- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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After taking a season-long leave of absence, Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson will return to Arizona for the 2008-09 season, the university announced Monday.
Olson decided within the past week, after his time away under the Family Medical Leave Act expired last Friday, that he would resume coaching the Wildcats as soon as their current season is complete.
"We are delighted that Lute will be rejoining the program," Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said in a statement. "He is one of the true legends of collegiate coaching, and his return is something that I know will be embraced by everyone who cares about our basketball program."
Through a spokesperson, Olson said he plans to coach through the end of his contract, which expires in 2011.
"I am very eager to be back doing what I love, which is coaching this team," Olson said in a statement. "I appreciate everyone's support during this period and want to thank [interim coach] Kevin O'Neill for the great job he's done in my absence."
Arizona's staff and players were informed of Olson's decision on Monday. According to an Arizona representative, once Olson completed his medical leave, he had the right to return to his job. Olson will turn 74 next season.
Olson had a medical condition during his leave of absence that he had to resolve this season, according to details of Arizona's news release.
"If Lute wants to come back, I think it's great," O'Neill told ESPN.com on Monday. "I said from the beginning that I was just a caretaker for this program. I look forward to seeing him back on the sidelines next season."
But Olson's imminent return could fuel some unrest within the program.
The Wildcats play with a different philosophy under O'Neill, running man-to-man and not zone defense. O'Neill also calls a plethora of plays, which has limited the players' offensive freedom, and he is much more of a disciplinarian than Olson.
Earlier this season, a number of the players told ESPN.com that they couldn't see how O'Neill could coexist as an assistant under Olson once the latter returned to the bench.
O'Neill "has handled a very difficult situation with tremendous poise, and I can't begin to say how appreciative we are of the job he has done," Livengood said.
O'Neill, who has agreed verbally to succeed Olson, was given a two-year contract when he returned to the program last spring to replace assistant Jim Rosborough.
"At the end of the season, like I always do, I evaluate my coaching situation and make my decision," O'Neill told ESPN.com. "That's all I can do."
O'Neill said he could accept being an assistant under Olson.
"I've been an assistant before," he said. "I just like basketball. If I'm the head coach then great. If I'm the assistant coach, then I can be. My ego isn't there that I can't be an assistant."
The timing of the announcement comes at a time when Arizona is trying to secure an at-large NCAA tournament berth. The Wildcats (18-13, 8-10 Pac-10) play Oregon State in the first round of the conference tournament this week. A source said Olson insisted on announcing his return this week.
Olson had been making cameo appearances at the McKale Center over the past several weeks. He had been contacting players but was told to stop, so as not to disrupt O'Neill's task at hand. Olson attended Senior Day two weeks ago but didn't speak to the crowd or reporters and wasn't planning to discuss his status until after the season.
"I know there has been a lot of speculation about my situation," Olson said. "I'm glad we can clear the air, but the most important thing right now is the team. All of our effort and attention should be on these student-athletes and their efforts to advance to the NCAA tournament."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.