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What's going on at Arizona?

Olson's absence has turned into a mysterious circus

Posted: Tuesday March 4, 2008 3:42PM; Updated: Tuesday March 4, 2008 4:29PM
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Lute Olson's absence this season has never been fully explained to the public.
Lute Olson's absence this season has never been fully explained to the public.
John McDonough/SI
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On Dec. 18, Arizona unveiled a plan it hoped would ensure stability within its basketball program: Whenever longtime coach Lute Olson decides to retire, his top assistant, Kevin O'Neill, would become the next head coach. O'Neill, an assistant at Arizona from 1986-89 who was brought back onto the staff in the spring of 2007, had been the Wildcats' acting head coach since Nov. 4. That was the day Olson, 73, said he was taking a leave of absence for personal reasons not related to his health.

On Dec. 6, Olson decided he would not return at all this season. Facing continued uncertainty about the future of the program, the school felt compelled 12 days later to announce its seamless succession plan. It was, in theory, a good idea. In reality, however, it has proved to be anything but seamless.

Even as the Wildcats (17-12, 7-9 in the Pac 10) have fought through injuries to put themselves in position to reach their 24th straight NCAA tournament, behind the scenes the program is awash in dysfunction. Over the last few weeks, Olson has been making almost daily appearances in the basketball office, yet he and O'Neill have barely spoken since the day he took his initial leave of absence. The silence between them does not necessarily result from personal animosity. When Olson took his leave, O'Neill told him that he would give Olson his space, and that he was available any time Olson wanted to talk. Perhaps Olson is just trying to be courteous and give O'Neill his own space so he can coach the team. Perhaps O'Neill has sent signals he doesn't really want to hear from him.

Regardless, the rift has made life difficult for everyone in the program. Making matters worse is that, according to several sources, Olson has over the last few weeks been holding player meetings, during which he has expressed his displeasure that O'Neill is running set plays and utilizing man-to-man defense, as opposed to the motion offense and zone defense that Olson prefers at the moment. One source told me that O'Neill has informed Olson he is not happy with these meetings, but Olson has continued having them anyway.

The divide between the "absent" head coach and his designated successor has naturally strained relations between O'Neill and the rest of the coaching staff. Arizona's top two assistants, Josh Pastner and Miles Simon, both played for Olson. The video coordinator, Matt Brase, is Olson's grandson. Should O'Neill ever become the head coach, it is unlikely the staff will remain intact.

If Olson knows what he's going to do next year, he's not saying. He declined to return my message seeking comment. Arizona sports information director Richard Paige told me that as far as he knows, Olson still plans to coach again. Athletic director Jim Livengood told me last weekend that he has "a pretty good feel" for what Olson is going to do, but that he didn't want to discuss the issue publicly until after the season. "Right now, our entire focus is on these players," Livengood said. "If we addressed this question now, it would only detract from what those kids are trying to accomplish, and they deserve our full support."

By coming into the office and meeting with players, Olson is certainly acting like a man who wants to continue coaching. I've heard he has also made phone calls to high school players. While one athletic department source suggested Lute is "incapable" of coaching at an elite level given that he'll be 74 when next season starts, I'm told Olson is still a regular in the workout room, where he rides the elliptical trainer and hits the nautilus machines like a man 20 years his junior.

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