Olson retires as Arizona coach
By Andrew Bagnato
TUCSON, Ariz. ó Arizona had won one conference title in the 29 seasons before Lute Olson arrived from Iowa in 1983.
It didnít take long for Olson to build a powerhouse in the desert. The 74-year-old Olson, who announced his retirement on Thursday, went 589-187 in 24 seasons at Arizona and led the Wildcats to the 1997 national championship and four Final Fours, most recently in 2001.
His program turned into an assembly line of NBA talent, producing 13 first-round draft picks, including Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby and Richard Jefferson.
iLute Olson transformed the UA and Tucson into premier basketball country,î university president Robert N. Shelton said in a statement. iArizona now stands in the company of great college basketball programs, and we have Lute to thank for that. We will sorely miss his brilliance as our head coach, but we will benefit from the legacy he leaves for decades to come.î
Athletic director Jim Livengood confirmed Olsonís decision hours after news reports had started speculating about the Hall of Famerís future. Livengood said a successor would be named soon.
iThis was not a decision that was made lightly,î Olson said in a statement released by the university on Thursday. iIíve had a wonderful run at the University of Arizona. I leave with a great sense of pride in what we have accomplished here.î
The tan, silver-haired Olson is a revered figure in Tucson ó as iconic as the craggy mountains that ring the city. When reports of his retirement began to spread, hordes of reporters showed up at McKale Center and remained camped there as top athletic officials huddled behind closed doors.
It was a day filled with rumors, speculation and uncertainty. But that had become all too common in the last year of Olsonís tenure.
Olsonís resignation ends a year of personal and professional upheaval for one of the more successful coaches in college basketball history. With 780 victories in 34 seasons as a Division I coach, Olson ranks eighth on the all-time list. The last victory came on March 3, 2007 ó 85-80 at Stanford, in overtime.
Shortly before last season tipped off, Olson announced he was taking a personal leave of absence for what he later termed ia medical condition that was not life-threatening.î
When Olson stepped away, it started an unimaginable chain of events. Assistant coach Kevin OíNeill, who took over as interim coach, was soon designated Olsonís permanent successor.
OíNeill led Arizona to a 19-15 record and the schoolís 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the nationís longest active streak. But when Olson returned to the job last spring, he announced that OíNeill was no longer part of his staff and that he planned to coach for the remainder of his contract, which runs through 2011.
In December, Olson filed for divorce from wife Christine on the same day he extended his leave through the end of the season. Five months after the contentious divorce was finalized last spring, Olson announced he was engaged to Kelly Pugnea, 47, a Tucson resident for 25 years.
But Olson seemed ready to put the tumultuous year behind him. On Tuesday, he appeared at the teamís media day and said he was fired up about the upcoming season. iI feel much more energized at this point,î he said.
That feeling apparently changed quickly. Olson skipped a scheduled luncheon on Wednesday and missed practice the last two days.
Olson did not appear at the news conference announcing his decision, nor was there any mention of his health in the statement released by the school.
iAt this stage in my life, I want to devote my time to my children, great-grandchildren, family and friends,î Olson said in the statement. iI look forward to watching Wildcat basketball and visiting with my colleagues in the coaching profession. It is time to pass the program on to a younger staff, to transition the university to the next generation of basketball.î
Itís unclear who will be in charge for the next generation.
Speaking at a brief news conference at McKale Center, Livengood did not designate a successor ó even on an interim basis. He said a national search would begin soon.
iI do not have a decision at this point in time in terms of whoís going to head our menís basketball program,î Livengood said. iBut that will be announced in the very, very short future.î
ESPNís Dick Vitale first reported the story, saying Olson would be replaced by assistant coach Mike Dunlap, a former Denver Nuggets assistant and Metro State coach who joined the program in May. Dunlap ran practice on Thursday afternoon and declined to comment. None of the players approached after practice offered comment.
Olsonís decision sent shockwaves across a basketball-obsessed campus. Football coach Mike Stoops was swarmed by reporters after practice, and none wanted to ask about Arizonaís Homecoming game against No. 6 USC, which pits two teams tied for first in the Pac-10.
iHeís an icon,î said Stoops, who first met Olson when Stoops was a football player at Iowa. iI just hope and pray heís in good health and happy with his decision. He deserves it. Heís put a lot of time and energy into building a tradition here, second to no other across the country.î
Olson was the coach for one season at Long Beach State before he took over at Iowa for the 1974-75 season. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2002.
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