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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
If someone asked you to name the most prominent figures associated with the state of Arizona, chances are you would include two white-haired septuagenarians, both conservative lions who've been engaged in public struggles to show they can still compete with men little more than half their ages.
Senator John McCain will learn the result on his scoreboard this Tuesday, but for Arizona coach Lute Olson the end came last week when he announced his retirement after a 49-year Hall of Fame career.
For the last 25 seasons in Tucson--and nine before that at Iowa and one at Long Beach State--Olson, 74, was the Cary Grant of college hoops, an industry standard of grace and class. But his decision to hang it up now, after a year of personal and professional turbulence, threatens to leave the program he built in a free-fall and start-over mode.
Olson sat out the 2007-08 season with a still-undisclosed health problem; endured an acrimonious split with his second wife, Christine; and had such a nasty falling-out with his designated successor, Kevin O'Neill, that they no longer speak to each other. All of which raised the question: With an already unimpeachable legacy--one NCAA title, five Final Fours, 780 Division I wins--why would he want to come back to the sideline at his age, with an all new staff?
In an interview on Oct. 15, Olson's response wasn't all that convincing. "I just felt that 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 I thought I could help. So at the time it just felt right."
There was an uncertainty in those three words--at the time--that suggested Olson was having second thoughts. Then again, last spring he hadn't planned on losing two NBA-caliber guards: Jerryd Bayless, who left after one season to become a lottery pick, and freshman Brandon Jennings, who failed to earn a qualifying test score and is now playing pro ball in Italy. Nor had Olson banked on an NCAA investigation into whether he broke the rules when he signed a letter asking boosters to help pay for an on-campus AAU tournament in which Wildcats recruits participated.
With Olson's retirement, the biggest losers may be Arizona's players, not least the three top juniors--forwards Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill and guard Nic Wise--who now have their third coach, Russ Pennell, in three seasons. "If Coach Olson didn't come back, I wouldn't have come back," sophomore wing Jamelle Horne told SI before Olson's announcement, echoing several teammates who'd clashed with 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, the offer was accepted by Pennell, 47, who only last season was a radio analyst for Arizona State.
It's a sad end for Olson, who never seemed to fully recover after his wife of 47 years, Bobbi, died of cancer in 2001. Before his retirement announcement he sounded like a man who recognized his own frailties. "Obviously health is more important than a job," he said. "I know with my family at the time when Bobbi died, there were kids who felt it was a good time [to retire]. You can take advice, but at the end you have to make those decisions yourself." Last week Olson finally made that call.
Arizona should be able to sign a big-name coach after the season, but it will take time to rebuild. 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.
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