Warde Manuel, step right up! You're the next contestant on "Program or Legend"!
Just six months into your tenure as UConn's athletic director, you get to make the call on the man who replaces legendary coach Jim Calhoun. All Calhoun did in his more than a quarter-century in your rural hamlet in northeast Connecticut was win three national titles, send countless players to the NBA, and more or less stamp the identity of your school on the national map. Of course, he did all that while skirting and then breaking some NCAA rules, and your team won't be in any postseason play this season because of poor APR scores, but that's rounding error, right?
Oh, and while you may have a master plan, one that will extend UConn's on-court excellence beyond the realm of one man's work, your former coach dragged out his increasingly likely decision just long enough to ensure his preferred choice, former player and current assistant coach Kevin Ollie, would have to get a one-year trial run as the head coach.
Other than all that, no pressure. Good luck. And, oh, make sure you make the right call, one that will prove the program can survive -- no, continue to thrive -- without its imperious architect.
While Thursday's news that Calhoun would finally be stepping down from the program he built from scratch provided a dose of drama, it also finally creates a layer of clarity for Manuel and the school's administration. Manuel, while respectful of his own nascency in Storrs and Calhoun's oversized importance at the university, has steadfastly resisted a coach-in-waiting model that's in effect at other programs when the head coach is nearing retirement age. In theory, that model can provide stability, especially in the world of recruiting, but there's no right answer on how to deal with this.
Ultimately, Manuel will need to decide if he's OK with Calhoun's final strong-handed maneuver, or whether he'll simply smile his way through this first season and then establish his own identity with a new hire from outside the Calhoun family. Either way, it will be the biggest choice of his career, a signature hire that will remain attached to his own resume for as long as he's in this business.
Complicating matters is the truth that transitions from coaching legends often are clunky. For every situation like a Kansas, where Bill Self has very ably filled Roy Williams' sizable shoes, there's a North Carolina (a Final Four with Bill Guthridge before the disastrous Matt Doherty era) or Indiana (flash-in-the-national-final Mike Davis and then Kelvin Sampson's violations-shortened tenure) that takes a number of years and a couple of iterations before the program finds the right man and regains its historic level of success.
Perhaps the best comparable to what UConn is about to face, though, is Arizona. Lute Olson also built a program from nothing, also spent a quarter-century putting his imprint on a university, also managed to lure top recruits to an out-of-the-way locale. And Olson's exit was really ugly, with health issues, infighting and broken promises causing a series of awkward assistant coach exits and a one-year interim head coach stint for Russ Pennell when Olson finally stepped down a couple of weeks before the 2008-09 season. The school went outside the program to bring in Sean Miller from Xavier. In Miller's first season, the Wildcats' lengthy NCAA tournament streak ended, but he's since reestablished Arizona as one of the premier programs in the West.
Ollie won't have to worry about an NCAA tournament this season, so he'll be able to focus on honing his craft as a head coach without the consummate pressure of team resume building. He also has a wealth of experience on the bench to tap into; all three of George Blaney, Glen Miller and Karl Hobbs have run successful Division I programs themselves. Ollie also is proving himself on the recruiting trail; he was the lead man responsible for bringing in Omar Calhoun and others to Storrs. As long as he stays far away from stretching bands before games, he should find some level of success this season, even with UConn's depleted roster.
That said, the pressure is clearly there. Ollie only has this one season to impress a boss who wasn't here for any of Calhoun's glory and is left holding the bag for his foibles. Also, with the landscape continuing to shift around the Big East and TV money at the root of future athletic program relevance, there's no certainty that UConn will continue to be a major national player.
Thanks to his now-former head coach, Manuel will still have a lot to sell to the eventual successor. Tradition is still a valuable currency, and with a brand-new practice facility finally under construction, UConn will be able to advance itself in the ongoing arms race. Still, Manuel doesn't owe anything to Calhoun other than to try to make the best decision to continue his legacy. A few years down the road, we'll know whether he chose wisely, or whether he'll also be leaving Storrs with some nice parting gifts.