Big Start For Ollie; Big Finish For Pasqualoni?

A Tale Of Two Coaches At UConn

This weekend is the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning for UConn.

Across the Atlantic Ocean on a military base in Germany on Friday night, Kevin Ollie stops being the practice coach and starts being the game coach for one of the proudest college basketball programs in America.

Across the street on an old airstrip in East Hartford, meanwhile, Paul Pasqualoni stops being the football coach who gets the benefit of the doubt and starts being the coach who faces the music from his home-state fans.

And Geno Auriemma, whose own season starts Sunday? The only one who stands between him and another record 90-game winning streak is Baylor's Brittney Griner. Nobody stands between Geno and the soon-arriving contract extension that will take him into his 60s and toward his eighth, ninth and maybe 10th national women's basketball championship.

Yes, this weekend is first call for last call and last call for first call for UConn athletics.

Across the Atlantic, Ollie takes his guard-heavy, post-light Huskies against a superior Michigan State team, one with Top 10 possibilities and Final Four aspirations. Jim Calhoun will be doing color commentary on radio, and it's even euros whether the Germans or the Americans will be able to understand more of what Calhoun says.

But understand this.

Ollie has won the words and now he must win the games. Ollie won his introductory press conference and kept on winning with preseason exuberance. Now he has to start winning the scoreboard.

When he named Ollie head coach for one season, athletic director Warde Manuel said it would be more than the W's and L's that determine if Ollie gets years two, three, four and five. Manuel said he will watch how Ollie handles everyday responsibilities and pressures. How the players respond to Ollie and how Ollie responds to them. He will watch for Ollie's leadership and if there is improvement and care for academics.

It all makes sense. This makes even more sense. If Ollie punches a 3-15 in the Big East and 11-19 overall, he's not getting the permanent job. I don't care what's said today. I don't care how good a talker or what a good person Ollie is.

Big guys in the lane always make the odds smaller, but there's a lot of talent in the UConn backcourt to win more games than the cynics think. If Ollie starts winning like he can, Manuel cannot drag on a decision. He must name Ollie full-time coach by February. There are too many recruiting battles and basketball games to win or lose.

I initially argued for a national search while Ollie served as interim/candidate, but once Manuel named him permanent one-season coach, he spent that bullet. Manuel can't say, "Pretty good job, Kevin, we'll have a national search and we'll put your name in the hat with three other finalists." That ship has sailed.

Over the next few months, Manuel must work the back channels of agents, college movers, shakers and head hunters. Would Shaka Smart coach at UConn? Would Sean Miller, who's already making a ton of money at Arizona, jump? Or Brad Stevens? If Manuel doesn't believe that Ollie is the right guy, he must have a sexy dance partner lined up. Manuel has to know in advance if he can shaka the world. As evidenced by his NBA career, Ollie is one of the most resilient guys on the planet. But Manuel can't treat Ollie like a dog. If Manuel comes away with anything less than a brilliant name to replace Ollie, he is playing a loser's game.

Calhoun got $2.75 million not to coach this season, so it would have been a most painful financial burden to wheel anybody in here for huge bucks right away. Next season the deck is clear. And this season? Ollie's only guaranteed one starts Friday night across the Atlantic.

Across the street, only a few hours later, Pasqualoni plays a game he better win. Friday night, loud crowd at home and only a three-point underdog against Pittsburgh, if he and offensive coordinator George DeLeone let this one slip away … look out below. The Huskies aren't winning at Louisville, and if they limp into the finale, Cincinnati will snuff them. Friday is vital for Pasqualoni.

His team has scored three points in the second half of four conference games, averaging 8.25 points in those losses. The Huskies are dangerously close to going 0-for-the Big East.

All the signals out of Manuel's office say that Pasqualoni is back even if he finishes 3-9, even if the team grows disinterested. Anything short of pulling a Woody Hayes, he returns. If that's the case, there is no way an 0-7 Big East record and no improvement this final month can be accepted without an overhaul of the offense.

If Pasqualoni balks at replacing George DeLeone as offensive coordinator, what does Manuel do? If Pasqualoni balks at assigning one man full time — no dual responsibilities — to repair a dismal offensive line, what does Manuel do?

He tells Pasqualoni to take a hike, that's what he must do. The $1 million buyout is peanuts for a coach who has three years left on his deal.

It's a miserable thing to fire a college coach after two years. But you know what? It's a miserable thing to fire him after three years. If we're going to play the "fair" game, a coach should get five years to run through an entire recruiting cycle. News flash: Life in big-time college sports isn't fair.

If you pull the plug after two years, yes, there is the potential chaos of recruits from three different coaches. Yet if you fire a guy after three years, figuring all the redshirts, that coach's recruits are still only sophomores. So I'm now left asking, seriously asking, exactly why would three years of this regime be better than two? This is not a young coaching staff that made early mistakes and is poised for a great run. These guys are going to run on the same track over and over. And the existing talent isn't screaming 8-4 in 2013.

Kansas, Akron and Memphis fired their coaches after two seasons in 2011 and all three have done poorly this year. There are no quick fixes. Yet it is a quote by Einstein, not Pasqualoni's "It's a work in progress," that sticks with me. You know the one: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I'm convinced that in a football league with Louisville, Rutgers, Boise State and South Florida, UConn is never going to be the top tier in raw talent. That means it must be top-tier in coaching and development. I'm also convinced that as a young program, UConn football is better served with a dynamic personality at its helm to sell the sport.

There was a season ticket base of 24,000 the first year at the Rent in 2003 and that grew to 32,000 in 2005. At 22,500, this season is the smallest. If the Huskies go 0-7 in the conference and Pasqualoni's crew is back, how the hell does UConn sell tickets in 2013? Or does Randy Edsall's return with Maryland and the anticipated game against Manuel's alma mater Michigan keep the ticket base afloat? Maybe.

If the Huskies fall behind to Pittsburgh at the Rent, worse if they wilt offensively, this much is sure. There are going to be a lot of ugly fans, and school President Susan Herbst and Manuel will be glad they are in Germany to witness the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end.

CHICAGO