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The once-blissful union between Connecticut and Kevin Ollie came to a bitter end after last season, and their divorce gets uglier by the day.

It will be months before an arbitrator will finalize the terms of the split, but neither side will emerge unscathed.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. In 2014, Ollie was an upstart head coach who steered Shabazz Napier and the Huskies to victories over Florida and Kentucky to capture the program’s fourth national title in 16 seasons.

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As the confetti fell from the rafters at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Ollie was joined on the court by former Huskies players. He hugged Ray Allen, his former UConn teammate. Richard Hamilton stood nearby, beaming. Charlie Villanueva unleashed an impassioned scream. Khalid El-Amin, a key member of the 1999 squad that captured Jim Calhoun’s first title, talked his way past a security guard to join the celebration on the court.

It was a joyous time for the program, and the future seemed full of promise. Instead, UConn is embroiled in a nasty, litigious fight with Ollie, who believes he’s owed the $10 million remaining on his contract. UConn, which fired Ollie for cause after a 14-18 season, claims it owes him nothing because he violated NCAA rules.

That drama has served as the backdrop to UConn’s offseason, not the arrival of heralded former Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley. The latest development in the saga came last week, when Ollie’s lawyers threatened a lawsuit after UConn released documents related to an ongoing NCAA investigation as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

UConn has accused Ollie of a pattern of NCAA violations, including the arrangement of a video call between Allen and a recruit, setting up an improper training session, and playing a pickup game with a recruit during his unofficial visit. University president Susan Herbst supported the decision to fire Ollie with cause because, she wrote in a letter, “eventually even a series of ‘isolated’ or ‘de minimis’ violations can become a pattern of non-compliance, which is what occurred in the Men’s Basketball program under your leadership.”

Ollie disagrees and has demanded a retraction following the release of transcripts from the NCAA investigation, which include an alleged $30,000 payment to a recruit’s mother. The school did not list the alleged payment in its termination letter to Ollie. His lawyers claim the NCAA transcripts detailed false claims and confidential information that was protected by FOIA laws because they’re related to an ongoing investigation and personnel matters.

When interviewed by NCAA investigators, Ollie said he’s always promoted a clean environment.

Dan Hurley was introduced as UConn’s new head coach in March. AP Photo/Stephen Dunn

“Every month, we sit down and we talk about different rule changes and what we can do to, you know, protect our student-athletes and potential student-athletes when they’re here at the University of Connecticut,” Ollie said, according to the transcripts. “And protect our university and also protect our livelihood.”

The result of the NCAA investigation will offer insight that either helps Ollie or indicts him. If it unveils evidence of severe violations, UConn will be vindicated in its decision. Based on what we know now, however, there seems to be little substantiated evidence that would warrant firing Ollie for cause.

Ollie’s lawyers requested and received a list of 120 secondary violations that had been committed by UConn programs since 2010, such as a congratulatory call from women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma to 2014 Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis. These types of violations rarely warrant severe punishment.

In fact, Connecticut did not fire Calhoun with cause after he was cited by the NCAA in 2011 for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance after an investigation revealed that a former manager had given transportation, lodging and other illegal benefits to a former player. Calhoun received a three-game Big East suspension.

It’s fair to wonder if UConn believes Ollie deserved to be fired for cause — an issue to be settled in arbitration later this year — or if the minor violations provided an excuse to avoid paying a hefty buyout. Pittsburgh initially tried to fire Kevin Stallings for cause — after a series of mishaps the school claimed he’d committed — before announcing a settlement.

There is no indication UConn plans to reach a settlement with Ollie. University officials have not approached his lawyers with a settlement proposal. The money matters. UConn spends $9.5 million per year on men’s basketball. State lawmakers recently announced a $143 million cut to the school’s budget over the next two years.

Kevin Ollie led UConn to a national championship in 2014. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Schools around the country continue to lock themselves into expensive deals that handcuff them when it’s time to make a move. In recent years, Steve Alford, Tom Crean and Tubby Smith have been granted additional seasons as their respective programs worked through some of the financial parameters of their buyouts. Louisville and Rick Pitino will soon fight in court over the $40 million-plus he believes he’s owed after being fired following his program’s involvement in the FBI bribery investigation.

Ollie has threatened legal action against UConn, a sign the arbitrator’s work might not end the drama.

It’s unfair for any program to magnify the degree of alleged violations to wiggle its way out of a contractual obligation. Ollie’s case could create a scary precedent for other coaches if that’s the case. But there is also a chance UConn is standing firm because it knows more than the transcripts have revealed.

Ollie’s fervent fight to capture the $10 million could ultimately harm him and his reputation if the NCAA reveals details that prove he’s the repeat offender Herbst described. Nothing revealed thus far has confirmed as much, yet others in Ollie’s position have proclaimed their innocence only to be deemed guilty in the future.

That scenario would ruin Ollie’s career, and that’s what he seems willing to risk in this fight.

But the divorce proceedings will leave a stain on both parties. Even if he gets the $10 million, Ollie will have a difficult time finding a job at this level with the allegation of a $30,000 payment — an allegation he’s threatened to sue the university over after it was revealed in the transcripts released by the school — and a lingering NCAA investigation hanging over his head. All of that after UConn went from national champion to a 14-18 program four years later under his watch.

Maybe his former bosses will prevail and keep the $10 million. But a once-prestigious program that needs to hit the reset button has spent the first three months of Hurley’s tenure, a key stretch just before the crucial July recruiting period, fighting with the previous coach it didn’t officially fire until June.

The Huskies might need a public relations firm after this mess.

But that’s what happens with any messy public divorce.

Two sides do everything to win. They fight for the house, the bank accounts, the kids, the jewelry and the cars.

When it’s all over, however, both UConn and Ollie will wonder if any part of this ugly chapter could have been avoided.


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