March 12, 2018
Commentary

Stan Simpson: UConn’s dubious dumping of Kevin Ollie

What if an NCAA inquiry into potential violations inside the UConn men's basketball program comes up empty – or just inconclusive?

It would mean UConn fired Coach Kevin Ollie under false pretenses – and would owe him the full $10 million left on his contract.

In firing Ollie for "cause" – before the inquiry has been completed and a violation has actually been determined – UConn used a nuclear option to terminate one of its most accomplished alums. His team's lackluster performance over the past two years was the real "cause" of his ouster. So, just say it.

The scorched-earth approach, apparent concession that violations occurred, and the not-so-subtle branding of Ollie as an NCAA scofflaw could result in collateral damage to UConn's reputation.

A stand-up guy known for his character and Christian values, Ollie deserved better than the demonizing he's getting from his alma mater.

He does, however, have some leverage in this high-stakes gambit that UConn initiated. Due process. Ollie could wait until the investigation is over, which could take (at least) several months. And, if the findings are inconclusive, or if he's cleared, he could seek his $10 million – with interest. Then, he could file a defamation suit against UConn, which would result in additional legal costs, financial damages and a public relations nightmare.

It's not a risk UConn needs to take. Strategically, the university's power play is designed to get Ollie to the negotiating table to discuss a buyout. He has three years left on his contract at about $3 million per year. When this "cause" posturing subsides, they'll likely split the difference and Ollie will get 1.5 years of his salary, with an agreement that both sides don't disparage each other in the future.

UConn doesn't want to pay Ollie a $10 million severance on the heels of paying $5 million in the firing of football coach Bob Diaco. The state's dismal fiscal climate is a matter of public record. Still, the state's flagship university needs to conduct its business with integrity.

To be fair to UConn, perhaps there were unsuccessful private conversations with Ollie to cut a "resignation" deal. That would have been a better way to go.

The whispers are the NCAA inquiry revolves around "improper practices." If that is so, it does not reach the threshold warranting a coach's termination.

Ollie is right to be on the offensive in fighting for his money and good name. He and UConn signed a contract in good faith. If UConn was not pleased with his performance it had two options – hold its nose and not offer any more lucrative extensions; or, fire the man and pay him the balance of his contract.

There is no proof at this time that any violation has occurred; just that an inquiry is underway.

A lot of revisionist history can be heard now about the Ollie tenure at UConn is over. Here is what the record will accurately note about his succession of coaching legend Jim Calhoun:

  • Ollie's record over six years at UConn was 127-79.

  • His 2014 team (yes, Calhoun's players, as his critics like to remind) made history as the first team to win a national championship as a No. 7 seed, receiving an at large bid.

  • The players' graduation rate dramatically increased under his watch – from 8 percent to 67 percent, with a perfect NCAA academic progress rating over the past four years. (If there was a case to stick with Ollie it would be to reward him for this.)

  • His team won its conference tournament title in 2016.

  • A recruiting class ranked in the top 10 in the country was secured in 2016. That team quickly imploded with injuries and defections.

  • His team spiraled, with two consecutive years below .500. An NCAA inquiry was conducted regarding his basketball program.

Firing Ollie for "cause," because a once heralded basketball program was sadly becoming irrelevant, is defendable. Dumping him, under the guise of an inquiry that has not been completed, is dubious.

Stan Simpson, a regular contributor to the Hartford Business Journal, is host of Fox 61's "The Stan Simpson Show", which airs Saturdays, at 5:30 a.m. – and online at Fox61.com/stan.

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