the guys over to AT&T Stadium in January when we lost two games and I said, ‘guys, we’re going to be back here.’ Guys probably looked at me like I was crazy but I believed it. And that’s what leaders do. They’re dealers of hope, and I wanted to give my guys hope that we’ll be back here and Thank God that we did. It was a great ride, and we just bring everybody in the fold. It’s been a great ride for us, we have great European players that came over, but they are all brothers and we’re fighting one battle.”
On preparing for ‘crunch time:’
K.O.: “We do a lot of competitive drills in our practices. We shoot a lot of free throws and it paid off big time. … We got one drill we call the ‘Nash drill,’ you’ve got to make 17 free throws in a minutes, and just fire away. You’ve got to make 17 of them and if you don’t, you’ve got to run. Winners and losers, you got to sprint. Just making it a competitive environment, where every possession counts, every cut counts, every screen counts. For me to keep calm in front of 79,000 people, I looked at the spirit of the team. It’s not all about the scoreboard. The Florida game, out first Final Four game, we were down 16-4 and I was like, ‘oh, no.’ I looked at Ryan Boatright and he was like, ‘coach, we got it.’ I looked at Shabazz, and all five of the guys on the court, and their spirit was connected. So no matter that we were down 16-4, I knew their spirit was connected, and I felt better. If your spirit is not connected and you’re worried about other effects that are outside the basketball game, that’s what’ s going to bring the team down. I looked at the spirit of our team and how we were connected as one and that’s how I was a little calmer in those situations and our players are calmer in those situations.”
Geno: “We work really hard the first 39 minutes to make sure we’re up 20 with a minute left, and then you don’t have to worry about all that other crap. … You know, one thing we try to do is find out what the competitive spirit, competitive nature of our team is, and I know all the coaches in America do it. If you’re working on defense you might have five guys playing offense four guys playing defense, then maybe you throw in another player and now it’s four against six, and you get to see whether your players embrace it or whether they fight it, like, ‘I don’t want to, this is hard.’ … One of the best teams I ever had, we were working on zone and we got all five guys out there and we put eight offensive players out on the floor, two inside, one high post, corners, wings, so there’s eight guys and they’re flying around everywhere trying to get to all eight of these guys. And you can see, when they did get a couple of stops, the emotion that came through them because what they did was really, really hard to do. So now a week we were playing six against five and they all looked at me like ‘what’s the matter, you don’t think we’re any good, we can’t guard eight any more?’ All of a sudden now, their competitiveness was, ‘I don’t want to play five against six anymore, I want to play five against eight.’ What you try to do as a coach is you put your players in positions where they’re going to fail 90 percent of the time, but that 10 percent of the time that you do it, they know they’ve tried to do something exceptionally difficult and they’ve done it. That is how, I think, we build confidence in our team and when we play five on five, no matter who we’re playing against … plus I’ve got the best players in the country – I will say that before [Boeheim] says it.”
Boeheim: “They win because they don’t want to listen to your crap all the time.”
Ollie: “The biggest thing for me is, I want us to recover. At the end of the day, you’ve got to recover from mistakes, you have to be an open box. I don’t want to put players in a box, but I want them to translate what happens into being great men. If they develop into great basketball players, that’s one thing, but if they leave the Storrs campus better men, then I think I’ve done my job. I don’t want people to look at me as, ‘wins and losses, this is what you are as a coach.’ It’s how my young men are developing in the community once they leave the University of Connecticut, how they’re better husbands, better fathers, and then look on me as a coach and the leader that I’m trying to aspire to be. At the end of the day it’s commitment, and you’re either in or you’re out. There’s no middle road. We’ve got a slogan, in our gym, it’s 10 toes in. You’re either in or you’re out. So if you’re lukewarm, I’m going to spit you out my mouth. I don’t like lukewarm people, I like people who are either in or out. We try to self-evaluate. Lead from the heart and believe in one another, and that’s how we overcome a lot of different things. We won the national championship a couple of months ago, but it started 18 months ago when they said our whole program was collapsing, and those guys believed. We call it ‘even now’ faith. Even in the midst of a storm, I’m going to have faith in my university, I’m going to have faith in myself, I’m going to have faith in my teammates. That’s how we overcame. The confetti dropped down like a month ago, but the confetti dropped down 18 months ago when them guys did not give in and they kept fighting through it and they kept believing through the dark. That’s what I believe in. And that’s how we overcame – it’s the loyalty to the University that we have the opportunity to perform for each and every day. And go to school and have a degree at a great institution.”
Geno’s last word, ‘figure it out:’
“One of the things we talk about a lot is, one of my favorite sayings is, ‘figure it out.’ When I was seven years old, we came to America from Italy … I remember going to school, and there was just a lot of things that, when you don’t speak English, you’re looking at the board, the teacher is writing things on the board and the teacher is speaking … This was 1961, there weren’t any programs, English as a second language, the nuns weren’t saying ‘listen, stay after school and I’m going to personally tutor you and teach you English.’ They just told you in June, all the smart kids are going to third grade, all the dumb kids are staying back in second grade,’ so you better figure out how you’re going to get to third grade. I think sometimes, as coaches up here, our players want too much information. They want to be told everything about how to do things and what could happen in any situation. They want you to tell them how to react in that situation. My big thing is, I’m going to give them just enough information and then say ‘figure it out.’ Because once you learn to figure things out, then no matter what happens down the road, you’ll figure it out. So instead of practicing plays all the time, we practice HOW to play. Because when you get to the Final Four, you’re not going to be able to run your plays, you’re going to have to MAKE plays. So this idea of ‘figure it out,’ gives them a sense of ownership. ‘Yeah, I figured this out, I don’t have to constantly look over at my coaches, should I be able to do this or should I not?’. … I got a freshman on my team. We were running something and she just drives it to the basket and makes a layup. There was a dead ball and she comes over and says, ‘coach, I can take this kid, is it Okay if I do it again?’ Like, ‘no, I don’t want you to shoot layups the rest of the game.’ … So they want approval for everything, they want your Okay to do everything and I just say, ‘figure it out.’ And once you figure it out, you don’t need me. I just don’t tell my AD that they don’t need me …”