O'Neill to take over at Arizona whenever Olson retires

Updated: December 18, 2007, 7:41 PM ET
Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Over the last two decades, it has been the most pressing sports question in this basketball-mad city.

Who will follow the legendary Lute Olson as Arizona's basketball coach?

The answer was provided in a press release on Tuesday morning: Kevin O'Neill.

O'Neill, who has been serving as interim coach since Olson went on a personal leave of absence in November, was designated as Olson's successor when the 73-year-old Hall of Famer retires. O'Neill is a former Wildcats assistant who rejoined Olson's staff last spring.

"Kevin is our coach for now, and will be our coach in the future when Lute decides to retire," athletic director Jim Livengood said.

For the 50-year-old O'Neill, the announcement capped a long basketball journey that began in 1979, when he was the head coach at Hammond (N.Y.) High School. O'Neill first served on Olson's staff from 1986-89.

"When I was an assistant here, I used to think, boy, it would be great to have the Arizona job," O'Neill said. "It is a dream job."

The move was the latest in a strange series of events that began on Nov. 3, when Olson told Livengood he needed to take a leave of absence to deal with undisclosed family-related issues.

"When you stop and think about it, it's a pretty big day," Livengood said. "But in the scope of things that we're doing it, you just move along."

Even after taking a leave, Olson appeared at a few practices, giving rise to speculation that he would soon return. But on Dec. 6, Olson said he was extending his leave through the end of the season -- and he filed for divorce from his wife, Christine, on the same day.

Twelve days later, O'Neill was named Olson's successor, although no one knows when he will take over for good. Olson has said he plans to return next year.

"Even though it seems like it's been a long and drawn-out process, all of this has happened relatively fast," Livengood said. "What today does is it just gives us a structure, if you will.

"At this point, remember, it's just a succession plan -- nothing more, nothing less," Livengood said. "The bigger plan is that Lute will come back and coach, and I know he plans on that. If he doesn't, then this is that next step."

Livengood said he and O'Neill agreed to wait until after Jan. 1 to discuss a new contract. O'Neill is paid $375,000 per year -- a high salary for an assistant but well below the market for a Pac-10 coach. Olson is being paid his $738,000 base salary during his leave.

"Factually, we already have a head coach under contract," Livengood said.

The news created little stir on campus, which is mostly deserted for the holiday break. The athletic department didn't even call a press conference, instead making O'Neill available to the media after his weekly call-in radio program at the student union.

Later, Livengood spoke to a pair of reporters in the McKale Center grandstand as a handful of students shot baskets on the court.

The basketball team left in the afternoon for Las Vegas, where the 19th-ranked Wildcats will play UNLV on Wednesday night. Players were not made available to the media.

The announcement came as no surprise to anyone who had watched as O'Neill deftly stepped in and led the Wildcats to a 7-2 record in Olson's absence.

But O'Neill hardly seemed to be a candidate for one of the nation's more prestigious jobs after he went 5-25 at Northwestern in 1999-2000, his last year as a college head coach.

O'Neill coached the NBA's Toronto Raptors in 2003-04, and was fired at the end of a 33-49 season.

O'Neill had been serving as a consultant to the Indiana Pacers before Olson summoned him to return last spring.

"The bottom line is I feel I am in the right place at the right time," O'Neill said. "I appreciate Lute bringing me here in the first place. If I hadn't been here in May, this would have never happened."

Said Livengood, "Timing is everything."

O'Neill has a reputation as a tough, defense-oriented coach, an attitude he is instilling in this year's Wildcats.

He led Marquette to the NCAA Tournament in 1993 and 1994 but had trouble duplicating that success at Tennessee and Northwestern, although he did lead the lowly Wildcats to the NIT in 1999, the third postseason appearance in school history.

Livengood said O'Neill's lifetime 152-165 (.475) record in 11 college seasons is "not an issue.

"I think the big thing with Kevin, those are kind of days in the past," Livengood said. "To judge him, or judge how he might do here, I think would be unfair.

"I think this is a different situation," Livengood said. "I know it's a different situation. He'll be very successful here."

Olson has redefined "successful" at a program that won a single Western Athletic Conference title from 1953 to 1983, when Olson arrived from Iowa.

Olson is 589-187 (.759) in 24 seasons at Arizona and has led the Wildcats to 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, the nation's longest active streak. Arizona won the 1997 national title under Olson.

O'Neill said he understands what he's getting into, and he's looking forward to the day he takes over -- whenever that might be.

"If you look at track records, following legends hasn't been very healthy for most people when they coach," O'Neill said. "Somebody has to follow the legends. In the coaching profession, the running joke is it will be a good job for the second guy. I don't look at it that way at all."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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