Lute Olson never figured it would end this way.
But pretty much everybody else did.
|Lute Olson's passion was always evident at Arizona. (Getty Images)|
It was March 17, 2007, in New Orleans.
The Wildcats had just lost to Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Olson's postgame news conference was both bizarre and sad. He rambled more than usual, didn't make a whole bunch of sense in his analysis, and that night I filed a column under the headline "After early exit, Lute may want to hang it up."
The following is how I ended the column:
As Olson's press conference neared closing, the moderator announced there would be one more question and when somebody asked the question Olson answered it, paused, answered some more and stopped. As is the custom in every NCAA tournament press conference, the moderator then said, "Thank you, Coach," and the reporters began filing out. But Olson just sat there at the table staring aimlessly without a movement and the moderator actually had to get his attention and inform him the press conference had concluded.
"Oh," Olson said. "Is that the time?"
Indeed, it was the time, but Olson was the only person who had no idea he had been cued to exit the stage. He was blissfully unaware it was time to walk away, and from a chair six rows in front of him it was difficult not to wonder whether the moment was symbolic of something bigger.
|Most Consecutive NCAA Tournament Appearances|
|23||Dean Smith||North Carolina||1975-97|
|19||Roy Williams||Kansas/North Carolina||1990-2008|
In the past six months Olson has:
• Lost assistant Josh Pastner to Memphis and fired Miles Simon.
• Lost Brandon Jennings, the star of the incoming recruiting class, to a professional team in Italy.
• Lost Emmanuel Negedu, a highly regarded incoming recruit who asked for a release and signed with Tennessee.
Some close to the Arizona program privately worried the above developments were an indication things were going in the wrong direction, though last month's commitment of point guard Abdul Gaddy helped soften the sense of panic. But Gaddy's pledge is now likely to be reconsidered; that's the other bad news of the day. And the reason Gaddy-to-Arizona is no longer a guarantee is because uncertainty again surrounds the program, which is about to go through its second straight season with an interim coach who isn't an obvious natural fit to lead Arizona on a permanent basis.
Don't get me wrong; Mike Dunlap is respected and capable.
But if Olson had immediately retired after the 2006-07 season or the 2007-08 season, it's doubtful O'Neill or Dunlap would've been seriously considered to succeed him, which is why Dunlap would probably be in charge just one season (regardless of what anybody says) unless he could first hold Arizona's recruiting class together and then compete for a Pac-10 title. Short of that, expect Gonzaga's Mark Few (strong West Coast ties) and Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon (former Northern Arizona assistant) to emerge as strong candidates, and either would be great at Arizona, I assure you.
Would they listen to offers?
But those conversations (at least in a formal capacity) are probably at least five months away. In the meantime, Arizona is again heading into a season with more questions than answers, and it must be hard for fans not to be upset with how all this transpired considering that if Olson had permanently stepped down after that 2007 loss to Purdue in New Orleans the Wildcats would be about to start their second season with Few, Dixon or some other established coach. Under that scenario, the transition from Hall of Famer to successor would've been much smoother, the climb back to national prominence much shorter.
On the other hand, how can anybody really blame Olson?
The man is a legend who probably deserved to make up his own mind about when to walk away, and if he realized it was time to leave at an inconvenient time for his employer (i.e., less than a week after the official start of practice), well, that merely makes him like most people who desperately want to do whatever it is they love for as long as they can even when it's clear to others that it's time to move on.
Bottom line, this whole thing is just sad and unfortunate.
Sad for Olson.
Unfortunate for Arizona.
But the reality is that it's been a long time coming.
Or at least 19 months in the making, ever since that news conference in New Orleans.