Olson returns, then retires, as the drama continues for Arizona
TUCSON, Ariz. -- I was walking through McKale Center on Monday afternoon and Lute Olson was coming strong around the corner.
"What time are we doing the interview? One p.m.?" Olson blurted out immediately, despite not seeing me for months.
Olson was steps ahead of me, moving at a fast-paced walk. At 74, he showed no signs of slowing down. He hustled down to the interview room just off the McKale Center floor, sat down and was ready to go. He had a schedule to keep. Practice started at 2:30 p.m. and he wanted to prep beforehand.
I didn't know at the time that this would be his last, one-on-one interview as head coach at the University of Arizona, that two days later he would miss a Rotary function, skip out on practice and then 24 hours later call it quits on his Hall of Fame career.
Maybe the red flags weren't as noticeable as they appear in hindsight, but they were certainly there.
Monday in Tucson, while conducting interviews with Olson, Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood and Wildcats players, there still seemed to be a bit of the unknown that permeated the McKale Center. No one seemed to be ready to commit that Olson was going to be there for the foreseeable future. You got the sense that everything wasn't right. It was hard to identify, but there was a certain detachment, something that just seemed awry.
When asked how he was feeling now compared to a year ago, Olson's response wasn't about his health but about his team. When pressed, he did answer the question: "I feel a lot better than I felt or obviously I wouldn't be back," said Olson, who had a contract that ran through the 2010-11 season. "Well, if I hadn't felt that I could come back my career would have been over."
Olson took a self-imposed medical leave last year. He still won't get into specifics about the absence, other than to say stress and the divorce from his second wife were contributing factors.
Upon further review, if there was another red flag it was Olson's response to a question about what he has been telling recruits about his long-term plans. Olson talked about UCLA and how hard it had been to replace John Wooden until Ben Howland finally came through to right the program.
He went on to say, "It will be a challenge anytime someone has been here as along as I've been here."
In the wake of his retirement, ESPN.com was told that Olson was stressed about off-court functions, the noncoaching aspects of his job. According to one source, Olson looked at how former North Carolina coach Dean Smith exited in the fall of 1997 in large part because of noncoaching activities. Unprovoked, Olson told ESPN.com on Monday: "It's all the things away from the court. I think when Dean Smith decided to give it up, it wasn't the coaching, it was all the expectations that come, especially when you've been in a place for 26 years and don't say 'no' very often, so that would be the biggest adjustment I think someone would have to make when they come in after me."
In an interview later on Monday, Livengood reiterated several times that he could only talk about Olson as head coach "today." He wouldn't comment on what would happen tomorrow, next week or beyond. He was clear that he didn't think the issue of Olson's future was over. His word choice was precise and calculated.
ESPN.com learned Thursday that Olson had discussions this summer with those close to him about his possibly retiring.
"He is ready to come back," Livengood said Monday. "He's ready to coach. He's excited about doing that. The hardest thing in this profession is that I can really only judge it on what I know today."
Later, Livengood explained what he had been telling recruits: "When some parent, guardian or relative will say, 'OK Jim, tell us exactly, is it going to be a year, two years, four years?' My answer is, 'I don't know. None of us know.'"
That uncertainty lingered over the Wildcats' program in the past year, and Olson's return had done little to dispel that confusion. There had been a growing feeling among those in the athletic department that Olson might not coach the whole season.
On Monday, Wildcats guard Chase Budinger gave perhaps the most detailed description of Olson's demeanor leading up to his leave of absence last year: "It was tough because in the beginning he really never gave the team an explanation of why he left. He felt very fatigued all the time. He looked tired."
Budinger said there were times prior to Olson's leave of absence that he would make mistakes on the practice court.
"He kind of seemed like he was depressed all the time," Budinger said. "It was kind of hard for him to coach out on the court," Budinger said.
"Everybody was wondering if we should have known this could happen by how he was acting," Arizona junior center Jordan Hill said Monday. "It wasn't hard for me [to talk about Olson's condition] because I didn't know what was going on. Nobody did. Some people thought I was lying but I really didn't know."
With Olson's future in doubt and fearing Arizona would lose its recruiting class, Livengood held a news conference on Dec. 18 and named Kevin O'Neill the successor to Olson, pending his retirement.
