If someone askedyou to name the most prominent figures associated with the state of Arizona,chances are you would include two white-haired septuagenarians, bothconservative lions who've been engaged in public struggles to show they canstill compete with men little more than half their ages.
Senator JohnMcCain will learn the result on his scoreboard this Tuesday, but for Arizonacoach Lute Olson the end came last week when he announced his retirement aftera 49-year Hall of Fame career.
For the last 25seasons in Tucson--and nine before that at Iowa and one at Long BeachState--Olson, 74, was the Cary Grant of college hoops, an industry standard ofgrace and class. But his decision to hang it up now, after a year of personaland professional turbulence, threatens to leave the program he built in afree-fall and start-over mode.
Olson sat out the2007-08 season with a still-undisclosed health problem; endured an acrimonioussplit with his second wife, Christine; and had such a nasty falling-out withhis designated successor, Kevin O'Neill, that they no longer speak to eachother. All of which raised the question: With an already unimpeachablelegacy--one NCAA title, five Final Fours, 780 Division¬†I wins--why wouldhe want to come back to the sideline at his age, with an all new staff?
In an interview onOct.¬†15, Olson's response wasn't all that convincing. "I just feltthat it was really an incomplete career, leaving when I left," he said."Plus, I knew there were going to be a lot of challenges ahead, and Ithought I could help. So at the time it just felt right."
There was anuncertainty in those three words--at the time--that suggested Olson was havingsecond thoughts. Then again, last spring he hadn't planned on losing twoNBA-caliber guards: Jerryd Bayless, who left after one season to become alottery pick, and freshman Brandon Jennings, who failed to earn a qualifyingtest score and is now playing pro ball in Italy. Nor had Olson banked on anNCAA investigation into whether he broke the rules when he signed a letterasking boosters to help pay for an on-campus AAU tournament in which Wildcatsrecruits participated.
With Olson'sretirement, the biggest losers may be Arizona's players, not least the threetop juniors--forwards Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill and guard Nic Wise--whonow have their third coach, Russ Pennell, in three seasons. "If Coach Olsondidn't come back, I wouldn't have come back," sophomore wing Jamelle Hornetold SI before Olson's announcement, echoing several teammates who'd clashedwith the abrasive O'Neill. Meanwhile, Olson's new top lieutenant, Mike Dunlap,was offered the job as Arizona's interim coach. When he turned it down, theoffer was accepted by Pennell, 47, who only last season was a radio analyst forArizona State.
It's a sad end forOlson, who never seemed to fully recover after his wife of 47¬†years,Bobbi, died of cancer in 2001. Before his retirement announcement he soundedlike a man who recognized his own frailties. "Obviously health is moreimportant than a job," he said. "I know with my family at the time whenBobbi died, there were kids who felt it was a good time [to retire]. You cantake advice, but at the end you have to make those decisions yourself."Last week Olson finally made that call.
Arizona should beable to sign a big-name coach after the season, but it will take time torebuild. Olson's staff had landed a top-ranked recruiting class for 2009-10,but by week's end every member had decided to head elsewhere.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Lute Olson made 27NCAA tournament appearances. With his departure, Jim Boeheim (near right) leadsall active coaches.
ONLY AT SI.COM Read postcards from camp (Davidson,Indiana, Purdue) at SI.com/cbb.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (OLSON)
Final buzzer Arizona's top recruits for '09-10 backed out when Olson (left) quit.
JEFF ZELEVANSKY/ICON SMI (BOEHEIM)