Kevin Ollie liked to have familiar faces around.
He played for UConn from 1991-95, and was an assistant coach from 2010-12, but he had grown up in Los Angeles and had a 13-year career in the NBA, playing for 12 different teams, making a lot of contacts outside the “UConn family” as well as inside it.
Ollie, who led the Huskies for six years, won a national championship in his second season and a conference title in his fourth. But his last two seasons were the program’s first consecutive losing seasons in 30 years. They came as multiple players transferred, and Ollie felt the pressure to recruit top talent while the demand for winning remained high. The coach also made some turnover in staff, turning to past contacts, and this seems to have contributed to trouble with the NCAA, which has been investigating the men’s basketball program for nearly a year.
“I think you get the point,” Ollie told NCAA investigators on March 1. “I try to have people around me that I trust.”
When Ollie succeeded Jim Calhoun, he inherited a staff that included three former head coaches — George Blaney, Glen Miller and Karl Hobbs. He elevated Miller to associate head coach, and hired Ricky Moore, who had played for UConn. With Ollie, Miller, Hobbs and director of administration Kevin Freeman all former Huskies, the perception of a program that stayed within the family was a selling point in recruiting, especially with the 2014 championship. But then came staff turnover and for better or worse, the program became distanced from the Calhoun era and diverted a bit from the concept of staying within the UConn circle both in terms of staff members and those who played other roles.
In the 1,355 pages of documents, including 900 pages of interviews, released by UConn on June 20, pursuant to a Freedom of Information request, investigators delved into the roles and influence of Danny Griffin, who joined UConn in a non-coaching role in 2014; Derrek Hamilton, an outside trainer who is alleged to have worked with players on campus and in Atlanta in 2016; Boo Willingham, a UConn teammate of Ollie who was frequently at games; and others.
In culling the transcripts and documents, a perception emerges of a somewhat loosely managed program, with people engaging in activity — though not necessarily sordid — that constituted NCAA infractions. A recurring theme was Ollie’s gathering of people with coaching ability or aspirations for non-coaching positions, with the temptation to cross lines and engage in activities reserved by rules to certified coaches, perhaps without his knowledge.
UConn is trying to use its own evidence of non-compliance to terminate Ollie’s employment for “just cause,” and avoid paying the more than $10 million remaining on his contract. Barring a settlement, the 5-month-old dispute is heading for arbitration.
However, the NCAA could release findings at any time, and if those findings come before arbitration proceedings and include major violations, it could be a game-changer in UConn’s contract dispute with Ollie.
Though firing Ollie could be considered a significant sanction imposed by the school itself, the NCAA could impose further sanctions down the road, if its findings rise to that level.
The NCAA’s investigation into UConn began last fall, and was acknowledged publicly by the school in January. Before the 2017-18 season began, news broke that an FBI investigation into bribery and fraud in college basketball had snared several schools, affecting Auburn, Arizona, Oklahoma, Southern Cal and Louisville, which fired Rick Pitino.
UConn self-reported that one of its coaches, believed to be Raphael Chillious, had met in Las Vegas with Merl Code and Christian Dawkins, two key figures in the FBI investigation, but concluded no violations had occurred. As urged by the NCAA, UConn conducted an internal review, retaining the law firm of Lightfoot, Franklin and White to do so.
The NCAA investigation into UConn’s recruiting practices, and other issues, was concurrent, but does not appear related to the FBI probe. By the end of the season, the NCAA had conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Ollie, coaches, staffers and players — those transcripts were released by the school — as well as outside sources not included in the released documents.
In its interviews, the NCAA asked a number of questions about players’ activity with Hamilton, the nature of his visits to campus and a workout involving three players in Atlanta. Questions directed to players who were not identified and coaches included specifics on the trip to Atlanta, including how it was paid for, how the players got around and why they were there.
Ollie identified Hamilton as someone he met during his playing days and noted their sons were close friends. But Ollie also told investigators he did not organize the trip. Players told varying accounts with one stating that Hamilton provided some transportation, food and a place to stay.
There were also questions asked about the role of Griffin, who, as director of player development, was to serve as a mentor to players in non-basketball matters. In that role, Griffin was not allowed to be involved in coaching or recruiting, although there were questions about his involvement with recruits from California. Now an assistant coach at Cal State-Northridge, Griffin had ties to the Los Angeles basketball community.
Questions were also asked of, and about, video coordinator Dave Sevush, and whether he had crossed boundaries in helping players understand and execute the playbook. Players spoke of meeting with Sevush for basic understanding or to review video, but were adamant he was not perceived as a coach, nor acting as one.
Willingham, a former UConn player and longtime friend of Ollie — they were teammates and roommates — had been a mentor in Miami to Zach Brown, a player who committed to UConn and later decommitted. The investigators were probing whether Willingham had an improper role in recruitment, presumably of Brown, though student-athletes’ names were redacted. Several players were asked about Willingham, but beyond seeing him at games and quick conversations, none of them said they had much interaction.
There were also questions about Dr. Joe Carr, a sports psychologist hired by Ollie to conduct sessions with the team. Carr and Ollie had a relationship dating back to the NCAA days, and the NCAA questioned his role with at least two recruits.
Wayne Tolson was asked about, as well. Another friend of Ollie, there were questions about Tolson setting up a meeting with a recruit for the purpose of selling injury insurance.
In his dismissal letter to Ollie on March 10, athletic director David Benedict cited three violations: Ollie’s shooting baskets with a recruit, James Akinjo, during an official visit; facilitating a call from Ray Allen, who is a board member of the UConn Foundation and could be considered a “booster,” to a recruit on a visit; alleged improper workouts with Hamilton; and inadequate self-reporting of these violations by Ollie.
In upholding Benedict’s decision to begin disciplinary procedures, UConn president Susan Herbst asserted in a letter to Ollie that the school did not need to wait for the NCAA investigation into potentially more serious infractions to be complete before acting.
Certainly, the most serious allegation to come from the NCAA transcripts were from Miller, who was fired by Ollie following the 2016-17 season. Miller said his wife had been told Ollie arranged for the mother of a player to receive $30,000 in order to relocate to Connecticut, but this charge was not substantiated anywhere else in the documents released, and Ollie’s lawyers, denying the charge, later called for UConn to issue a retraction for releasing unproven allegations to the media.
In several instances, Miller’s version of the program’s activities were either denied or not corroborated by Ollie and other assistant coaches in their interviews.
Miller has since been hired as director of basketball at Division III St. Joseph in West Hartford, where he is working with Jim Calhoun to start up a new program. Chillious has been hired by East Carolina, Dwayne Killings by Marquette and Kevin Freeman at Penn State. Sevush moved to the NBA with the Knicks in a video role. Ricky Moore has not yet found another job in coaching.