"I thought it was the right thing to do at that point in time, not knowing exactly what was going to happen," Livengood said.
"If I had been ready to come back then, I would have come back," Olson said. "I was not. So they were acting on not knowing anymore than I knew when I would be ready to come back."
Arizona went through a tumultuous time during Olson's absence. The Wildcats lost four of six games in one three-week stretch.
"Last year, it was just chaos and turmoil and a bunch of different stuff with the coaching staff," junior guard Nic Wise said.
Olson said he found it extremely difficult to be a spectator. He said he had opinions, like fans, and thought expressing them would be a good idea.
"But it didn't work out, so it obviously was not a good idea," Olson said. "It was hard to watch from that standpoint of I have been so involved for so many years that it was hard to be a spectator."
Seeing Olson around McKale and talking to players also added to the chaos.
"If it were a case where the parents were upset because I didn't return calls, well, I didn't feel it was my place to return calls because of the leave of absence," said Olson, who cited the privacy under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 as a reason for his silence. University personnel, however, said they were under the impression that if Olson chose he, and only he, could talk about his situation.
"If someone stopped by the office to say 'Hi,' I obviously said 'Hi,' but it wasn't a case of saying 'Well, this should be done or that should be done,'" Olson said. "I asked Kevin at one point, it seemed like Chase and Juwann [McClellan] had lost some confidence, and I said maybe I can help with that and he said, 'talk with them.' So they came in and I talked to them briefly and just tried to pump them up because those guys needed that."
Olson said by February he felt he was ready to return to coaching.
"But you know we had made the understanding was that either I would be ready to come back by the first of the year or else it was KO's [O'Neill's] team and he would take it from there. So it was a situation where I felt though, at that point, that I could have been back but the timing wasn't right," Olson said. "Well, I think that it was just a case of the anxieties that I was feeling. I think that I had those under control at that point."
The bizarre world of Arizona basketball became even more surreal when Olson appeared at senior day, walked out onto his court and didn't say a word to the fans or media.
"I still couldn't say anything," Olson said, referring to his leave. "But then the following Monday I could."
That's when the leave of absence ended for Olson. He chose that Monday, the week of the Pac-10 tournament, to announce that he was returning after the season.
Olson said he let everyone know he was back as soon as he could.
Arizona beat Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament and then lost to Stanford. The Wildcats reached the NCAA tournament, but lost to West Virginia 75-65 and finished their season with a 19-15 record.
Once Olson returned, he had to replace the entire coaching staff as Miles Simon was let go, O'Neill departed and longtime assistant Josh Pastner, whom Olson refers to as a son, went to Memphis. To replace them, Olson hired former Metro State (Colo.) and Denver Nuggets assistant Mike Dunlap, former Arizona player Reggie Geary and former Arizona State assistant Russ Pennell.
Olson also lost the team's best player from last season, freshman Jerryd Bayless, to the NBA draft and the team's best recruit, Brandon Jennings, who decided to play professionally in Italy. He also had to let a top recruit, Emmanuel Negedu, out of his national letter of intent when Negedu didn't want to deal with the uncertainty surrounding Arizona's coaching situation anymore. Negedu ended up at Tennessee. But Budinger, who declared for the NBA draft, returned partly because he wasn't a lock to go in the top 20 and partly because Olson announced he would return.
"I talked to him on the phone and he sounded great. It really gave me some inspiration to come back and have a great season this year," Budinger said. "The reason I came here was to play under Coach O, to learn from him. And I really wanted to get that chance again, to play under him and really just have him lead us as far as we can go."
On Monday, Hill said Olson seemed more energetic, healthier.
During the interview with ESPN.com, Olson even talked about his legacy.
"Well, I'd like to go out with good seasons with this program continuing to do what it's done," Olson said. "I just want to make sure the program is left in good shape."
That may be hard at this juncture. The Wildcats are expected to lose Budinger and Hill to the NBA draft after this season, and recruiting is likely to suffer in the wake of Olson's departure.
When asked about last season, Livengood said, "Very simply, it's over." But with Thursday's announcement of Olson's departure, the chaos continues.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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