NEW YORK — At some point Sunday afternoon, perhaps a few minutes before Connecticut takes the floor at Madison Square Garden for the East Region final against Michigan State, Huskies assistant coach Karl Hobbs will talk to his boss like he did 20 years ago, when Kevin Ollie was just a guard trying to find his way in college basketball.
“You’re built for this,” Hobbs will say.
The former George Washington coach does it before every game, a tradition now that Connecticut finds itself on the verge of making the Final Four just one year after being barred from participating in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.
Ollie usually doesn’t respond. He’ll simply nod his head, the only acknowledgment the reassurance is necessary.
After Hobbs left Foggy Bottom in 2011, fired after 10 seasons leading the Colonials, he found a safe landing spot in a familiar place.
Hobbs, 52, played point guard at Connecticut and worked for eight years (1993-2001) as an assistant under former Coach Jim Calhoun, recruiting players such as Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and Emeka Okafor, who led the Huskies to national championships in 1999 and 2004.
After his departure from GW, Hobbs returned to Connecticut as Calhoun’s director of basketball administration. When Calhoun announced his retirement a year later and tabbed Ollie as his successor, Hobbs became a full-time assistant again. And he has proved to be the sort of sounding board Ollie, a first-time head coach, can rely on now that the Huskies have returned to national prominence.
Both Hobbs and associate head coach Glen Miller — another former Calhoun assistant who spent 17 years as the head coach at Connecticut College, Brown and Pennsylvania — coached Ollie when he played at Connecticut alongside Ray Allen.
“They were there when I was a knucklehead running around school, didn’t know what I was doing,” Ollie, 41, said Saturday. “They were right there to reprimand me when I was wrong, to encourage me when I needed encouragement when my head was down.When [Calhoun] was getting on me, they were telling me to stay with it — ‘Coach really loves you’ — and I didn’t understand it. . . . They know what it takes to be a head coach and be in that seat that I’m in.”
Hobbs’s role includes remembering what “ticked me off” when he was coaching at George Washington and ensuring Ollie doesn’t run into the same sort of obstacles. He also works with the Huskies’ talented guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.
Senior Lasan Kromah, a Greenbelt native who transferred from George Washington to Connecticut before this season, said Hobbs jokes around more than he did when he dealt with the daily stresses of being a head coach.
He can focus on the details of the game, such as the proper defensive stance or how to be shot-ready when Napier kicks the ball outside on one of his drives to the basket, “little things that we might take for granted,” Kromah added.
But Hobbs wants to be a head coach again and remains proud of his tenure with the Colonials. He compiled a record of 166-129, qualified for three straight NCAA tournaments from 2005 to 2007 and led George Washington to a school-record 27 wins in 2005-06, although his recruitment of players with questionable academic records came under scrutiny.
“It was time for a change. I didn’t think it was time for a change, but evidently someone else thought it was time for a change,” Hobbs said. “I really felt like we were on our way to recapturing [the success]. But I had 10 great years. GW gave me a chance to live out a dream.
“The success I had, with all I accomplished there, I think my body of work sort of speaks for itself, so I truly believe I’ll get another opportunity. That experience, to me, is only going to help me for my next job.”
For now, Hobbs is content to help remind the college basketball world that the Huskies are “still relevant.” The funny thing is, Hobbs didn’t have an inkling Ollie wanted to be a head coach two decades ago when Ollie was still in college.
As Ollie explained Saturday, he only got the itch to coach at the end of his 13-year NBA career, when he began keeping every scouting report of every game. He wanted to know every play teams ran, how a coach called timeouts and how it all translated onto game film.
“I still got them to this day,” Ollie said.
That was no surprise to Hobbs, who only a few minutes earlier began to detail why this journey with Ollie has been almost seamless since the Connecticut coaching baton was passed down from Calhoun.
“He’s the most prepared coach I’ve ever been around,” Hobbs said. “I’m pretty sure the minute the thought got in his mind, ‘You know what, I’m going to be a coach,’ I bet at that very point, he started lining up plays.”
Hobbs then paused, nodding his head the same way Ollie does before each game. In some ways, the pupil has become the teacher.
“He’s pretty much galvanized the entire state,” Hobbs added.
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