STORRS — The words arrived 11 minutes into Kevin Ollie's introductory speech and they have carried so much impact since the day he was named UConn basketball coach that even his captain is taking them literally.
"As I embark on this journey, I want to say we're going to take the stairs and not the escalator," Ollie said on Sept. 13 at Gampel Pavilion. "The escalator's for cowards. We're going to take the stairs. It's going to be … one … step … at a time and we're going to get there."
His players heard Ollie's words. School administrators and his coaches heard them, too. The fans inside Gampel bore witness and the rest read the words in the newspaper and online and they resonated. The UConn Blog, a website for fans, is even selling shirts that read, "Escalators are for cowards."
Otis, Schindler and other manufacturers of movable stairs cannot be pleased. Those who would engage in sloth and sins of convenience cannot be happy. Still, it's a great quote. Six weeks into his job, with the exhibition season finally starting Thursday night against AIC, Ollie's words about escalators remain the signature statement of his brief tenure.
"We've always got to take the stairs," junior captain Shabazz Napier said Wednesday after practice.
"Yeah," Napier said. "Never an escalator."
For more than a decade following his career at UConn, Ollie played everywhere, with everyone, seemingly for everybody. A mama's boy who grew up clean in L.A., a product of his uncle's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Ollie speaks with the cadence and exuberance of a preacher. He is, at times, compelling enough in his delivery that even the metaphors are accepted at face value.
"I know. I know," Ollie said. "People are literally coming up to me now and saying, 'Don't take the escalator.' Look, it's OK to take the escalator. People with physical handicaps, take the elevator."
So when the team is walking through JFK International Airport in New York on Wednesday heading to its flight to Germany for the season opener against Michigan State, they won't be disciplined for taking the escalator?
"No, no," Ollie said, laughing.
Still, the words have become the calling card for a program in transition. Yes, there are three national championships, but there also is the baggage of academic failures and NCAA violations that have left UConn without a chance to play in the Big East or NCAA tournaments this year. Ollie has one shot — this season — to impress athletic director Warde Manuel and turn a one-year contract into several years. And while Ollie jokes that everybody loves him today because he hasn't lost a game yet and hasn't had a crisis yet, there is no doubt that he is winning over folks with his words.
"It's the mind-set I'm so concerned with," Ollie said, "that you don't take the easy way in life. I think taking escalators is the easy way. You should take the stairs in life, each and every step."
Oh, Ollie has a bunch of sayings.
"The ship might not come into land. We're going to swim right out to it. I promise you that." That one, a variation of a quotation attributed to Jonathan Winters, is about the future not being given to you, that you have to take it.
There's the, "First you bring the sugar and then the hot sauce." That one, of course, means you say something encouraging before you lay down the law. And there's the, "You can make a suit 15 different ways out of the same material. Coach [Calhoun] and I are made out of the same material." That's Ollie's way of saying the presentation might be different, but the message in the end is the same.
"I try to use [the sayings] sparingly, I don't want to use them all the time," Ollie said. "I am trying to make a point, and I try to use word pictures. I think it resonates with guys. Instead of a, b, c, d, they can picture things in their own minds. It's all about while plowing through life, make sure you see others more importantly than yourself."
Folks might remember the story of Napier walking out of Wells Fargo Center last February in Philly with a book tucked on his arm after he hit a 29-foot shot with 0.6 seconds left to beat Villanova. Ollie gave him that book.
It was, "Every Day a Friday," by Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in America. It's about being happier all seven days a week through hope and joy.
"He gave me that book, he told me to read it," Napier said. "I realized a lot of the things he was saying were in the book. I went up to him and said, 'You don't make all this stuff yourself.' He said, 'I know, you've got to copy a lot of people's good stuff.'"