Commentary

Olson and others haven't grasped the art of the exit

Originally Published: October 23, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Where have you gone, John Wooden?

Actually, we know good and well where he's gone. Into retirement with his dignity and legacy intact.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP PhotoJohn Wooden was an expert at many things, including when to leave the sidelines.

Some 33½ years ago Wooden retired, at the age of 64, at the top of his profession. He rode away from UCLA in 1975 after winning his 10th national title, timing impeccable as always.

He could have coached longer. He could have continued winning games, chasing titles, milking UCLA for glory and money and fame. Instead, Wooden walked away on his own terms, a clean break, nothing but good feelings on all sides.

Why can't anyone else do that these days? What has happened to the graceful exit?

Lute Olson is the latest college coaching legend to thoroughly bollix his closing act. The Arizona basketball coach's retirement was announced Thursday, ending a 12-month saga that did considerable damage to his remarkable rep.

The hope is that this exit has not been forced by a previously undisclosed physical or mental illness or family trauma. Ideally, Olson will now enjoy his retirement in good health. Yet at the same time, a serious ailment would be the most palatable reason for a succession of bizarre, puzzling and poorly explained actions that did a disservice to the school and the players he purported to care about.

Olson began the 2007-08 season by taking a sudden leave of absence and subsequently got divorced from his second wife. Last December, Olson announced that he would miss the entire season, then announced he'd be back in 2008-09, then agreed to a plan to have assistant coach Kevin O'Neill succeed him, then said O'Neill would never succeed him, then had a positively embarrassing hissing match on talk radio with his ex-wife, then came back for this season and showed up smiling at media day on Tuesday, then suddenly went AWOL from practice and other obligations on Wednesday, then the school announced on Thursday that he was retiring at age 74.

Instead of this being time to celebrate of all that a coaching giant accomplished, it is a time of conflicting emotions, recriminations and widespread bewilderment. We're not simply talking about a brilliant coach who took a formerly dormant program to four Final Fours and won one national title; we're wondering why a septuagenarian would put himself and his school through this legacy-smudging melodrama. We're wondering why he couldn't quit with class.

All we know for sure is this:

[+] EnlargeLute Olsen
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesLute Olson is a Hall of Fame coach who had a tumultuous ending at Arizona.

For the second straight season, Olson pulled the rug out from under his program at the worst possible time. For the second straight season, the school was left squirming to explain the erratic actions of a legend -- at times seemingly compelled to fib on Olson's behalf. For the second straight season, Arizona basketball has been thrown into turmoil by the very man who breathed life into it.

Sadly, a guy who projected an aura of control and composure has turned his exit from basketball into an absolute mess. Even sadder is the fact that Olson is merely the latest in a line of college coaching legends who don't seem to know when or how to walk away.

Last February, we had Bob Knight quitting on his Texas Tech team, suddenly tossing the keys to his untested son and leaving the Red Raiders to fend for themselves. That, of course, was several years after Knight had his ugly divorce from the program he took to new heights, Indiana.

The year before that, Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton was almost pathetically chasing his 800th career victory, at the expense of his health and dignity, before finally being finessed out in Stillwater. Sutton re-emerged as an interim coach at San Francisco last season just long enough to reach his milestone, then sadly slid off stage.

Right now Joe Paterno is writing what could be a stirring final chapter to his Penn State career -- but the 81-year-old isn't healthy enough to coach on the sidelines, and it's unclear how much stewardship he actually has over the program on a day-to-day basis. (The guess here is that defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and offensive assistants Jay Paterno and Galen Hall are doing a whole lot of heavy lifting.) JoePa not only won't discuss a retirement timetable with hamstrung Penn State officials; he won't even entertain discussion of a succession agreement.

Paterno's Sunshine Boy sidekick, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, at least has taken that step -- he's agreed that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher would take over when he steps down. But nobody knows when that will be, and in the meantime the Seminoles have lost luster on the field and encountered an array of problems off the field.

[+] EnlargeBob Knight
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBob Knight's exits from Indiana and Texas Tech weren't graceful.

Call it the Brett Favre Effect -- the more beloved a sports figure becomes, the harder it is to leave with grace.

Part of that is the money. Let's face it, Wooden wasn't walking away from millions of dollars a year, even by 1970s economics.

The more important part of that is the love itself. When coaches or players become bigger than the schools or franchises that employ them, they don't have to listen to anyone. It can be easy to become addicted to the applause, preferring that sound to the voice of common sense telling you it's time to go. Being a god in a college town is an intoxicating gig.

If you are a school president who employs a coaching legend, you have a blessing and a curse. You are blessed to have a person who lifted an athletic program to great heights -- but cursed by your lack of control over his tenure.

Your only real choice is to keep the legend happy enough to stay forever, and then hope he doesn't take that literally. You pray your guy is more Dean Smith (capable of leaving smoothly) than Denny Crum (forced to leave bitterly). You know that if it comes down to the legend or the prez, you'd lose the popularity contest and the power struggle almost every time.

But the sad part is what the legends lose when they can't find the right exit strategy.

John Wooden was an expert on many things. Leaving included.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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